Saturday, July 05, 2014

A vitamin in society's organism

"Does a god have the right to feel anything but pity?"
Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is in some ways more traditional genre fiction, at least in a North American sense, than the other two novels I've read by the brothers. Definitely, Maybe is very philosophical, static (in the sense that nothing much happens), internal (a lot of the little that happens is inside the characters' heads). Roadside Picnic, although kind of post-apocalyptic and with a noir edge, also had a deeply philosophical bent.

Hard to Be a God, on the other hand, at first glance appears to be pure genre fantasy. Or science fiction. I couldn't tell which at first.

[I asked a Russian coworker about this, and he replied, as he does regarding just about anything Russian I've mentioned in the past few years, "No, eez not science feection [or domestik drama or comedy or...]. Ees allegory ov Sovyet Rasha."]

The early chapters are all about world-building and have a medieval stench to them. The science is subtle, certainly too innocuous to be noticed by most of the resident "barbarians." But it turns out that 250 citizens of an advanced Earth have been placed on this planet to monitor and guide this "civilization" into a more enlightened era. Without "interfering." Much harder than it sounds. Don Rumata certainly has a very hard time of it indeed, and much of the book is concerned with his internal reflections.
Two hundred thousand men and women. Two hundred thousand blacksmiths, gunsmiths, butchers, haberdashers, jewelers, housewives, prostitutes, monks, money changers, soldiers, tramps, and surviving bookworms were currently tossing in bedbug-ridden, stuffy beds; sleeping, making love, recalculating profits in their heads, crying, grinding their teeth in anger or resentment. Two hundred thousand people! To a visitor from Earth, they all had something common. It was probably the fact that almost without exceptions, they were not yet humans in the modern sense of the world [sic], but blank, unfinished pieces, which only the bloody centuries of history could one day fashion into true men, proud and free. They were passive, greedy, and incredibly, fantastically selfish. Almost all of them had the psychology of slaves — slaves of religions, slaves of their own kind, slaves of their pathetic passions, slaves of avarice. And if the fates decreed for one of them to be born or become a master, he didn't know what to do with his freedom. He would again hurry to become a slave — a slave of wealth, a slave of outlandish excesses, a slave of his slaves. The vast majority of them weren't guilty of anything. They were too passive and too ignorant. Their slavery was the result of passivity and ignorance, and passivity and ignorance again and again breeds slavery.

If they were all identical, there would be reason to throw up your hands and lose hope. But they were still people, the bearers of the spark of reason. And here and there in their midst, the fires of the incredibly distant and inevitable future would kindle and blaze up. They would kindle despite it all. Despite all their seeming unworthiness. Despite the oppression. Despite the fact that they were being trampled with boots. Despite the fact that no one in the world needed them, and the everyone in the world was against them. Despite the fact that at best, they could expect contemptuous, puzzled pity.

The didn't know that the future was on their side, that the future was impossible without them. They didn't know that in a world belonging to the terrible ghosts of the past, they were the only manifestation of the future — that they were an enzyme, a vitamin in society's organism. If you destroy this vitamin, society will rot, and social scurvy will begin: the muscles will go weak, the eyes will lose their sharpness, the teeth will fall out. No country can develop without science — it will be destroyed by its neighbors. Without arts and general culture, the country loses its capacity for self-criticism, begins to encourage faulty tendencies, starts to constantly spawn hypocrites and scum, develops consumerism and conceit in its citizens, and eventually again becomes a victim of its more sensible neighbors. 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 the power-hungry dullards and blockheads.
And that's really the heart of the concept behind this novel.

The Strugatsky brothers had originally conceived this novel as a kind of Three Musketeers, just on another planet. Indeed there is swashbuckling and intrigue and dank taverns, but its tone took a much darker, more serious turn. The only real point in common with Dumas's creation is the sense of honour and justice.

Arkady outlined some of the initial plans for this novel in a letter: "And there would be the implicit idea that a communist who found himself in such an environment would slowly but surely become a petty bourgeois [...]." So it seems my coworker was right. Although the book is also terrific science fiction.

Here's hoping that more English translations of the Strugatsky's corpus get published, but in the meantime it's my mission to track down out-of-print editions.

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