Book Review: Hard to Be a God by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky

Should an observer intervene? Or should they keep their objectives and watch by as the most horrendous things happen? If you have ever watched a natural documentary, you know that the film crew (and the researchers) should let even death and “murder” happen without tampering with the ecosystem. It is nature for you, but what if you are observing human beings on another planet and they kill each other for seemingly good reasons, starting off with intellectuals and destroying their books?

This is the basic premise of the book. Rumata, the protagonist, is just that an observer from Earth sent to a medieval world with a couple of other observers and taken there over the life of a noble born. He faces the question if he should stop the killings, especially when someone he loves is in danger, Kira. And as expected he doesn’t sit by, he acts and gets himself into trouble. Not only with the locals but with other observers and their code of etiquette.

The concept is great, the idea is good, and there are amazing pondering about the nature of the society, its duties, about science, and the future of humanity, but then the characters are weak, and the plot is boring. I have mixed feelings about this book which have a line like this:

“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. Sooner or later they will be forced to allow universities and scientific societies, to create research centers, observatories, and laboratories, and thus to create a cadre of people of thought and knowledge: people who are completely beyond their control, people with a completely different psychology and with completely different needs. And these people cannot exist and certainly cannot function in the former atmosphere of low self-interest, banal preoccupations, dull self-satisfaction, and purely carnal needs. They need a new atmosphere— an atmosphere of comprehensive and inclusive learning, permeated with creative tension; they need writers, artists, composers— and the gray people in power are forced to make this concession too. The obstinate ones will be swept aside by their more cunning opponents in the struggle for power, but those who make this concession are, inevitably and paradoxically, digging their own graves against their will. For fatal to the ignorant egoists and fanatics is the growth of a full range of culture in the people— from research in the natural sciences to the ability to marvel at great music. 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.”

Here you can see the writers critiquing their home country and speaking about the conflict between power and freedom of thought. Yet, to get to these good parts I had to endure Rumata, which I found uninteresting, the plot that toddled on at times and then took great burst, and the somewhat naive love affair between Rumata and Kira which didn’t convince me. And the prologue confused me and only in the last chapter I got some clarity, and I don’t enjoy waiting that long.

So what can I say? This is an old school sci-fi which made me love the idea and it’s a fast read (if you don’t keep avoiding the book as I did), but otherwise, I cannot recommend this book. Ken MacLeod’s introduction, writing about the parallel between the writers’ lives and the book was interesting, and it was the only thing that kept me reading.

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