Posts Tagged ‘Arkady Strugatsky’


Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 

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Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover

“Once upon a time in a little town there lived two night-soil men — father and son. There weren’t any sewers there, only pits full of slurry. And they scooped that shit out with a bucket and poured it into their barrel, and what’s more, the father, as the more experienced specialist, went down into the pit, and the son handed the bucket down to him from above. Then one day the son lost his grip on the bucket and dumped it back on his old man. Well, his old man wiped himself down, looked up at him, and said bitterly, ‘You’re a total screwup, a real lunkhead. No good for anything. You’ll be stuck up there your whole life.'”

–“Andrei” in The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

(This “lost novel” appeared for the first time in English last year. Expect a review shortly.)


What exactly does  “anarchist science fiction” mean? Stories written by anarchists? Stories with anarchist characters? Stories with anarchist settings? Stories that make anarchist political and social points? Stories with an “anarchist sensibility” (whatever that is)? Stories that anarchists will simply enjoy? All of the above? Who knows…..

We coverBecause of this, I’ve taken a somewhat expansive approach and have included a number of non-anarchist political sci-fi novels in this list simply because I think anarchists would enjoy them. They comprise maybe a third of the total. I’ve added brief comments about books I’ve read recently and those that particularly stand out in memory. I’m still adding to the list, which is far from complete–it’s simply a list of books I’ve read and that I recommend. (I’ve included a couple that I don’t particularly like, but included anyway because they are specifically anarchist or part of a series;  in the comments preceding or following the titles, I’ve noted those I do not recommend.)

If you notice that any of your anarchist sci-fi favorites are missing from this list, please leave a comment mentioning them.

Here’s the list — the links go to reviews on this site.

 

Margaret Atwood

  • The Handmaid’s Tale. (1985) More speculative social fiction than science fiction,  The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s horrifying vision of what would happen to America, and especially American women, if fundamentalists seized power. Antiauthoritarian, but not specifically anarchist.

Paolo Bacigalupi

  • The Windup Girl. (2009) Beautifully written. Probably the best cautionary tale about corporate-controlled genetic modification and control of food sources. Antiauthoritarian and anti-corporatist, but not specifically anarchist.

Iain M. Banks

The following are Banks’ “Culture” novels–space opera on a grand scale. While set in the same universe, all work as stand-alone novels. All are set in a galaxy-spanning, far-future anarchist and atheist society, and all feature strong, believable characters (including AIs), complicated ethical dilemmas, and frequent dark humor. Of them, the two best are probably Player of Games and Surface Detail, and the weakest is probably The Hydrogen Sonata.

  • Consider Phlebas (1987)
  • The Player of Games (1988)
  • Use of Weapons (1990)
  • Excession (1996)
  • Inversions (1998)
  • Look to Windward (2000)
  • Matter (2008)
  • Surface Detail (2010)
  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)

John Brunner

  • The Sheep Look Up. (1972) Probably the best early science fiction novel about the environmental crisis; antiauthoritarian, but not anarchist.

Several of Brunner’s other sci-fi novels are also enjoyable, particularly Shockwave Rider (1975) and The Crucible of Time (1983)(But don’t pick up one of Brunner’s novels at random and expect a good read — his output was very uneven.)

The Fourth World by Dennis Danvers front coverDennis Danvers

  • The Fourth World. (2000) An intermediate-future novel set in the southern Mexico of the Zapatistas, and a very good book that deserves to have sold much better than it did.
  • The Watch. (2003) A time travel novel set in Richmond, Virginia, featuring Peter Kropotkin as the primary character. An accurate portrayal of Kropotkin and his ideas, but not particularly engaging, in part because Danvers presents Kropotkin (in line with his actual character) as too saintly.

Cory Doctorow

  • Walkaway. (2017)  An intelligent, in places funny, near-future novel about the emergence of a post-scarcity anarchist society in the shadow of the “default reality” corporatist surveillance state.


Greg Egan

  • Distress.  (1995) A hard sci-fi novel with pointed political and social commentary, largely set on an artificial island called “Stateless.” If you’re looking for a detailed description of how an anarchist society might operate, this isn’t it, but Distress is worth reading nonetheless.
  • The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred (2016). An all too timely cautionary tale about xenophobia, demagoguery, scapegoating, and persecution of minorities. Not explicitly anarchist, but antiauthoritarian.

El Akkad, Omar

  • American War (2017). Not anarchist, and only implicitly antiauthoritarian, American War is almost certainly the best fictional depiction of the psychological and physical devastation caused by America’s interventionist wars, and the hatred and terrorism they engender.

