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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Hard to be a God

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Hard to be a God

Title: Hard to be a God
Authors: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 250 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Hard to be a God - US
Hard to be a God - UK
Hard to be a God - Canada
Hard to be a God - India
Il est difficile d'être un dieu - France
in Gesammelte Werke 4 - Deutschland
È difficile essere un dio - Italia
Qué difícil es ser dios - España
  • Russian title: Трудно быть Богом
  • Translated by Olena Bormashenko
  • With a Foreword by Hari Kunzru
  • With an Afterword by Boris Strugatsky
  • Previously translated by Wendayne Ackerman -- from the German translation ! -- (1973)
  • Hard to be a God was made into a film in 2013, directed by Aleksey German

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Our Assessment:

B+ : thoughtful science fiction; holds up well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 21/4/2014 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The unadorned prose cloaks rich ideas, illustrating the ability of imaginative literature to probe troubling moral questions." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hard to be a God is set in what amounts to a medieval world. Unbeknownst to the locals, however, there are some two hundred and fifty observers from a far more advanced culture in their midst; some of them have been here for over two decades. They are all outfitted with cameras and radio transmitters, recording and transmitting everything they encounter:

Historians on Earth saw and heard everything that the 250 operatives saw and heard on the nine continents of the planet.
       They take part in society as if they were a part of it; however, an essential feature of their undertaking is, as the 'Prime Directive' of Star Trek has it, not interfering with the development of the local society:
There are two hundred and fifty of us on this entire planet. Everybody controls themselves, and everybody finds it very hard. The most experienced of us have lived here for twenty-two years. They came here as nothing more than observers. They were completely forbidden to do anything.
       Of course, even just the act of observing influences a system -- and since these visitors are actual participants, part of the society (albeit hiding their true identities and abilities) it gets even more complicated.
       The central figure of Hard to be a God is Anton -- playing the role of Don Rumata of Estor here, a local nobleman who likes to have a good time. No shrinking violet, he certainly makes his presence felt -- but isn't allowed to truly engage with the local culture and society, not at any level that really matters. And unfortunately, things are really going badly here in Arkanar -- and Anton's colleagues seem blind to the extent of the problem:
I'm the only one on this whole planet who's aware of the terrible shadow creeping over the country, but even I can't figure out whose shadow it is or where it's coming from.
       The shift to totalitarianism is marked by the silencing of any creative or critical voices -- "all of the city's street singers, storytellers, dancers, and acrobats had disappeared", and now it's the local storm troopers, strutting about, that dominate the scene. Even just literacy is now suspect. (On the other hand, alcohol consumption has doubled -- despite Arkanar already being: "legendary for its rampant alcoholism since ancient times".)
       The bad guy here is Don Reba:
     He emerged out of some musty basement in the palace bureaucracy three years ago, a petty, insignificant functionary, obsequious and pallid, with an almost bluish tint to his skin. Soon the then-First Minister was suddenly arrested and executed, a number of horror-stricken and bewildered officials died during torture, and this tenacious, ruthless genius of mediocrity grew like a pale fungus on their corpses.
       Yet Don Reba's rise and success continue to mystify Anton/Don Rumata. It's inexplicable and confounding -- yet inexorable. Along the way, it has ruined much of this society. And Don Rumata wants to act, but is forbidden to.
       The Strugatskys present Anton's dilemma well (and, in Don Rubata's often larger-than-life/style, entertainingly, too), the "Problem of Nonviolent Impact" as an excuse for just standing by while a world goes to hell one that of course has far broader implications. As Anton notes about the ethical issues of non-interference, theory may be all well and good: "But here there are no theories, here there are typical fascist practices [...] Here everything is pointless".
       Much in the book obviously reminds of Soviet conditions (to the extent that it seems a wonder this was published there at all), but the Strugatskys' story isn't limited to Soviet-allegory, which is what makes it a more enduring tale. Impressive science fiction; an obvious classic of the genre.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 August 2014

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Hard to be a God: Reviews: Hard to be a God - the film: Other books by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Arkady Strugatsky (Аркадий Натанович Стругацкий, 1925-1991) and Boris Strugatsky (Борис Натанович Стругацкий, 1931-2012) were leading Soviet science fiction authors.

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© 2014-2018 the complete review

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