Hard to be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (read in 2016)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
Since the movie followed the book so faithfully, I’ll just include some of the text from my movie review.
The story is of an Earth-like planet on which a similar evolutionary track was followed by a very human-like race, but they never experienced a Renaissance. Their buildings are of poor quality, their sanitation is a horror and their hygiene is non-existent. The filth is omnipresent. You can almost smell this movie. It’s incredible how absolutely everything is covered with mud, food remnants and shit. The fog and rain soak everything. Everything is of primitive construction, people shit and piss and blow their pus-running noses everywhere. They spit, they taste things, they scratch, they pick and they flick.
Slaves have boards around their necks—almost everyone we see is a slave of some kind. People have eyes missing. Instead of a Renaissance, a Khmer Rouge-style revolution has occurred: all books and learning and instruments and advancement have been destroyed and their purveyors and inventors put to death. One form of execution we see is upending in a latrine.
We follow the story of Don Rumata, an Earthman sent ostensibly to study these people but who has taken up as a God among them. We follow him from his “palace”, interacting with the various psychotic locals, to a local market (?) where he meets up with a group of other Earthlings. It is not hard to imagine that the people find him to be a God—he is so much cleaner than the others, with metal greaves and vambraces pretty much the only thing they see of him.
Everything’s in a terrible state of disrepair and we see the only minds allowed to work involved in building new torture devices. The “bookworms” have all been hanged and left to rot on a gallows. The dialogue is also scattered, nonsensical, but enough sense can be distilled to follow a story. Everyone is near-mad, the actions unexplainable, the destruction they wreak on their environs chaotic. Random, wanton, childish. An unenlightened world of fools. It’s impossible to imagine how such a society survives, how it feeds itself, how it staves off disease. Every scene reflects their actions, implements and armor and chains and animals and fowl and bells pinned and tied and roped and chained everywhere, covered in filth and dripping water.
The Strugatsky brothers certainly delivered a tour de force in this novel, a novel of science-fictional despair rather than triumph. Please see the full movie review for more detail.
This is from a conversation Rumata had with a colleague who’s been there much longer than Rumata. He tells of being an anthropologist who’s lost himself in the world he’s studying.
“All that was said about us. I’ve been here for fifteen years. My dear boy, I’ve even stopped having dreams about Earth. One day, rummaging through my papers, I found a picture of a woman and for a long time couldn’t figure out who she was. I occasionally realize with terror that I’ve long stopped being an employee of the Institute, that I’m now an exhibit in the Institute’s museum, the chief justice of a feudal mercantile republic, and that there’s a room in the museum in which I belong. That’s the worst thing—to lose yourself in the role. Inside each one of us, the noble bastard struggles with the communard. And everything around us helps the bastard, while the communard is all alone—the Earth is thousands and thousands of parsecs away.””
Rumata fears what will happen when tyranny rises over a people who are not yet ready to rise.
“The dragon does have a heart. And we know where it is. And that’s the most frightening thing, my quiet, helpless friend. We know where it is, but we can’t destroy it without spilling the blood of thousands of frightened, hypnotized, blind people who know no doubts. And there are so many of them, hopelessly many—ignorant, isolated, embittered by perpetual thankless labor, downtrodden, not yet able to rise above the thought of an extra penny. And they cannot yet be taught, united, guided, saved from themselves. Far too early, centuries earlier than it should have, the gray muck has risen in Arkanar. It won’t meet with resistance, and all that’s left is to save those few there is still time to save.”
“Yes, they were right at the Institute. Then the inevitable. Bloody chaos in the country. The surfacing of Waga’s night army, ten thousand thugs excommunicated by every church—rapists, murderers, and sadists; hordes of copper-skinned barbarians descending from the mountains and destroying everything that moves, from newborns to the aged; huge crowds of peasants and townspeople, blind with terror, fleeing to the forests, mountains, and deserts; and your supporters—merry men, brave men!—ripping open each other’s bellies in a brutal struggle for power and for the right to control the machine gun after your inevitable violent death. And this absurd death—from a cup of wine served by your best friend, or from a crossbow bolt whistling toward your back from behind a curtain. And the horrified face of the one who will be sent from Earth to replace you, and who will find a country depopulated, drenched in blood, still burning, in which everything, everything, everything will need to be started over again.”
He faces the same struggle as all intelligent men, when faced with the rapacity of a lower culture, of a world filled with low men, interested only in short-term and very personal gain, without regard for principles or basic ethics. In such a world, any improvement you make is at best ephemeral, creating a vacuum into which something almost certainly worse will flood. This is not to argue for inaction, even the pyrrhic kind, but a warning against overestimating their predictability. If everything must be terrible, but in different ways, then why not roll the dice?