Mick Farren

  • cover of "The Armageddon Crazy" by Mick FarrenTheir Master’s War (1987). Antiauthoritarian but not anarchist. A page-turner concerning militarism, imperialism, and religious manipulation.
  • The Armageddon Crazy (1989). An antiautoritarian, at times very funny, and all-too-timely novel about a fundamentalist takeover of the U.S. government.

(These are Farren’s two best sci-fi novels, and the only two I’d unreservedly recommend.)

Harry Harrison

  • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted. (1987) A well thought out political novel disguised as escapist sci-fi that perceptively treats mutualist anarchism and nonviolent resistance. Probably the best of the Stainless Steel Rat series.

Robert Heinlein

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (1966) Deals with an anarcho-capitalist society on the moon at odds with an authoritarian Earth.

James P. HoganCode of the Lifemaker cover

  • Voyage from Yesteryear. (1982) Features a setting directly derived from  Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism.
  • Code of the Lifemaker (1983) Hogan’s very funny tale of science versus religious fanaticism is a nearly forgotten gem; not anarchist, but antiauthoritarian.
  • The Immortality Option (1995) The sequel to Code of the Lifemaker; it’s also worth reading, but be sure to read Code of the Lifemaker first.

Ursula LeGuin

  • The Dispossessed. (1974) Considered by many the classic anarchist sci-fi novel, its backdrop, for half of the book, is an anarchist society set on the planet Anarres. That society is well drawn, though dryly and unflatteringly (at least in my opinion; others would disagree).


Ken Macleod

The Stone Canal by Ken Macleod front coverThe first four novels are set in the same universe, but are not parts of a series. The next three are a loose trilogy.

  • The Star Fraction (1995)
  • The Stone Canal. (1996) The setting is an anarcho-capitalist society.
  • The Cassini Division. (1998) The setting is an anarcho-communist society.
  • The Sky Road (1999)
  • Cosmonaut Keep (2000)
  • Dark Light (2001)
  • Engine City (2002)
  • The Night Sessions (2008) A cautionary tale of religious fanaticism
  • Intrusion (2012) A frighteningly plausible dystopian novel of an all-pervasive surveillance state. A modern 1984.

Paul J. McAuley

Antiauthoritarian but not anarchist, these two  novels comprise McAuley’s “Quiet War” series. They’re set in the medium-distant future following ecological collapse on Earth, and concern the brutal aggression of the authoritarian empires that emerged from the chaos against the in-some-ways anarchistic “Outers” who have colonized the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

  • The Quiet War (2008)
  • Gardens of the Sun (2009)

There are two later novels set in the same universe, In the Mouth of the Whale (2012) and Evening’s Empires (2013).  These are largely stand-alone novels. In the Mouth of the Whale is best avoided (very slow reading), but Evening’s Empires is a pretty decent apolitical quest/revenge tale.

Many of McAuley’s other science fiction novels are worth reading. Two that come to mind are Pasquale’s Angel and White Devils.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan front coverRichard K. Morgan

  • Altered Carbon. (2002) The first of a brutal, noirish trilogy with distinct anarchist undertones.
  • Broken Angels. (2003) The second in the series.
  • Woken Furies. (2005) The third book in the series.
  • Market Forces. (2004) An overtly political projection of the future of corporate capitalism.
  • Thirteen. (2007) A very dystopian look at the future USA.

Nicholas P. Oakley

  • The Watcher. (2014) Explores primitivism, the role of technology in society, and consensus decision making. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)

George Orwell

  • 1984. (1949) Dreary and depressing–as it’s intended to be–but essential. Orwell’s projection of the logical progression of stalinism.
  • Animal Farm. (1945) Orwell’s satirical critique of stalinism.

Marge Piercy

  • Woman on the Edge of Time  (1976)

Mike Resnick

  • A Hunger in the Soul. (1998) Set in a barely disguised Africa, this is probably the best sci-fi treatment of the psychology of colonialism. Not anarchist, but well worth a read.

Cover of Lucky Strike, by Kim Stanley RobinsonKim Stanley Robinson

  • Lucky Strike. (2009) A fine if short parallel-universes novella on the morality of “just following orders.”

Rudy Rucker

The “ware” books comprise a very funny short tetralogy (written before the average sci-fi novel bloated to 700 pages) set in part against the backdrop of a sympathetically portrayed anarchist mechanoid society on the moon. The first two books in particular are gems.

