Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Science Fiction’

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 best 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 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 (perhaps done 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



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.)

(Hard to be a God, directed by Aleksey German, 2013)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Plan 9 from Outer Space, Troll 2, and Battlefield Earth have met their match, in fact have been left in the dust — rather, the muck. In contrast with Hard to be a God, all of those films are masterpieces of understated acting, special effects wizardry, and tightly plotted, concise storytelling. Hard to be a God is hands down the worst–or at least the most insufferable–science fiction film ever made.

But why is it so bad? It’s based on what might be the best Soviet science fiction novel, Hard to be a God, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (rivaled only by Roadside Picnic by the same authors). It would be quite possible to make a very good low budget sci-fi film based on Hard to be a God, but German didn’t. (The story takes place in a medieval setting, thus no need for expensive special effects.)  So, points off for turning a very good book into a very bad movie.

Many points off also for the horrendously translated (from Russian) subtitles. They’re so badly translated that they read, for the most part, like passages from a poorly written absurdist play. Think Ionesco on PCP run through an automated translation widget. In one scene near the beginning we find the following consecutive lines:

“Piga, did you get the egg?”

“The bees are killing their queen.”

“He bites like a ferret.”

“Found this under the pig.”

My favorite line, though, comes about 48 minutes in: “The dog is sprouting.” Amusing in isolation, yes, but in toto the subtitles are nearly incomprehensible.

Still more points off for the cinematography: minute after minute after minute of low contrast grey (not black) and white footage. I only made it about 50 minutes in, and there was no relief from this dreary visual pallet, though German had hammered home the idea that the Hard to be a God world is a dismal, depressing place in the first 30 seconds of the film. To hammer the point, and the viewer, even further into the ground, German has rain coming down incessantly — it was still pouring when I couldn’t take it any longer and switched off.

Even more points off for having the characters pointlessly degrade themselves, and for gratuitously dwelling on degrading images. Characters are crawling around in the muck and smearing it on themselves and others in almost every scene; one character near the beginning of the film is wallowing about in the muck directly beneath a privy jutting out from a wall; and very shortly after the “dog is sprouting” dialogue gem there’s a gratuitous close up  of a donkey schlong. (No, I’m not kidding — I couldn’t make this up.)

At that point, I said “Enough!” and quit watching, still having no idea where the film was going  (except from having read the book the film is based on) .

The topper is that Hard to be a God is almost three hours long!

I’ve been trying to think of ways to enjoy its sheer awfulness, and the only thing that comes to mind is drinking oneself into a near coma and watching random five-minute snatches of the film for the dialogue. But I doubt that even that’s a good idea.

Recommended only for those into boredom, degradation, and donkey schlongs.

For those who are, Hard to be a God is currently available on Netflix. For those who aren’t into such things, the strangely watchable, unintentionally funny-in-almost-every-scene Troll 2 is also available there.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (which features moons named after the Strugatskys). He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover