Posts Tagged ‘Arkady & Boris Strugatsky’

China Mieville: The City and the City

May 11, 2015

9780330534192I really enjoyed this novel when I first read it five years ago. It scrambled my brain then, and a re-read hoping to make things a bit clearer produced the same effect, as well as convincing me at the end that it really is brilliant.

It’s a detective story/ thriller with a science fiction twist to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything like Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, for example. Mieville sets the story in a city, recognisably East European or Balkans post 1989, but with a difference: it’s two cities in two different countries, but which in some way overlap in places in time and space, occupying the same spaces whilst alongside each other. And if that isn’t clear, then perhaps you’ll understand why I say it scrambled my brain, and perhaps it will be clearer if you read it… or not. Contact via the interstices must not happen, and such breaches are ruthlessly dealt with.

At one level you find political allegories linking to our world and think of Palestine/ Israel, or Croatia/ Serbia perhaps, but only fleetingly. There are also hints that the confusion is the result of some alien presence many centuries ago – reminiscent of the chaos left behind in the Zone in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker. Then I found myself reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish civilisation seeding planets across the galaxy.

A lone detective investigates a murder which is not what it seems, and involves the spaces between; he has a helpful Watson-type female companion in the first half of the story, but then the roles swap when the investigation takes him to the other country and he must play second fiddle to his detective chaperone from the other national crime squad.

It’s fast-paced, but the extra concepts make the plot more complex and add further twists and complications; out hero eventually ends up in breach of the rules, where he discovers that, even in the spaces in-between, things are not what they seem, and his life is changed for ever as a result. Not all the loose ends are tied up – they rarely are in a novel like this – but the sheer originality of the plot and the ideas blow you away. I’ve written about another of his novels, Embassytown, here, and he’s definitely on my watch list.

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Arkady & Boris Strugatsky: Hard To Be A God

February 1, 2015

51igRYl2qoL._AA160_ A14HOeYaWZL._SX75_CR,0,0,75,75_This Soviet science fiction novel, just like Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, starts from what now appears a very strange premise: utopia has been established on Earth, and it is a soviet utopia. That is, the whole planet flourishes happily under communism. Unlike Andromeda, which presents and explores this utopia in some detail, in Hard to be a God, we only get fleeting references back to the home planet, for this novel is set on a violent, savage, feudal world.

A group of observers from Earth, who are also participants in and therefore members of this primitive society and its barbaric feudal wars, slaughters and power struggles, confront the problem of how such a world might be nudged towards more civilised behaviours. The observers, and indeed the authors themselves, reflect on parallels with various moments in Earth’s history. Their knowledge, technology and weaponry is far advanced compared with that of the planet, so their status, though concealed, is god-like, and presents them with serious moral dilemmas and conflicts.

We are not in Ray Bradbury’s ‘butterfly effect’ territory, where absolutely no interference is permitted for fear it irrevocably change the future pattern of events. Rather, given the observers’ superior knowledge, what should be done for the best? And, god-like though their powers may feel, they cannot predict the future or potential outcomes of their actions.

The premise struck me as quite similar to the Ekumen of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish novels and stories, where, again, observers from more advanced worlds are present on other planets: the idea occurred to Soviet and American writers at about the same time. Let’s hear it for serendipity.

Next question is, of course, what if that happens – or did happen at some point in the past – to us on planet Earth? And also, what if someone realised, or worked out in some way, that this was going on? As one of the characters in Hard to be a God actually does; another has at some point been told, but does not really understand what it means.

The novel develops rather slowly and it took a while to see where the writers were heading with their idea: I thought it was just going to be mediaeval sword and sorcery nonsense and would have given up had I not read and enjoyed other of the Strugatsky’s novels and known that there would be something worth waiting for. I was not disappointed: the ending is powerful, the framing carefully done and the overall effect very thought-provoking.

I gather that the story has been filmed: thanks to Jack Avery for the nudge to read the book, which had languished for 30 years on my bookshelf…

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