  • Software (1982)
  • Wetware (1988)
  • Freeware (1997)
  • Realware (2000)

John Shirley

  • Bioshock Rapture (2012) This novel is a prequel to the popular Bioshock video game. It’s of interest because it concerns the development of a cloistered Objectivist (Ayn Randist) society. Shirley does a good job of outlining some of the horrors that such a society would produce, but the worst horrors he describes are produced by the cloistering, which undercuts the critique of Objectivism as such.  As well, because he was essentially in a straitjacket when he wrote this, Shirley incorporates fantastical elements from the game that are unnecessary from a fictional standpoint and that detract from the novel’s power. But it’s worth reading anyway.

Norman Spinrad

  • H Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad front coverThe Iron Dream (1972). Alternately chilling and darkly funny. The premise is that Hitler emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s, became a science fiction illustrator, and wrote a single novel: The Iron Dream. The bulk of Spinrad’s book is comprised of the “manuscript” of that “novel.” An excellent illustration of the ugliness of the authoritarian psyche.

Many of Spinrad’s other antiauthoritarian sci-fi novels, such as Greenhouse Summer (1999) and He Walked Among Us (2009), both of which concern the ecological crisis, are also worth reading. Getting somewhat away from sci-fi, Mind Game (1980) is Spinrad’s insightful treatment of a barely disguised Church of Scientology, and probably the best novel about cults ever written.

Charles Stross

  • The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross, cover imageSingularity Sky (2003) Not anarchist but antiauthoritarian.
  • Iron Sunrise. (2004) The sequel to Singularity Sky.
  • Glass House. (2006) A suspenseful, brutal tale about gender roles and conformity.
  • The Apocalypse Codex (2012). One of Stross’s genre-bending, amusing Laundry Files series, The Apocalypse Codex deals with a televangelist, his literally brain dead followers, and tentacled Lovecraftian horrors. Its treatment of both the absurdity and deadly menace of Christian fundamentalism is spot on.
  • Neptune’s Brood. (2013). A strange, sometimes funny story about the structure of interstellar finances and financial fraud. Part of the book is set in a sympathetically portrayed deep sea anarchist society of genetically modified humans.
  • The Rhesus Chart (2014). Another entertaining Laundry Files novel. The Rhesus Chart deals with the big banks, and has a clear, concise explanation of exactly how they’re screwing us.
  • The Delirium Brief (2017). This latest Laundry File novel has privatization schemes as its backdrop, and contains an admirably concise explanation of how they screw the public to the benefit of the rich and the corporations they control.

Stross’s work is antiauthoritarian, though anarchism is treated overtly only in Neptune’s Brood. Almost all of his other books, particularly Halting State (2007), Rule 34 (2011), and nearly all of the Laundry Files novels are excellent reads.

A Note on the Laundry Files books: While they can be read as stand-alone novels, they’re a lot more fun to read if you read them in order, starting with The Atrocity Archives (2004).

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

  • The Doomed City. (2016) A bleak, brutal dissection of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced its horrors. Written in 1972, the brothers Strugatsky kept this novel under wraps for over 15 years until it was finally published in Russian in 1989 during perestroika; at long last it’s now available in English.

George TurnerDrowning Towers front cover

  • Drowning Towers (UK title: The Sea and Summer). (1987) Drowning Towers was the first major novel about climate change and is still one of the best, if not the best. It’s not anarchist and barely antiauthoritarian, but it is acutely class conscious and a literary masterpiece.

Turner’s science fiction output (he was also a literary novelist) was quite uneven. In addition to Drowning Towers, he produced one other excellent sci-fi novel, Brain Child (1991), which concerns genetic engineering.

T.C. Weber

  • Sleep State Interrupt. (2016) A near-future noirish techno-thriller about combatting the surveillance state. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)

Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea

  • The Illuminatus Trilogy. (1975) More fantasy than science fiction, this  hallucinogenic, sprawling mess of a trilogy veers wildly from the unreadable to the unparalleled, featuring sex, drugs, multiple first-person narrators, shifting chronology, stream-of-consciousness narrative, conspiracies on steroids, self-mockery, zombie Nazis, one of the funniest parodies of Ayn Rand’s capitalist-fantasy/romance novels ever written (“Telemacchus Sneezed,” featuring “John Guilt”), and occasional insightful comments on anarchism.

Yevgeny Zamyatin

  • We  (1924) Written by one of the first Soviet dissidents (within the Communist Party), this dreamy, nightmarish, poetic novel of an all-controlling police state is the direct forerunner of 1984.

 

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Zeke Teflon, who compiled this list, is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, which takes place in part in an anarchist community. He’s currently working on the sequel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals front cover

 

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