Fiction Reviews

Hard to be a God

(1964/2015) Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, ix + 246pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20829-2


It is the far future and on a world a thousand light years away from Earth there is an alien but humanoid race at a medieval stage of development. On this world one of its principal kingdoms is headed by a weak king who has allowed a subordinate chancellor to take care of business of state. For the average person it is a time of dictatorship, censorship, and brutal treatment especially given any sign of dissent… But a rich noble from a far land, Anton who has made his home in this kingdom, is actually from much further away: Anton is actually an observer from Earth sent to watch and gather information. This he relaysvia  a camera headband. But he cannot unduly interfere, though it troubles him greatly to see some of the friends he has made locally suffer. When the oppression further increases with the commercial and learned classes persecuted, Anton has to question as to how neutral he can remain…

This novel part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. The Russian Boris and Arkady Strugatsky brothers are perhaps best known in western Europe for their novel Roadside Picnic, but Hard to be a God is perhaps one of their most dissident works that takes a thinly veiled, allegorical swipe at the then Soviet regime. As the Boris Strugatsky reveals in a short, but informative afterword, they did face criticism from the regime’s sock puppets within Soviet literary circles but the brothers’ works were too famous, and with the Stalin purges over a few years previously, they escaped formal prosecution. That this book struck a chord with Soviet nation readers is evident by sales of Russian language editions that alone topped 2.7 million by 1997 (less than a decade since the book’s original publication). In addition it has been published in other languages in both Central as well as Western Europe not to mention N. America. In short, for many today (early in the 21st century) in the British Isles and N. America, Hard to be a God might well be one of the most famous and influential SF novels of which, until now, you have never heard!

SF author Ken MacLeod provides an informative introduction. Do read this first and, dare I suggest it, do read it again when you are halfway through the novel: it really helps to put this novel in context. Ken does say that this edition’s translation, by Olena Bormashenko, is better than previous editions. However, translating idiomatic prose is not easy and personally I found the novel’s first third hard going; something further not helped by it being now (2015) half a century old. Having said that, by then we all know the set up and the rest of the book simply skims along. For my money, the start of the book is undermined by a short prologue set on Earth before the mission to the alien, medieval world. Clearly this is meant to be an allegorical framing for what is to come, and so we have an allegory within an allegory. But, in part as I am not used to Soviet literary or science fiction styles, I did find this prologue too obscure; of course this could be just me. Having said that, once a third of the way in, I simply devoured pages. This page-turning, and MacLeod’s introduction not to mention Boris’ afterward, do make this 2015 SF Masterwork edition the one I’d firmly recommend. (Make sure you note this should you decide to seek this title out.)

And this novel has its resonances with some western SF. A third of the way in, as MacLeod notes in his introduction, we are clearly in a Star Trek or Iain Banks ‘Special Circumstances’ observer mission set-up and operating under a ‘prime directive’ type code of non-interference. Yet this book predates both Iain Banks’ ‘Culture’ and even Star Trek! In this sense it is a seminal work. (I can easily contemplate Banks having read Hard to be a God, but less so Roddenberry.) Elsewhere there were a couple of brief scenes that reminded me of Clifford D. Simak’s 1963 Way Station. Such science fiction trope resonances in non-Anglophone SF do intrigue me and it is one of the distinct joys of reading foreign SF (and indeed attending the Eurocon, European SF Conventions). Indeed, I have often wondered what SF might be like on an alien world and imagined being like Anton learning about it.

The bottom line is literally that Hard to be a God is a proverbial SF classic, and certainly more than worthy of being included in any booklist called ‘SF Masterworks’.

This new release of the novel is timely, though I am not sure if the folk at Gollancz realise how timely. The Strugatsky brothers' novel Hard to be a God is now a film! It hit the Soviet nation Fantastic Film Fest circuit in 2013 and had a Russian release in 2014. Now (2015) an English trailer is out.

Jonathan Cowie

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