Fiction Reviews

The Doomed City

(1989/2017) Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, xiii +462pp, ISBN 978-01-473-22228-1


Andrei Voronin is – at the novel's beginning – a dustbin man (refuse collector) in a city when he encounters a newly-arrived citizen who cannot remember how she came to the metropolis but who seems to perfectly accept that being there is the most natural thing in the world.  It soon transpires that the city is very odd and most unnatural.  The city is bounded on one side by a wall, another a desert, another an abyss and also a swamp.

We get to learn more and more about the city through Andrei who, as the book progresses, has different occupations including: a police investigator, a newspaper editor and a soldier. The city's residents are drawn from different nations though none knows how they arrived.  It seems as if there is some sort of social experiment being undertaken, though the exact purpose is unknown though a number of weird oddities testify that something is happening to control matters.  For example, when Andrei is an investigator looking into missing persons, their statements refer to the missing people being seen to enter a mysterious 'red building'.  Yet this building, according to the witnesses, seems to be in different parts of the city: it is as if the red building moves of its own volition.

Ultimately, when a soldier, Andrei is tasked with being part of an expedition out of the city and across the wastelands to ascertain what is beyond…

In terms of the SF landscape The Doomed City is an important book, albeit one that is difficult for the average western reader: the Strugatsky brothers are well known Russian writers whose genre work was prominent in Soviet times.  The novel's value does not lie in the story as such, but its allegorical perspectives on the 20th century communist Russian system, which itself had its share of the ludicrous that would be funny were it not for the life and death impact it had.

As Boris Strugatsky tells us in this edition's afterword, the idea behind the novel came to the brothers in 1967.  This was a time when you simply could not be openly critical about Russian communism, and even covert criticism – certainly in the times of Stalin – could end you up in a Siberian prison camp or simply dead.  The allegories in The Doomed City are too plain (especially to Soviet readers) so that even a western reader, comparatively ignorant of much that went on behind the Iron Curtain, can pick up on many of them.  This meant that if the authorities of the time ever found out about the novel the consequences for the Strugatskies were likely to been severe.

By the early 1970s the novel was complete and in 1972, though the authors knew that nobody would publish it, they had hoped that they could disseminate it by samizdat: that the publishing house editors to whom they sent it would each make a few copies for their manuscript reviewers and so it would gain a sort of underground circulation.  But such were the risks that even this plan was discounted.  It was two years later before the brothers typed up three and sent two copies, one to a trusted person in Moscow and the other to another in Leningrad.  These copies were to be archives in case anything untoward happened to the Strugatskies and their own copy, so that perhaps one day in more enlightened times the book might be published.

As it transpired it was not until 1989 that the book saw print.  That was the year in which the writing was on the wall for the communist Soviet era and indeed 1989-1990 saw Russia and Eastern Europe transform: the wall between East and West Berlin fall, democracy come to a number of Eastern European states and plain revolution in others (Romania being a notable example). And so The Doomed City was published.

It has to be said that for a western reader the book is more challenging as we are not equipped with the historic or cultural references that 20th century Soviet readers would naturally know. For example, as Boris Strugatsky reveals in the afterword, the novel clearly (to Soviet readers) cites Alexander Galich albeit without mentioning his name. But even this allusion would have apparently been enough for the book to be banned and charges brought by the authorities against the authors.  Now I, and I am sure nearly all prospective western readers, could not have picked up on this as they would simply have not known of Alexander Galich's notoriety or even his name.  I suspect there are many other such references I equally missed   What this book needs is an edition with many explanatory footnotes for both westerners and also now the new Russian nation young for whom Soviet times are not in their living memory.  Such a publishing project is desperately needed for this book which can be kind of likened as a political critique to a sort of Soviet 1984; it is that significant a work.

What we do have to help us appreciate this novel's value is both the aforementioned afterword by Boris and also a useful introduction by Dimitry (Metro 2033) Glukovsky (sometimes translated as 'Gluhovsky' in case you want to internet search) who won Prix Utopiales Européen and Roskon awards among a number of SF accolades.

If you are into political and social SF, or have an interest in sociology or political philosophy, this book comes highly recommended.

Jonathan Cowie

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