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The Russian Sci-Fi Novel That Could Have Gotten Its Authors Killed

The Russian Sci-Fi Novel That Could Have Gotten Its Authors Killed

9781613735961In Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Doomed City, Andrei Voronin is a former astronomer plucked from Earth and inserted into the vast, vague Experiment, somewhere other than Earth, in a time and space removed from the rules of reality. The inhabitants of this world come from Russia, America, Japan, Sweden, and beyond, but most notably, they all hail from different time periods between the 1940s and the 1970s.

The world of the Experiment doesn’t obey the laws of nature. The sun is a lamp turned on and off by the overseers. People from different times and places can communicate in a common language. Faced with these surreal circumstances, many of the characters stop trying to figure out what’s going on. In the beginning, the astronomer Voronin recites a common refrain, “The Experiment is the Experiment,” resigning himself to an “it is what it is” attitude. But that sort of mental obedience is unsustainable even in this outrageous setting.

As Voronin moves from one profession to another, he builds and demolishes relationships, swept along by a tide of rules and personalities stronger than his own will. After leading a disastrous expedition into the unknown lands beyond the safety of civilization on behalf of the city’s revolutionary-leader-turned-dictator, Voronin is finally forced to confront his predicament:

All my life I’ve been rushing somewhere—like a stupid fool, I just can’t stay still … And the worst thing is there’s no meaning to it any longer. There always used to be some kind of meaning. Even if it was absolutely paltry, maybe even totally screwy, but even so, whenever I was getting beaten, let’s say on the face, I could always tell myself: it’s OK, it’s in the name of … it’s the struggle…

This belief in a higher, unknowable plan as a motivator, soothing agent, and basis for one’s entire worldview is the structure on which the novel is built. The Strugatskys—arguably Russia’s best-known science fiction writers and authors of the popular Roadside Picnicwere quite familiar with the power belief and hope have to influence the masses.

In the foreword, Dmitry Glukhovsky explains that the Strugatskys, writing this story in the tense atmosphere of Leningrad, Russia in the early 1970s, recognized that the Russian people stoically faced oppression and deprivation in the belief that they were all “simply standing in line for a happy tomorrow,” clinging to the notion that the “end was simply too great and magnificent to ponder over the means.”

The Strugatskys infuse their protagonist Voronin with this same reasoning, and his eventual dissolution mirrors that of the Russian people, who came to realize they were “standing in the wrong queue.” In a time when people were killed by the government for the slightest dissension—whether through political action or even just perceived thoughts—against the Communist worldview, The Doomed City would have been a death sentence not only for the writers, but any editor or publisher who touched it.

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Given our perspective, protected from such persecution by our right to free speech, it can be difficult to imagine such dramatic reactions to a book. But the reality of being imprisoned and killed for writing this story was such a real possibility for the brothers that for many years they only had one typed copy of the story that they would read aloud to only their closest friends. Eventually the brothers were able to publish the book nearly 20 years after they wrote it, following the political restructuring known as perestroika.

At the heart of this fantastical, challenging novel, now published for the first time in English, we see the struggle of one man thrown into a huge, unknowable machine, trying to make sense of it all. That yearning for meaning in one’s life—the ways it shifts and bends as we age and learn and grow—is something we can all relate to. In the end, the words spoken by Uncle Yura, Voronin’s trusted fellow countryman, can apply to us all, no matter our nationality, even 50 years after the Strugatskys put pen to page: “A Russian has to believe in something, don’t you see, brother? If he doesn’t believe in anything, there’ll be nothing left but vodka.”

Fiction – Science Fiction
The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Sturgatsky
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
Chicago Review Press
Published July 1, 2016

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