Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were writing in Soviet era Russia, and the environment in which they worked gives their books an added nuance, knowing the societal constraints under which they were working, and what they managed to achieve. This is the second book I have read by these authors, and I have enjoyed it just as much as the first.

The plot concerns historians from a future Earth who are on another planet observing the inhabitants. The historians are disguised as inhabitants and taking part in the day to day life of the society, while recording everything they experience. Their role is to observe, but not to interfere. The main character, Anton, who goes by the name Don Rumata throughout the book, is becoming frustrated with the violence and suffering around him and longs to take some action. He also struggles with the inclination to become too acclimatised, to go native.

The society in which the observers find themselves is essentially medieval, with little to distinguish it from the European medieval period. The inhabitants believe in God, and there are monks and priests, though the nature of their religion is never explained. Don Rumata is supposedly a wealthy nobleman who is living in the city in which the story takes place and wasting his time on drinking, fighting and women, a rather stock standard characterisation worthy of any period novel. His native friends consist of nobility who do the same thing, but also the educated and intellectual members of society – doctors, poets, scientists.

Future Earth has attained a classless utopia. The historians of this society subscribe to the notion that a developing society will progress through various stages to inevitable communism. The attack on the intelligentsia does not fit the pattern, at least according to the protagonist. But he is not supposed to interfere with the society’s development. The non-interference ideas in this book anticipate later similar ideas in science fiction, of which Star Trek is perhaps the most obvious example. The historians insist that even apparently benevolent intervention can end up causing damage, as it is impossible to predict how much change such interference would cause over time. Anton’s colleagues insist that Reba, presiding over the wiping out of the society’s educated class, still fits the pattern. Anton believes he does not, and he is afraid the society will be destroyed while they do nothing.

This was written at a time when Soviet suppression of dissent, such as the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, was a policy of the government. The Brezhnev Doctrine was then introduced, stating that threat to communism in any state justified invasion from other communist states as it was a threat to them all. Also there was suppression inside the Soviet Union of the intelligentsia, including writers, artists, thinkers of any kind. ‘Socialist Realism’ was the approved form of art, and was meant to show the glory and heroism of communist ideals. It was in this environment that ‘Hard to be a god’ was published, and the criticism of these policies is obvious. I actually find it extraordinarily clever – it courts the establishment by its view of a future socialist dream, while using the mechanism of the alien world to critique the actuality of Soviet reality in the arrests and murders of that society’s writers and thinkers, or indeed of any totalitarian idealogy,

The main character is endlessly frozen between his impulse to do good, his awareness of the theory that says this will cause harm,. and his fear that he is ‘going native’. The disgust and anger he feels towards the people and situations he sees fuels a rage that he can foresee could make him act in the same manner as those he despises. He knows he is becoming acclimatised in the sense that he wants to become like them, to punish the murderers by murdering them in turn. Anton/Rumata is terrified by these inclinations and struggles against them, ultimately losing when a traumatic event tips him over the edge. It’s a very psychologically true aspect of the story – after all, we often think about murderers and rapists as people who should be killed, who don’t deserve to live. The impulse to repay violence with violence is a common human trait. Anton’s colleagues avoid this by maintaining distance, whereas Anton falls prey to this because he has become involved, become fond of at least some people and aspects of the society.

Because I sincerely hate and despise them. Not pity them, no—only hate and despise. I can justify the stupidity and brutality of the kid I just passed all I want— the social conditions, the appalling upbringing, anything at all—but I now clearly see that he’s my enemy, the enemy of all that I love, the enemy of my friends, the enemy of what I hold most sacred. And I don’t hate him theoretically, as a “typical specimen,” but him as himself, him as an individual. I hate his slobbering mug, the stink of his unwashed body, his blind faith, his animosity toward everything other than sex and booze. There he goes, stomping around, the oaf, who half a year ago was still being thrashed by a fat-bellied father in a vain attempt to prepare him for selling stale flour and old jam; he’s wheezing, the dumb lug, struggling to recall the paragraphs of badly crammed regulations, and he just can’t figure out whether he’s supposed to cut the noble don down with his ax, shout “Stop!” or just forget about it. No one will find out anyway, so he’ll forget about it, go back to his recess, stuff some chewing bark into his mouth and chew it loudly, drooling and smacking his lips. And there’s nothing that he wants to know, and there’s nothing he wants to think about.

His sense of justice has prompted him to save lives where he can, spiriting people out of the danger zone and sending them to a less reactionary neighbouring country. This has exposed him as being someone dangerous to Don Reba, the villain of the piece and the instigator and mastermind of the violent repression. Don Reba knows that Rumata is not who he says he is, and has a fanatic’s belief that Rumata has magical power that he can use. He is also scared of that power, a fear which Rumata uses in order to walk out of Reba’s headquarters. The implicit question here, is whether Rumata’s so-called power may have triggered or at least exacerbated Reba’s murderous bloodbath? Has Rumata’s very presence caused the interference the scientists have tried to avoid?

The theory under which the scientists work insist that a society goes through a number of stages before developing inevitably into a communist paradise. Rumata insists that Reba is an anomaly, outside the theory and therefore a potential destroyer of the society’s development. (This reminds me of Isaac Asimon’s ‘Foundation and Empire’, where a mutant called the Mule derailed the predicted course of events by being an unpredictable anomaly.) After Reba stages a bloody coup reminiscent of Hitler’s ‘night of the long knives’ the historians concede that they might have been mistaken, but by then it is too late.

And no matter how much the gray people in power despise knowledge, they can’t do anything about historical objectivity; they can slow it down, but they can’t stop it. Despising and fearing knowledge, they will nonetheless inevitably decide to promote it in order to survive. Sooner or later they will be forced to allow universities and scientific societies, to create research centers, observatories, and laboratories, and thus to create a cadre of people of thought and knowledge: people who are completely beyond their control, people with a completely different psychology and with completely different needs. And these people cannot exist and certainly cannot function in the former atmosphere of low self-interest, banal preoccupations, dull self-satisfaction, and purely carnal needs. They need a new atmosphere— an atmosphere of comprehensive and inclusive learning, permeated with creative tension; they need writers, artists, composers— and the gray people in power are forced to make this concession too. The obstinate ones will be swept aside by their more cunning opponents in the struggle for power, but those who make this concession are, inevitably and paradoxically, digging their own graves against their will. For fatal to the ignorant egoists and fanatics is the growth of a full range of culture in the people— from research in the natural sciences to the ability to marvel at great music. And then comes the associated process of the broad intellectualization of society: an era in which grayness fights its last battles with a brutality that takes humanity back to the middle ages, loses these battles, and forever disappears as an actual force.

So why is it hard to be a god? The historians have god-like powers compared to the natives, and they don’t use those powers to affect the local population. Towards the end of the book Rumata has a conversation with the native Budach about what a person might ask God to do to make the world better. Rumata has an answer for each of his suggestions as to how they won’t work. Finally, Budach says:

Then, Lord, wipe us off the face of the planet and create us anew in a more perfect form … Or, even better, leave us be and let us go our own way.”

My heart is full of pity,” Rumata said slowly. “I cannot do that.”

This is Rumata’s dilemma. He can’t act, and he can’t fail to act. So he’s stuck in between, unable to move forward or go back. The pressure on him is already almost unbearable, because he cares. It takes only one more death to tip him over.

I love a book with layers, and “Hard to be a god” has many layers to investigate. It’s an excellent novel, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligent and thought-provoking literature.

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