When the Strugatsky brothers finished “The Doomed City” in 1972, they realized that they could not even give it to a publisher in Soviet Russia for fear of the consequences. So they hid the book for over nearly twenty years, not publishing it until 1989, when ‘perestroika’ was taking hold in Russia and the atmosphere was more tolerant.
The story takes place in a mysterious city where people come from different parts of the world and different time-periods, having volunteered to take part in an experiment, run by a group of people know only as ‘Mentors’. The environment is entirely artificial – the sun is an artifact that is turned on and off, and the city is bounded by an impossibly high wall on one side and an apparently bottomless abyss on the other. The nature of the so-called experiment is never explained, the mentors telling the participants that this would skew the results. The story follows Andrei, an astronomer from 1950s Russia, and his rise through the City’s hierarchy.
The story heavily critiques the Communist regime in Russia, and as such could have caused considerable problems for the writers. For example, the society of the City is initially an egalitarian one, where people are randomly reassigned to different jobs at different levels of status so everyone has a turn. However, this society is eventually taken over by a dictatorship, where people are distracted from the inherent problems around them by an increase in material goods. The protagonist, an ardent communist, ends up working hand in glove with a former Nazi to promote this regime. The suggestion that communism is doomed to failure and the subversion of the protagonist’s supposed standards to suit his changed status would be unlikely to make the authors popular with their government.
The mysterious Experiment has a definite Kafkaesque air. ‘The experiment is the experiment’, everyone recites, a mantra to explain the inexplicable, such as baboons suddenly appearing from nowhere and roaming the streets, or the artificial sun going off-line for weeks. People panic, and then they adjust. Andrei and his friends have endless philosophical discussions about this that are fruitless and go nowhere. The mix of characters the authors used would have been controversial in Russia at the time – Andrei is friends with a German officer from World War Two, an American, a Chinese man, and a Jew. Though the depiction of the society can be as much an indictment of capitalism, the authors’ decision to hide the book becomes more and more understandable. One character insists that civilization cannot continue to evolve indefinitely, an idea that no government would be fond of:
“As soon as society has solved some problem that it has, it immediately comes face- to-face with a new problem of the same magnitude.” Then he livened up. “And that, by the way, gives rise to an interesting little point. Eventually society will come face-to-face with problems of such complexity that it will be beyond mankind’s power to solve them. And then so-called progress will stop.”
As a study of character the book is also very effective. Andrei comes from 1950s Russia, and is an ardent communist. When he comes to the City he mixes with people from different countries and times, and his communist beliefs are often challenged. He hangs onto his rigid thinking by placing all his faith in the Experiment. As his fortunes change and he increases in rank, his views evolve with them, but he will not admit this, instead rationalising his new situation and actions as being entirely justifiable to his communist beliefs. When he condones violence for the sake of a result he is at first horrified, but quickly rationalizes this as being justifiable. His supporting of the German Heiger, who should be an idealogical enemy by his standards, is an indication of how much he has compromised, and still he rationalizes and justifies. Finally, when he in charge of an expedition, he is violent, bullying, and talks about shooting dissenters. He seems to have few qualms about violence by then. He is a true example of power corrupting, unable to see in himself how far he has fallen. He has fallen into an idealogical void. He doesn’t believe in anything anymore.
Whether I exist or I don’t, whether I fight the fight or kick back and lounge on the sofa – it makes no difference. Nothing can be changed, nothing can be put right.
There are a lot of episodes in the story that are surreal, nightmarish even, and certainly not explained in the narrative. For example, there is a Red House that appears and disappears at different places in the city. People who have been seen entering the house don’t always come out. Some do, but they are usually unwilling to discuss what they have seen. Andrei, in one of his jobs as a detective, is given the task of finding out about the house. He eventually finds and enters it, and the sequence of events inside the house are very strange. Andrei plays chess with a person called ‘the strategist’ and they are using live pieces. Andrei is using his friends and has to sacrifice the chess pieces to make a move. It’s a very weird moment, but it is a foreshadowing of his eventual corruption. Sacrificing a friend doesn’t seem so hard at the end. He sees and enters the house one more time, but this time it is deserted and decayed, symbolizing the inevitable decay of everything (and everyone) in the city.
I am not sure how to interpret the female characters in the story. There would appear to be many women in the city, who marry and live normal lives. The woman Andrei ends up with is a prostitute. He has a secretary when he becomes more powerful. She is described as shy and unappealing, and yet he has sex with her. The only other female character is a homeless woman who joins the expedition at the end of the story. She does not speak, and is simply given the rather nasty title of ‘Skank’. I don’t know whether to be unimpressed with this very poor treatment of women in this story, or to see it as an aspect of Andrei’s character ie he can’t end up with a decent woman due to his inner self-loathing. Prostitutes and cheaters are what he thinks he deserves, deep down. I’m not sure about this point. I’m only giving the authors the benefit of the doubt here because I have read other books by them, and this aspect was not present.
I cannot explain the ending of this book. It had moved back into surreal territory by this time. It is even possible that the last two survivors of the expedition, who had run out of water, were simply hallucinating before they died. Is the ending a dream? Is Andrei being used by the Mentors or do they even exist? It has even been criticized as a cliffhanger of sorts, intentionally opening the way to a sequel that was never written. There is no indication the authors ever intended this though.
Only a minute ago, all this had been completely different from the way it was now – far more ordinary and familiar. It had been without a future. Or rather, separate from the future.
“The Doomed City” is in my opinion an excellent, deeply philosophical work of science fiction. It doesn’t provide solutions, which can be frustrating. Read it more for the setting, characterisation, and ideas, than the plot.