Book Review: Hard To Be A God

Lisa Barrow
4 min read
First World Problems
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The medieval city of Arkanar could be something out of The Three Musketeers. King, courtiers, intrigues, serenades, wagers, preening fashionistas, courtly love—all the mingled ingredients of a colorful, swashbuckling world.

Noble Don Rumata, descended from an ancient family, is witty, brave and always up for a clash of swords. In public, he’s just like any other rich aristocrat whose life consists of drunken carousing and brazen lovemaking.

But it’s all a colossal charade. Don Rumata’s real name, his Earth name, is Anton. He’s a highly trained operative of the Institute of Experimental History, tasked with observing Arkanar and nudging it in a positive direction. As long as he keeps his interventions quiet, he can aid in Arkanar’s development—can help a scientist escape persecution or save a manuscript whose other copies have been burnt by fanatics—but he cannot interfere on any significant scale. He’s forbidden to kill.

Hard to Be a God is a Soviet-era sci-fi novel originally published in 1964 and newly translated from Russian by Olena Bormashenko. (Long out of print, the previous English-language version was rendered from a German translation … which no doubt did precisely zilch to improve readability.) Penned by two brothers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God is at once a plucky adventure novel and an anxious, sensitive vision of rising totalitarianism.

Backed by the technologically advanced powers of Earth and unlimited gold he mints himself, Anton feels like a god—yet he chafes at his restraints, which are legion. Consider how Anton (as Don Rumata) tries to introduce basic hygiene. The night of his first ball, he dabs his lips with a pocket handkerchief, a delicacy heretofore unseen in this rough-and-tumble society. “At the next ball, dashing guardsmen were already wiping their sweaty faces with pieces of embroidered and monogrammed cloth … And in a month, there was a spate of dandies sporting entire bedsheets draped over an arm, the tails of which dragged elegantly across the floor.” Yet he can’t figure out how to encourage a fashion for underwear, nor baths in clean water.

Worse, in the brutal hierarchies of Arkanar, elites prey with impunity on the weak and poor. A thug army terrorizes the streets. The literate are hung, the learned tortured until they confess to spying. Anton sees that Don Reba, a particularly cunning advisor to the king, goes beyond the standard barbarities expected of a society at this level of development—anticipates the fascism Reba spearheads in spite of Earth’s best efforts—yet he can’t convince his colleagues to take the threat seriously. Try as he might, Anton can’t
do anything. His godlike advantages allow him to see clearly the trouble at hand—but real change, real protection for the literate, the creative, the honest and hardworking and humble—lies entirely outside his grasp.

We witness Arkanar’s powers-that-be through the eyes of a man who despises them for their debauchery, decadence and general uselessness. Not that the lower classes are much better, wallowing as they are in filth, violence and avarice. Yet Anton’s education has taught him to understand how they are “ignorant, isolated, embittered by perpetual thankless labor, downtrodden, not yet able to rise above the thought of an extra penny.” And if he should buck his training, should decide to take matters into his own hands and assassinate Don Reba, where would it end? “
There are a lot of people you’d need to kill, aren’t there?” he thinks to himself. “That’s been done already. They used poison, they threw pipe bombs. And nothing changed.

Beneath the veneer of swordplay and sci-fi futurism in
Hard to Be a God lies a book bristling with ideas. Clearly a product of its Communist origins—after all, this utopian, infinitely wise Earth of tomorrow is one where Communism has triumphed—the novel is just as easily read as a manifesto against Stalinism, authoritarianism, bureaucratic skulduggery and a multitude of other of anti-democratic political evils. Lending itself multiple interpretations, then, this is a book that avoids clear-cut morals or conclusions in the best tradition of thoughtful science fiction. Sandwiched between an excellent introduction from novelist Hari Kunzru and an enlightening afterword from coauthor Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God is a worthwhile read, one that entertains even as it provokes.
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