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21 November 2018

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Hard to Be a God

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Chicago Review Press, $19.95)

Following her wonderful translation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, Olena Bormashenko has now brought another of the scifi brothers’ classic novels into English (this one recently put onto film after a very long production).

In this “prime directive” driven novel, the protagonist, Anton (masquerading as Don Rumata), is sent to live on a distant medieval kingdom, Arkanar. He is allowed to observe and participate, even to influence events in that world (possibly to introduce peace if possible), fully inhabiting his role as a colorful and dangerous rogue, but he cannot directly interfere, cannot kill. He defends intellectuals from the evil prime minister, Don Reba, but the limits on his brief mean he cannot stop the tide of grey totalitarianism that he sees coming but the other Earth observers do not.

Full of the sort of “between the lines” allusions that Soviet era scifi was so gifted at delivering, Hard to Be a God is a classic of twentieth century Russian literature. Bormashenko’s fine translation also includes an afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the challenges of the novel’s crafting in the USSR of the 1960s.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2014