Friday, December 15, 2017

THE DOOMED CITY, Soviet-era scary predictive fiction

(tr. Andrew Bromfield)
Chicago Review Press
$13.00 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are widely considered the greatest of Russian science fiction masters, and their most famous work, Roadside Picnic, has enjoyed great popularity worldwide. Yet the novel that was their own favorite, and that readers worldwide have acclaimed as their magnum opus, has never before been published in English. The Doomed City was so politically risky that the Strugatsky brothers kept its existence a complete secret even from their best friends for sixteen years after its completion in 1972. It was only published in Russia in the late 1980s, the last of their works to see publication.

It was translated into a host of major European languages, and now appears in English in a major new translation by acclaimed translator Andrew Bromfield. The Doomed City is set in an experimental city bordered by an abyss on one side and an impossibly high wall on the other. Its sole inhabitants are people who were plucked from Earth's history and left to govern themselves under conditions established by Mentors whose purpose seems inscrutable. Andrei Voronin, a young astronomer plucked from Leningrad in the 1950s, is a diehard believer in the Experiment, even though he's now a garbage collector. And as increasingly nightmarish scenarios begin to affect the city, he rises through the political hierarchy, with devastating effect.


My Review: I'll say this about the Strugatsky Brothers: They had *fearless* imaginations, tempered by fearful souls that quailed before publishing this nihilistic, absurdist, deeply subversive book in Soviet Russia. Completed in 1972, shelved until 1989, and published in a professional English translation only in 2016, this stateless satirical look at the amoral roots of True Belief in a System reads as well in 45's Amurruhkuh as it did in Brezhnev's USSR.

Voronin, our astronomer-turned-state-official, is an ideal. He is every system's beloved child, the True Believer who makes excuses and finds reasons instead of asking, "...the fuck...? Are they kidding with this?" As experience teaches him to question, he sidesteps. He changes his beliefs without batting an eyelash, a clue to his essential hollowness. For all that he is an eager participant in all the City's shifts of philosophical direction, the reason he can do so remains unexamined: He's complicit in the acts of the State, not driven by a desire to enact a Vision. His lack of an inner compass is rather amusing given that almost the entire novel is an internal monologue. I myownself found this a delightful twist, enjoying the musings of a centerless man as irony. Others might find that conceit wearing.

The things I found wearing were the astoundingly sexist and anti-Semitic attitudes of the characters (and, I suspect, the authors as well). There are horrible words used in connection with the two women I can recall at all...they might indeed have been the only two women mentioned, for I can summon no other woman to mind...and Katzman's presence in stereotypical fashion was not obviously played for ironic effect.

Given my track record for objecting to these facets of other older books, why am I giving this one the Full Five? Because, my friends, the story of a city between an unscalable wall and an endless abyss recommends itself to me as a parable for all of human life, and the awful attitudes of the PoV character are part and parcel of the falling, failing world that the Strugatskys were lampooning, dissecting, parodying, itemizing. These facets seem to me, even though I suspect and believe they were presented unironically, to be so much of a piece with the Experiment being ridiculed that I could easily make them objects of fun. Nonetheless they are there and merit mention lest an unsuspecting reader trip over them and feel blindsided.

Boris Strugatsky, in his Afterword, says it all and best:
How to live in conditions of ideological vacuum? How and what for? In my opinion this question remains highly relevant even today—which is why City, despite being so vehemently politicized and so categorically of its own time, potentially remains of interest to the present-day reader—provided that this reader has any interest at all in problems of this kind.

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