Review: Hard to Be a God by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

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This book started well enough. The prose was quite good, with nice descriptions of scenery, the issues raised were interesting. We follow Rumata, an observer from future utopian Earth, sent to a medieval world with a couple others under a strict rule of non-interference (no killing, etc), but secretly trying to help speed up their development.

It’s fairly kitchen sink, some sci-fi tech, some medieval swashbuckling, bit of everything. The conflict arises when regime in Arkanar start killing intellectuals. Rumata knows this is wrong, yet is plagued by doubts – he is not allowed to kill and not convinced it would solve the problem.

Persecute bookworms all you like, prohibit science, and destroy art, but sooner or later you’ll be forced to think better of it, and with much gnashing of teeth open the way for everything that is so hated by power-hungry dullards and blockheads.

This, likely, has some parallels with what was going on in Soviet Russia at the time, but exploring that aspect is better left to someone else who’s more than just vaguely familiar with its history. I suspect this is the aspect where the book shines the most, but without proper background, it’s pointless for me to go into it. And when you leave that out…there’s not much left.

As I said, I did like it at first. Highlighting everything. But a little over halfway in, it started getting on my nerves slightly. Then a little bit more. And more. And snowballed until I was yelling in frustration to anyone who’d listen. Despite it being a short book, it took me four days to read it.

The idea of someone with near-godlike powers sent into an imperfect world and trying to do the right thing is fascinating and raises all sorts of good questions. There’s a lot of food for thought in there. But the execution, to me, left a lot to be desired and didn’t age very well. Rumata himself is not very likable and comes off as a bit of a hypocrite, self-righteously above it all, waiting for things to get better on their own. Killing innocent intellectuals? A lot of hand-wringing and inner monologue. Threats to the ones he loves? Threatening a rampage right back.

Plus, the mentality towards the people of Arkanar is quite…patronising, similar to the attitude colonialists had, minus the racism and wanting to rule them directly. To him, they’re inferior, he doesn’t really see them as people and says as much, but more as works in progress without any agency (and therefore guilt). In a way, disturbing. But also making you wonder how would an advanced alien civilisation view the world as it is now.

It was probably the fact that almost without exception, they were not yet humans in the modern sense of the word, but blanks, unfinished pieces, which only the bloody centuries could one day fashion into true men, proud and free.

The mix of half-adventure, half-critique doesn’t work very well either. The rest of the story is often put on pause for Rumata to go into a pages-long, ponderous inner monologue and the observations don’t seem to have much effect. Especially not on his actions. We are told that the purges are affecting the society negatively, but never really feel it. The book doesn’t really go anywhere. And the ending doesn’t resolve much, or satisfy, or improve the book either. I actually liked the initial idea for a story that’s explained in the afterword (which also provides some context) a lot more than the end result.

Another thing that left a bad taste in my mouth is the age difference – you have 35 y/o Rumata apparently in love with 18 or so y/o Kira, and his treatment of her is very…overprotective and paternalistic. I have read books with large age differences before that didn’t gross me out as much, but this…I did not like it.

Doesn’t help that the female characters are, as in many old books, abysimal. Aside from the character that briefly appears in the prologue, they’re either pure innocent virgins, whores, eye candy, or manipulative whores who deserve death, only relevant in the context of the male characters, and to top everything off, there’s fridging too. If that’s a pet peeve, pass on the book.

Enjoyment: 4/5 dropping to 2/5
Execution: 2.5/5

Recommended to: fans of old-school sci-fi and swashbuckling, those intrigued by the concept
Not recommended to: those who hate passive protagonists and fridging

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