Hard to Be a God interested me, for I thoroughly enjoyed the two other novels by the Strugatsky brothers I had read previously. One for this project, Definitely, Maybe, and one for fun, Roadside Picnic. This book was recommended to me by a professor of mine, and other than her good word I had no idea what to expect. It did not disappoint in terms of creativity—there is very little else that I can recall that is so seeped in a fantasy world while also being deliberately science fiction.
In this fictional world, Earth has realized collectively that communism is effective, possible, and agreeable. Earth is now populated with communards, those educated in such a utopia. Hard to Be a God asks if it is possible for one raised on a utopia to resist base human urges to injustice. Can a society outgrow human reactions such as rage? Or the lure of revenge? If one is to look solely at Anton, the main character who masquerades as Don Rumata, the answer is no.
I am intrigued partially due to my previous post on the Strugatsky brothers. In Definitely, Maybe, I praised the writing of the main character’s wife, Irina. Similarly, I felt the main character of Roadside Picnic had a well-written wife, Guta, and an interesting daughter, Monkey. Hard to Be a God similarly has unique female characters, however, all as a sexual prospect for the main character, Anton.
The first woman we are introduced to is actually a girl, Anton’s childhood friend, Anka. He, along with his friend Pashka, seemingly has a crush on her. The novel shifts from his childhood to adulthood, where he is now stationed on the planet that the children pretended to be on while playing. While under the disguise of Don Rumata, he attempts and succeeds to seduce the beautiful Doña Ocana, though ultimately rejects her due to her time-typical uncleanliness. And then there is Kira, a beautiful young redhead whom Anton wishes to usher away from her harsh world.
The book begins with a display of how Anton’s romantic feelings swayed his judgement. He goes past a “do not enter” sign after Anka wonders what could lie behind and privately was glad that she rebuked Pashka for using “Anechka” for her without approval. In the same fashion, it ends with a large emotional outburst from Anton, stemming from romantic anguish. In an attempt to be a good communard, Anton stopped himself (as Rumata) from interacting directly to suppress the fascist state that was rising in the Arkanar Kingdom. Due to this negligence, violence breaks throughout the city, and his lover, Kira, is slain.
These women matter less for who they are as people, and more as symbols for Anton’s humanity.
I would not go as far to say, however, that this detracts from the depiction of characters in this book, or somehow lessens the female characters in their other books. Many characters in Hard to Be a God are simply avenues to explore Anton’s reactions. For instance, the main antagonist, Don Reba, is not particularly complex. He is an evil man, used by the narrative for Anton to react to evil.
Through the use of these women, Hard to Be a God is an exercise in the struggle between human patience and the desperation of human passion. As the title suggests, it is certainly hard for human to be divine if they can be so swayed be external stimuli. It is not simply hard to be a god on this planet Anton and his colleagues have infiltrated, but it is also hard to be a godly member of a utopian society while saddled with human emotions. To an extent, it is Anton’s penchant for romantic feelings that stopped him from properly performing his “duty”, as well as a distaste for injustice. In the same way that other sci-fi novels discuss the dangers of romanticizing emotionless robots, Hard to Be a God exposes the risk of idolizing the all-knowing, all-powerful future human. What makes us human would be folly to try to ignore, and the reality of pushing the utopian’s will onto another culture might end in the way of Anton’s: In blood and disaster. This rhetoric can easily be applied to other areas of critique, such as postcolonialism.
Anton’s sexuality and desire perhaps caused his “failure”, but that is only in the regard that his rampage was a failure. Perhaps, instead, it was a failure of future Earth’s for attempting such a modification of the world in the first place. The Strugatsky brother’s use of sexuality and the portrayal of the women in Hard to Be a God may seem flat or surface level, but ultimately their presence aids the novel’s thesis in a way that could not be done otherwise. While Irina, Guta, and Monkey may all have more things going on in their lives and personalities, Kira, Anka, and even Doña Ocana are still irreplaceable to Hard to Be a God.