Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Hard to be a Soviet

It is a commonplace that science fiction tells you far more about the time and place it was written in than any potential vision of the future, but this was brought home to me recently by reading two very different and yet similar books. The first, Almuric, was written by Robert E Howard, writer of the Conan stories and part of H.P. Lovecraft's 'weird fiction' circle in the 1920s, while the second, Hard To Be A God, by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, was from a very different time and place - not the sunny, macho post-pioneer cowboy world of frontier 20s Texas, but instead the rather drabber and more circumscribed world of the 1960s Soviet Union. However, both deal with the idea of a visitor from a technological Earth being dropped into a more primitive culture and having to make his (and in both cases it is a he) way in it.

The stranger from our world, or a future version of it, journeying in a more 'primitive' culture is of course a well-worn trope of science fiction, running from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court (written back in 1889 as a satire on the romanticised Victorian pre-Raphaelite view of the Middle Ages) to Iaian M Banks' 1998 novel Inversions, but the treatments couldn't be more different. Almuric is a so-called 'planetary romance' in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series, which Almuric is, to be blunt, a poor pastiche of. However, for all of its alien (though generally humanoid) window dressing, its roots, like John Carter's, lie solidly in the 'white man has adventures in the wilds' genre that can be traced back to Kipling and Rider Haggard - The Man Who Would Be King and King Solomon's Mines. The main difference is that while the colonialist Boys' Own adventure stories tended to emphasise the primitiveness of African (and for Martian we can pretty much read African) tribes, Robert Howard was clearly much more sympathetic to what he viewed as the more 'authentic' nature of tribal existence, unmediated by the trappings of 'civilisation', and his hero, Esau Cairn, is another of his burly man-mountains in the mold of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and Francis X Gordon, who is out of place in his own world and finds the more existential challenges of the wilderness more to his taste. Indeed, there is more than a touch of the Western about Almuric, albeit the kind of Western that Hollywood didn't start making until the 1960s, where the Native Americans stop being simply villains - something akin to A Man Called Horse, for example, and Almuric is as much about Cairn's acceptance into the tribe he finds himself among as it is a story of rescuing women in peril and two-fisted action. Howard was growing up in a time and place when the Frontier was still within living memory and he clearly had a respect and fascination for tribal culture based on real world 'Indians', but his books are also something of a paean to that frontier world of his grandfathers, fast disappearing in his time as America industrialised. Like Cairn, he would rather have been transported into that world than have to put up with the new America of automobiles and office work.

Written from the vantage point of the post-colonial era, Hard To Be A God has no such romantic view of 'primitive' cultures. Life in the Arkanar Kingdom on a world light years from Earth is nasty, brutish and short, and fastidious Russian scientist Anton, posing as nobleman Don Rumata, is continually repelled by its smells and cruelties at the same time that he worries that they are rubbing off on him. Anton is a product of a socialist, utopian future Earth (the so-called Noon Universe, which the Strugatskys used as the setting for several novels), which is what we would now call a 'post scarcity society', and a model for Gene Rodenberry's benevolent United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, and more particularly The Culture from Iaian M Banks' stories. But its sociologists, working under cover while trying to gently push the medieval society of Arkanar towards a Renaissance, cannot work out why their wonderfully Soviet-sounding 'Basis Theory' does not seem to account for Arkanar's resistance to progress, which causes the society to move backwards through a fascistic authoritarian coup into a theocratic dictatorship. All they can do is save a few philosophers, poets and intellectuals from the pyres. The book is dense with questions about free will, human nature, and the responsibility of more advanced societies towards those less so - allow them to make the same mistakes that we did, or intervene and remove their own sense of agency? But it also serves as a kind of allegory of Stalinism and the chilling effect it had on the intellectual life of the USSR; the book was published in 1964, when Kruschev was still in the process of 'de-Stalinising' the country. Like real life (and very much unlike Almuric), Hard To Be A God offers no easy answers to the questions it poses, but it may be one of the most interesting SF books I have read in a very long time.