More musing on futility by Don Rumata:
“It’s hopeless, he thought. There’s no force strong enough to drag them out of their usual range of cares and ideas. You could give them everything. You could put them in the most modern spectroacoustic housing and teach them ionic procedures, and they’d still gather in the kitchen in the evening, playing cards and cackling about the neighbor whose wife wallops him. And there isn’t a better way for them to spend their time. In that sense, Don Condor is right: Reba is nothing, a tiny speck in comparison with the enormous influence of traditions, the rules of the herd—sanctified by centuries, unshakeable, tested, accessible to the dullest of the dull, freeing one from the necessity of thinking and wondering. And Don Reba probably wouldn’t even make it into a school curriculum.”
“Don Reba can’t be stupid enough to hope to force Budach to work for him. Or maybe he really is stupid. Maybe Don Reba is nothing more than a stupid, lucky schemer who doesn’t know what he wants himself, slyly making a fool of himself for all to see. It’s funny, I’ve been watching him for three years, and I still don’t understand what he is. Although if he’d been watching me, he wouldn’t understand either.”
“Nothing can help me now, he thought in horror. Because I sincerely hate and despise them. Not pity them, no—only hate and despise. I can justify the stupidity and brutality of the kid I just passed all I want— the social conditions, the appalling upbringing, anything at all—but I now clearly see that he’s my enemy, the enemy of all that I love, the enemy of my friends, the enemy of what I hold most sacred.”
“And there’s nothing that he wants to know, and there’s nothing he wants to think about.”
“He came here to love people, to help them unbend, see the sky. No, I’m a bad operative, he thought remorsefully. I’m a no-good historian. When exactly did I manage to fall into the swamp that Don Condor was talking about? Does a god have the right to feel anything other than pity?”
“It was probably the fact that almost without exception, they were not yet humans in the modern sense of the world, but blanks, 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.”
“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 that everyone in the world was against them. Despite the fact that at best, they could expect contemptuous, puzzled pity. They 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.”
“The hell he’ll think of anything. It’s too early for him to think. And it seems so simple: ten thousand hammerers like that, in a rage, could crush anyone to a pulp. Except rage is what they don’t have yet. Only fear. Everyone for himself, only God for all.”
The next several citations exhibit the Strugatsky brothers’ subversiveness against uncaring and unfeeling bureaucracy.
““No one has any privileges before the Order,” the official said in the same colorless voice. Don Keu huffed, turning livid, but took the hat off. The official ran a long yellow nail along the list. “Don Keu … Don Keu …” he muttered, “Don Keu … Royal Street, Building Twelve?” “Yes,” Don Keu said in an irritated bass voice. “Number four hundred eighty-five, Brother Tibak.” The heavyset Brother Tibak, who was sitting at the adjacent table, crimson from the stuffy air, searched through the papers, wiped the sweat off his bald head, stood up, and read out monotonously, “Number four hundred eighty-five, Don Keu. Royal, Twelve, for the defamation of the name of His Grace the Bishop of Arkanar Don Reba, which took place at the palace ball the year before last, shall receive three dozen lashes on his bared buttocks, and shall kiss His Grace’s boot.” Brother Tibak sat down. “Down that corridor,” said the official in a colorless voice, “the lashes on the right, the boot on the left. Next.” To Rumata’s”
““Don Pifa,” the official said, “take your symbol of purification.” He bent down, pulled an iron bracelet from a chest next to the chair, and handed it to noble Pifa. “Wear it on your left arm, produce it as soon as a soldier from the Order demands it. Next.””
“The official immediately pulled this sheet from underneath the lists and handed it to Rumata. “Through the yellow door, up to the second floor, room six, down the hall, go right then left,” he said. “Next.””
The next few citations are how the brothers manage to make it seem like the Earthlings really are Gods, almost outsized and much more powerful than the Arkanarans.
“Rumata rushed down two staircases, knocking the monks going the other way off their feet, laid himself a path through the crowd of graduates with his scabbards, and kicked open the door of the chamber, which was warping from the baron’s roars.”
“Rumata pulled his sword from its scabbard and struck the paper-covered table at which the official was sitting, cutting it in half.”
“[…] grabbed the chains that held the baron’s feet, and ripped them out of the wall with two jerks.”
“The baron knocked the top out with his fist, lifted the barrel, and turned it upside down over himself, throwing his head back. The stream of beer rushed toward his throat with a gurgle.”
“They came out of the chamber. Not a single person dared get in their way—the corridor kept emptying out for twenty paces in front of them.”
“Damn it, my friend, don’t you find that they have amazingly low ceilings? My head is all scratched up.””
Here, Rumata muses on how cleverly he was outmaneuvered by Reba. He even muses that he should name a new unit of feudal intrigue after him.
“The king wouldn’t have even taken a pickle from his minister’s hands. So the scoundrel snuck in some charlatan to the king, promising him the title of healer for curing the king. And I understand why Reba was so thrilled when I exposed him in the king’s bedchamber: it’s hard to think of a more convenient way to sneak in the false Budach to the king. All the responsibility fell on Rumata of Estor, the Irukanian spy and conspirator. We’re babes in arms, he thought. The Institute should introduce a course dealing specifically with feudal intrigue. And proficiency should be measured in rebas. Better yet, in decirebas. Although even that’s too much.”
