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Hard To Be a God Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although not unique to their works, or even to the Russian culture, several binary oppositions can be said to dominate the brothers' writings, among them: east versus west, individualism versus state, humanism versus Utopia, and past versus future. In the words of one Western critic, these themes "are given a particular slant by vicissitudes of Russia's twentieth-century history: the massive social upheaval of the revolution; Stalinism with its cultural amnesia and falsification of tradition; the crushing power of the State over any form of creativity, expressed in the institution of censorship with which the Strugatskys had to contend throughout their joint career; the sixties' "thaw"; and finally . . . the perestroika and the downfall of communism."

Hard to Be a God illustrates and evaluates several socio-historic theses, not all confined to the turbulent twentieth-century Russian history. It scoffs at the messianic impatience of revolutionaries who look for a quick fix to the enduring socio-evolutionary dilemmas of our times. Through the analogy between the foreign world and ours, the Strugatskys caution that taking on responsibility for an alien civilization is as thankless a task as shaping the history and social development of our own. In general, it is no accident that the cognitive and emotional impact of estrangement becomes especially apparent in the process of self-revelation. The envoy from our planet, striving to understand the hatred and terror that rules the alien race, finds himself in the position of the eponymous hero of Edgar Allan Poe's story "William Wilson." In a moment of terrible epiphany, when Poe's protagonist tears the mask off the mysterious visitor, he sees only the contorted features that are intimately familiar, because they are his own.

Just like Earthmen penetrate the society of Arkanar and Irukan, their own society back home becomes infiltrated by the alien planet. When the children play cavalier Dons in the Prologue, their games reveal the extent to which Irukan, Arkanar, and other extraterrestrial names and places have become commonplace on Earth. To the extent that we have absorbed something of the culture of the distant civilization, it is clear that we are no islands in the sky, but planets so similar that we cannot but relate to each other across parsecs of space.

"It's possible to explain all their actions but hellishly difficult to prognosticate them." With these words the Strugatskys hint at another overarching theme in their novel, that of ergodicity. An ergodic social system is one that has its own inner "inertia" which will dominate its behavior despite any amount of benign intervention from the outside. The authors are at pains to point out that, no matter how hard the progressors from Earth may strive to accelerate the evolution of the Arkanar society, these efforts are doomed to failure. Even the noblest intentions or the most advanced technologies cannot wrest an entire civilization away from its place and time in history.

But Hard to Be a God is not (or rather, not only) about grand theses viewed through the macroscope of history. Coming from a long line of Russian writers and intellectuals who had to suffer untold persecutions, the Strugatskys are always champions of the small, of the individual, of the downtrodden. Their book is a howl of protest against projects of social amelioration so sweeping that next to them the fate (read: death) of thousands or even millions of individuals might pale into insignificance. Just like Karel Capek insisted that "History is not made by great dreams but by the small needs of all honourable, somewhat dishonest and selfish little people, id est, of all people," the brothers propose that historical "isms" are too often an absolution of the sins committed in their name.

Scathingly, Rumata concludes that, when Don Reba's campaign of berserk terror has faded into the past, no one will remember the little people who fell victim to the battle-ax, while Reba...

(The entire section is 1,161 words.)