Review: Hard to Be a God by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky

“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.”
~Arkadi & Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God

Plot summary

“The novel follows Anton, an undercover operative from the future planet Earth, in his mission on an alien planet, that is populated by human beings, whose society has not advanced beyond the Middle Ages. The novel’s core idea is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be an effective tool of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment.

What if parenting was governed by the Starfleet's Prime Directive? Photo: woodleywonderworks (CC BY 2.0)
What if parenting was governed by the Starfleet’s Prime Directive? Photo: woodleywonderworks (CC BY 2.0)

Don Rumata has been sent from Earth to the medieval kingdom of Arkanar with instructions to observe and to save what he can. Masquerading as an arrogant nobleman, a dueler, and a brawler, he is never defeated, but yet he can never kill. With his doubt and compassion, and his deep love for a local girl named Kira, Rumata wants to save the kingdom from the machinations of Don Reba, the first minister to the king. But given his orders, what role can he play? This long overdue translation will reintroduce one of the most profound Soviet-era novels to an eager audience.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are widely known as the greatest Russian writers of science fiction, and their 1964 novel Hard to Be a God is considered one of the greatest of their works. Yet until now the only English version (unavailable for over thirty years) was based on a German translation, and was full of errors, infelicities, and misunderstandings. Now, in a new translation by Olena Bormashenko, whose translation of the authors’ Roadside Picnic has received widespread acclaim, here is the definitive edition of this brilliant work.” More on Goodreads

On the Strugatsky brothers

“The brothers Arkady (1925–1991) and Boris (1933–2012) Strugatsky (…) were Soviet-Russian science fiction authors who collaborated on their fiction.” On Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Dilemma of outside influence
  • Moral aspects of witnessing cruelty
  • Medieval times on a different planet
Feria Medieval a Santa Perpetua. Photo: Jose Ramirez (CC BY 2.0)
Feria Medieval a Santa Perpetua. Photo: Jose Ramirez (CC BY 2.0)

If you have a fascination for the medieval times and horror – I might be repeating myself – this is the book for you. Hard to Be a God is an experiment on outsider intervention or the lack thereof.

Although I’m not a fan of the Star Trek series and especially not of the latest films, I could not help but think about the concept of Prime Directive. So, what’s the Prime Directive all about? According to Cyrus Farivar (2016, see source below), “(…) it is a commandment of the highest moral authority to not interfere in the natural cultural and scientific development of a civilization, particularly those that are pre-warp. That’s a pretty difficult rule to follow, given how hard it is to define a concept like ‘natural cultural and scientific development,’ let alone loaded terms like ‘civilization’ and ‘interfere.'”. 

In Farivar’s article published in Ars Technica, lawyers were consulted to explain how the show’s most famous rule would actually work between different civilizations and whether Earth would require a unitary approach to the matter.

Stormy seas in Sagittarius. Photo: NASA, ESA, J. Trauger (Jet Propulson Laboratory) (CC BY 2.0)
Stormy seas in Sagittarius. Photo: NASA, ESA, J. Trauger (Jet Propulson Laboratory) (CC BY 2.0)

In case you’re not heavily leaning towards theoretical pondering over highly unlike matters, just “enjoy” the adventure provided in the novel, although enjoying is putting it rather sardonically. The Strugatsky brothers, Arkadi and Boris, never fail in the vast imagination behind the stories. Hard to Be a God, set in the Noon Universe, shows what lengths ignorance and toying with superstition can bring in a civilization and how they can hinder enlightenment and scientific progress.

If you don’t have much time at your disposal but are willing to give the good ol’ Strugatsky brothers a trial, read both Roadside Picnic and Hard to Be a God, since they are a good conceptual combo. In Roadside Picnic, the extraterrestrials have visited six different zones on Earth and left behind various artefacts. However, neither the arrival nor the departure of the aliens have been spotted by the local populations in the zones.

There is a recent filmatization on the novel by Aleksey German, entitled fittingly Hard to be a God (Trudno byt bogom, 2013). I watched the trailer and the film seems to be quite the masterpiece, but I’m leaving the film to the realm of imagination to avoid nightmares of the worst kind. It seems to be a mix of an artsy film and The Walking Dead sort of slaughter experience or even worse. The violence is prevalent in the film. Therefore, proceed with caution.

More information
– Robbie Collin: Hard to Be a God review: ‘a masterful danse macabre’, review on Aleksey German’s film Hard to be a God (2013) published in The Telegraph on 6 August 2015, link retrieved on 9 December 2016
– Cyrus Farivar: Why Star Trek’s Prime Directive could never be enforced, published in Ars Technica on 7 September 2016, link retrieved on 9 December 2016
– Ezra Glinter: (Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia, published in the Paris Review on 11 May 2015, link retrieved on 9 December 2016
– The Official Site of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – Life and Works, link retrieved on 9 December 2016

Other novels and stories by the Strugatsky brothers
  • Noon, 22nd Century (1961)
  • Escape Attempt (1964)
  • The Snail on the Slope (1966)
  • Roadside Picnic (1972)
  • The Ugly Swans (1972)
  • Beetle in the Anthill (1979)
  • The Time Wanderers (1984)

“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.”
~Arkadi & Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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