“The struggle against evil! But what is evil? Everyone is free to understand this in his own way. For us scholars, evil is in ignorance, but the church teaches that ignorance is a blessing and that all evil comes from knowledge. For the plowman evil is taxes and drought, and for the bread-seller droughts are good. For a slave, evil is a drunk and cruel master; for a craftsman, a greedy moneylender. So what is this evil against which we must struggle, Don Rumata?” He looked sadly at his listeners. “Evil is ineradicable. No man is able to decrease its quantity in the world. He can improve his own fate somewhat, but it is always at the expense of the fate of others. And there will always be kings, some more cruel and some less, and barons, some more violent and some less, and there will always be the ignorant masses, who admire their oppressors and loathe their liberators. And it’s all because a slave has a much better understanding of his master, however brutal, than his liberator, for each slave can easily imagine himself in his master’s place, but few can imagine themselves in the place of a selfless liberator. That’s how people are, Don Rumata, and that’s how our world is.””
“There’s much I don’t like in the world, much I would like to be different. But what can one do? Perfection looks different in the eyes of a higher power than in mine. There is no sense in a tree lamenting that it cannot move, though it would probably be glad to flee from the lumberjack’s ax.””
“Budach, crinkling his brow, pondered silently. Rumata waited. The melancholy sound of creaking wagons sounded outside the window again. Budach said quietly, “Then, Lord, wipe us off the face of the planet and create us anew in a more perfect form … Or, even better, leave us be and let us go our own way.” “My heart is full of pity,” Rumata said slowly. “I cannot do that.””
““Sometimes I think,” said Arata, “that we’re all powerless. I’m the eternal rebel leader, and I know that my power comes from my extraordinary survivability. But this power doesn’t change my powerlessness. My victories magically turn into defeats. My friends in battle turn to enemies—the most courageous ones flee, the most loyal ones turn traitor or die. And I have nothing but my bare hands, and I can’t reach the gilded idols behind fortified walls with my bare hands.””
“Arata was clearly somehow superior to him— and not only to him but to all those who had come to this planet uninvited and who, full of helpless pity, watched the tumultuous bustling of its life from the rarefied heights of dry hypotheses and alien morality. And for the first time Rumata thought, There is no gain without a loss. We’re infinitely stronger than Arata in our kingdom of good and infinitely weaker than Arata in his kingdom of evil.”
“You still don’t know everything, thought Rumata. You still believe that you are the only one doomed to be defeated. You still don’t know how hopeless your cause itself is. You still don’t know that the enemy isn’t so much outside your soldiers as within them. You might still overthrow the Order—the wave of peasant rebellion will throw you onto the throne of Arkanar, you will level the castles of the noblemen, you’ll drown the barons in the Strait, and the insurgents will honor you as the great liberator. And you will be kind and wise—the only kind and wise person in your kingdom. And along the way, you will begin to give away land to your associates, and what will your associates do with land without serfs? And the wheel will start spinning the other direction. And you’ll be lucky if you manage to pass away before the new counts and barons emerge out of yesterday’s loyal fighters. That has already happened, my worthy Arata, both on Earth and on this planet.”
“(This was precisely the origin of the famous anecdote in which Nikita the Corn Man, staring at a certain ugly image in a frame, yells in a voice not his own, “And what’s this butt with ears?” And is answered with fear and trembling: “That’s a mirror, Nikita Sergeyevich.”)”
“All mass media without exception immediately descended on abstraction and formalism in art, as if for the last ten years they had been preparing just for this, collecting materials and only waiting for permission to speak about this burning topic.”
Eerily and not at all surprisingly similar to how the US media operates.
The following citations are from an eloquent and delightful afterward by Boris Strugatsky.
“It was as if an ancient abscess had burst. Bad blood and pus overflowed from the newspaper pages. All those who during the years of the “thaw” had gone quiet (it seemed to us), who had flattened their ears and only looked around like hunted animals, as if waiting for the inconceivable, impossible, improbable retribution for the past; all these monstrous offspring of Stalinism and Beria-ism, who were up to the elbows in the blood of innocent victims, all these covert and overt informers, ideological operators and moronic do-gooders—they all instantly sprang out of their hiding places; they all turned out to be right on the spot, energetic, agile, able hyenas of the pen, alligators of the typewriter. Go to it!”
“One could pick any of these versions or all of them at once. But one thing became, as they say, painfully clear. We shouldn’t have illusions. We shouldn’t have hopes for a brighter future. We were being governed by goons and enemies of culture. They will never be with us. They will always be against us. They will never let us say what we believe is right, because what they believe is right is something completely different. And if for us communism is a world of freedom and creativity, for them communism is a society where the people immediately and with pleasure perform all the prescriptions of the party and government.”
“It’s amazing that this novel went through all the hurdles of censorship without any particular difficulties. Either the liberalism of the then-leaders of the Young Guard played a role, or the careful maneuvers of our wonderful editor, Bela Grigorevna Klyueva, or maybe it was actually just that there was a certain retreat after the recent ideological hysteria— our enemies were catching their breath and complacently looking around the newly captured lands and beachheads.”