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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Doomed City

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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To purchase The Doomed City

Title: The Doomed City
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Genre: Novel
Written: (1989) (Eng. 2016)
Length: 467 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Doomed City - US
The Doomed City - UK
The Doomed City - Canada
in Gesammelte Werke 2 - Deutschland
Ciudad maldita - España
  • Completed in 1972, The Doomed City was first published in 1989
  • Russian title: Град обреченный
  • Translated by Andrew Bromfield
  • With a Foreword by Dmitry Glukhovsky
  • With an Afterword by Boris Strugatsky

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressively conceived and realized

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 11/4/2016 .
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2017 Michael A. Morrison

  From the Reviews:
  • "The City is the novelís greatest character, breathing misery and distortion upon its inhabitants. This unsettling and intelligent novelís chief terror resides in its underlying ideas." - Publishers Weekly

  • "When finally published in Russian in 1989, it rapidly gained a reputation as their magnum opus and a masterwork of the philosophical tradition in Russian literature. Now, twenty-eight years later, we have this splendid English translation, and it astonishes." - Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today

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:

       The Doomed City is set in an alternate world of sorts, in which citizens from all over the world, with different backgrounds and professions, and from different near-contemporary times, find themselves thrown together. They are able to understand each other -- everyone certain that their native language is the one everyone else is speaking too -- and they form a new society here. Some believe they've died and gone to hell, but the general understanding is that they have been selected to participate in an experiment -- the Experiment. As to who designed it and controls it -- if, at this point, anyone -- or what its purpose is, that remains a mystery. The mantra is: "The Experiment is the Experiment", and there's not much else they can do about it:

