[The Strugatskii brothers] have created without doubt the most significant Soviet Science Fiction (further SF) after 1958. (p. 454)
The first phase of the Strugatskiis is—except for a few early stories—a "future history" system formally similar to the science-fictional model of Jules Verne's cycles or of newer U.S. writers such as Heinlein and Asimov. It is a not quite systematic series of novels and stories with interlocking characters and locations progressing from the end of the twentieth to the twenty-second century, realistically conveying life on a predominantly communist (classless) earth and human relations in explorations on and between the planets of the Solar system and some nearer stars. [Ivan] Efremov's monolithic leaders and huge exploits were here supplanted by young explorers and scientists finding romance in their everyday pioneering tasks. Retaining the utopian sense of absolute ethical involvement and personal honor, even the Strugatskiis' early protagonists—at times moody or vain, tired or capricious—were much more lifelike than the usual cardboard or marble figures in most Soviet SF. Together with the vividly depicted and variegated surroundings, the sure touch for detail and the adventure-packed action leading to some ethical choice, this immediately brought the young authors to the forefront of Soviet SF. But from good juvenile-adventure SF they quickly passed to a richer form in which the adventure level serves as vehicle for socio-philosophical exploration and understanding.
This first Strugatskii cycle is still fairly idyllic. Except for the occasional egotistic and capitalist survivals, conflicts take place—as they formulated it—"between the good and the better," i.e., within absolute and generally accepted ethics. Thus, the only fundamental conflict left is the epic adventure of man faced with and conquering nature as a "collective Robinson."… Yet at the end of the cycle—in The Apprentices and some stories such as Wanderers and Travellers, The Puzzle of the Hind Foot, and The Rendez-Vous—an element of open-ended doubt and of darkness enters into these somewhat aseptically bright horizons. Some protagonists die or retire, and some "come home" from cosmic jaunts to Earth and its problems. Though the future is still envisaged as a golden arrested moment of "noon," historical time with its puzzles, pain, and potentialities of regress begins to seep in as shadows of postmeridial experience lengthen. This adventure model is interlarded with quotations from neo-romantic poets such as R. L. Stevenson and Bagritskii. In the second phase, an adult exploration of a more complex and painful world concentrates, as one of its novels has it, on the "predatory things of our age"—a title appropriately enough taken from Russia's major poetic exploration of relationships in such a world by Voznesenskii.
The dialectics of innocence and experience, of utopian ethics and historical obstacles on the way to their enthronement provides henceforth the main tension and pathos of the Strugatskiis' opus. In their second phase they went about finding the proper form for such dialectics. The black horizon of a history where slavery and high technology go together appears in An Attempted Escape, though only as an exception (a backward planet) within the utopian universe of the first phase. In this work the Strugatskiis are still defensive about their new tack. Even stylistically, it is halfway between the careful realism of the extrapolative-utopian cycle and a new parable form, so that it reads as a first sketch for It's Hard to be a God. The protagonist—an escapee from Nazi concentration camps—and the paradoxical society are even less motivated than Mark Twain's Yankee in Camelot. Nonetheless, this story introduces the first full-fledged conflict of utopian innocence and twentieth-century experience using the highly effective device of a protagonist caught in a blind alley of history.
The first two masterpieces of the Strugatskiis are the long story Far Rainbow and the novel It's Hard to be a God. In both of them extrapolation gives way to a clearly focussed analogic or parabolic model of mature SF. In both, utopian ethics are put to the test of anti-utopian darkness, of an inhuman and apparently irresistible wave of destruction. (pp. 456-57)
It's Hard to be a God amounts to a Bildungsroman where the reader is the hero, learning together with the protagonist the nature of painful conflict between utopian human values—always the fixed Polar Star for the Strugatskiis—and the terrible empirical pressures of mass egotism, slavery to petty passions, and conformism. Under such pressures the great majority of people turn to religious fanaticism, mass murder or apathy…. Outside interference cannot liberate a people without introducing a new benevolent dictatorship: the Earthling "gods" are both ethically obliged and historically powerless to act. The true enemy is within each man: Slavery and Reason, narrow-minded class psychology and the axiological reality of a classless future, are still fighting it out, in a variant of Dostoevskii's Grand Inquisitor confrontation. The Strugatskiis' mature opus retains the utopian abhorrence of "the terrible ghosts of the past" and belief in the necessity of a humanized future, but it is also intensely aware of the defeats humanity has suffered since the heyday of utopianism in the early 1920's. Thus, from this time on their work takes its place with the insights of best SF—of Wells, London, and others—into the dangers of social devolution: it is a warning without pat answers, a bearing of witness, and "an angry pamphlet against tyranny, violence, indifference, against the philistinism which gives rise to dictatorships" (Revich). Even further, it is a significant rendering of tragic utopian activism, akin in many ways to the ethico-historiosophical (geschichtsphilosophisch) visions of the best Hemingway and of poets like Brecht (the protagonist's dilemma in this novel is not too dissimilar from that in The Measures Taken), Okudzhava, or Voznesenskii. It is no wonder this novel has become the most popular SF...
(The entire section is 2549 words.)