All this is probably perverse supposition, it's delusory ... The Experiment is the Experiment. Of course we don't understand anything. But then, we're not supposed to understand ! That's a fundamental condition !
       Life is concentrated in the City, a place that apparently has about a million inhabitants. There are people who have left and are living off the grid, as it were, farming in the countryside, but most of the surrounding area is extremely inhospitable, with abandoned cities suggesting terrible past experiences. Nature isn't exactly natural here, either: this is a world where the sun stands still in the sky and is regularly turned on and off, like a light-bulb, to switch abruptly from day to night and back; at one point there's a malfunction, and everything is in darkness for almost three weeks.
       Life is not dissimilar to what everyone was used to back on earth, but it's technologically a bit backwards, without radio or television or movie theaters; for entertainment they can "crank up the phonograph". There are some motor vehicles and electricity, but it's not exactly a land of plenty.
       (In his Afterword Boris Strugatsky explains that they settled on the title early on, taking it from the Nicholas Roerich painting of the same name, "with its somber beauty and the sense of hopelessness emanating from it".)
       The novels centers on Andrei Voronin, who had been a stellar astronomer in the Soviet Union in his previous or earlier life. Here, when the novel begins, he is a garbage collector. Employment is governed by the 'law on diversified labor', and there is a "job allocation device" that determines what work each resident is assigned. Assignments are also regularly -- and compulsorily -- changed: even the mayor doesn't stay in office beyond a limited term.
       The first four of the novel's six parts each have Andrei in a different position: garbage collector, investigator in the Public Prosecutor's Office, editor of one of the local newspapers, and finally counsellor in the president's personal chancellery.
       Already in his time as garbage collector, things are going wrong. Though, this being the Experiment, they have no idea what might be right or wrong -- perhaps it's all part of a plan, testing them. Still, the sudden invasion of the City by rampaging baboons is certainly unsettling. (So too will eventually be what happens to the baboons.) Later, when he's an investigator, Andrei finds himself flummoxed by a Red Building, sighted -- and sited -- variously in the City, but never remaining in place for long. People are also disappearing inexplicably: "there's been a sudden proliferation of mysteries in our little democratic community", one person observes.
       Among the perceived -- or at least rumored -- threats facing the City is a supposed Anticity, the inverse of the City ("everything there is the other way around", with good times in the City leading to bad in the Anticity -- and vice-versa):
Ever heard of it ? No, you haven't. And you shouldn't have. You shouldn't have heard of it. And don't let anyone ever hear of it from you ! It's an official secret with a 'double 0' number. The Anticity. We have information that there are settlements of some kind to the north of us: one, two, several -- we don't know. But they know all about us !
       Real (like the baboons) or imagined (like, possibly, the Red Building), there appear to be threats to the city. Eventually, the prevailing order is upended, in a 'Turning Point' -- perhaps the Experiment playing out ? perhaps just a new twist to it .....
       Someone argues:
"As soon as society has solved some problem that it has, it immediately comes face-to-face with a new problem of the same magnitude." Then he livened up. "And that, by the way, gives rise to an interesting little point. Eventually society will come face-to-face with problems of such complexity that it will be beyond mankind's power to solve them. And then so-called progress will stop."
       Is the Experiment one to test that thesis, throwing curveballs at this small society until it bends or breaks ? Whatever the Experiment is, it's not a straightforward social utopia, building towards some perfection.
       The Strugatskys' novel is multi-layered, and goes in a variety of directions -- including, ultimately, north, as Andrei leads an expedition to see what lies beyond. The premise was, for 1973 -- when the novel was completed -- daring, especially in a presentation that has as one of the significant other figures -- and one Andrei gets along with well -- a former noncommissioned Wehrmacht officer, Fritz Heiger, who comes to take power, leading the 'Party of Radical Rebirth'.
       The novel considers a wide variety of implications and possible consequences of trying to create a new society, and among the amusing asides is even a complaint about the lack of artistic achievement in the Experiment:
In the City we publish two literary journals, four literary supplements to newspapers, at least ten regular series of rubbishy adventure stories ... and I think that's all. And also about fifteen books a year. And in all that there's nothing that's even halfway decent. I've spoken to people who know about these things. Neither before the Turning Point nor after it has a single significant work of literature appeared in the City. Nothing but trash. What's wrong ?
       In his Afterword, Boris Strugatsky notes how the novel came to describe an arc of personal development in contemporary times, of how:
a young man's worldview radically changes, how he shifts from the position of an unshakable fanatic to the condition of a man suspended, as it were, in an airless ideological void, without even the slightest purchase for his feet.
       Andrei engages repeatedly with a Mentor, who seems to offer guidance of sorts, an insider in whatever the Experiment might be. Yet clarity and understanding elude Andrei, even in his final (ad)venture, itself just another -- in fact, the first -- stepping stone in what is a powerful concluding scene.
       The Doomed City is an impressive piece of work, offering both good -- and vividly imagined and effectively unsettling -- adventure and invention as well being consistently thought-provoking. Aspects of it read uncomfortably nowadays, especially a simplified racial stereotyping -- used in part on purpose, for effect, but still ... -- and the Strugatskys fail miserably in finding any roles for women other than as, quite literally, sex objects. Andrei's love-interest Selma was a prostitute in her other life (and not for the money: "just that it's interesting. It's out of boredom") -- and old habits die hard -- while a later female figure is simply referred to and used as 'Skank', and the few other women that figure in the story do so only in very small and limited roles. There's a bit of caricature to many of the characters, which does work in part, but in a number of cases it feels too crass.
       While in part clearly a product of the early-1970s Soviet Union, The Doomed City is not a period piece, and it holds up very well. The Strugatskys were looking to examine issues that were obviously particularly relevant in the ideologically embattled Soviet Union of those times, but they moved beyond just the Soviet example and experience, and much of what is presented here remains entirely relevant.
       Ungainly, in some ways, and refusing to unfold in a straightforward manner, The Doomed City is nevertheless worth wrestling with; it is a strong and important novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 September 2016

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The Doomed City: Reviews: 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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© 2016-2018 the complete review

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