The Doomed City.

Having finished Tatyana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx; see this post) and been underwhelmed, I thought I’d take a break from chronology and read a Strugatsky novel I’d been saving, Град обреченный (translated by Andrew Bromfield as The Doomed City). Sadly, I was again underwhelmed, and as I wrote to Lisa Hayden, it didn’t even seem like that much of a change: “It has remarkable similarities to Кысь — a thoroughly nasty, stupid, amoral protagonist rises from (literally) the muck to become chief assistant to a fascist dictator after a coup.” In this case, the action is set in what Dmitry Glukhovsky, who wrote the introduction to the translation (and says it’s his favorite Strugatsky novel), calls “a hermetic world that is located outside time and space” — though Glukhovsky also thinks the city of the novel is basically a warped-mirror version of Leningrad, where the authors were from. Marat Grinberg, in his LARB review of the translation, provides a useful summary:

The plot takes place in a city with “infinite Void to the West and infinite Solidity to the east,” where the sun is extinguished and reignited at will. Some unknown power is conducting an experiment, importing people from all over the post–World War II globe. The city constitutes a matrix, an explicit parallel mirror dimension to the Soviet Union. It also functions as a Tower of Babel: Russians, Germans, Chinese, Americans, and others labor there together, each speaking their own language yet somehow understanding each other. This linguistic miracle, however, does not at all translate into other spheres of the city’s life, which is gray, restrictive, secretive, and operating under empty slogans. This speculative setting allows the Strugatskys to condense different Soviet epochs — the Stalinist period, the liberal Thaw period, and the stagnation period of the 1970s — into one place and time. Throughout the novel these periods do not follow each other chronologically but are jumbled up and interwoven, symbolizing the unchanging vicious circle of Soviet history.

The city’s residents are assigned jobs and professions, which they must change on a regular basis. One resident, Andrei Voronin, acts as the protagonist of the novel, a young astronomer (like Boris Strugatsky) plucked from Leningrad in 1951, six years after the end of the war and two years before Stalin’s death. A janitor in the first part, he moves up the social ladder throughout the text: from a prosecutor, to chief editor of the city newspaper, to senior counselor in the new regime, installed by Nazi Officer Fritz Heiger. In his memoirs, Boris Strugatsky masterfully sums up the essence of Andrei’s journey as “a Komsomol Leninist-Stalinist, a thoroughgoing communist true believer, a champion of the happiness of the common people, who evolves with such spontaneous ease into a top-ranking bureaucrat, a smooth, lordly, self-indulgent, petty chieftain and arbiter of human destiny” as well as “the comrade-in-arms of an inveterate Hitlerite Nazi,” indicating “how much these apparent ideological antagonists turn out to have in common.”

(I got the Grinberg link from Lisa’s review; she was similarly underwhelmed. I don’t know why the translator used “Heiger” for Гейгер — surely Geiger is more plausible.) That may make it sound like an interesting book, and indeed it is, but for me it wasn’t much fun to read — first because it was so unrelentingly grim and the only character who was even marginally likable was Izya, then because not only were the few women characters only there as sex objects (sadly typical for the Strugatskys, who do not seem to have considered women quite human) but most of the characters were crude ethnic stereotypes (the Chinese, of course named Wang [Ван], is stoic; the Korean, of course named Park [Пак], is inscrutable; the Italian runs away from battle, the Germans are Nazis… you get the idea), and finally because I gradually realized that none of the weirdnesses — the artificial sun, the abyss, the wall, the Mentors, the baboons, the moving building, the chess game with an unnamed Stalin, the moving statue, etc. etc. — were ever going to be explained, nor could they be. They were some sort of allegory, and I hate allegory. Naturally, the language thing especially annoyed me; here’s the relevant passage:

Remember, you all used to ask me how it was possible for people of different nationalities to speak the same language without even suspecting it. Remember how it amazed you, how you were perplexed and even scared, how you tried to prove to Kenshi that he spoke Russian, and Kenshi tried to prove to you that it was you who spoke Japanese, remember? And now you’re used to it, so these questions don’t even cross your mind. One of the conditions of the Experiment. The Experiment is the Experiment, what else can I say?

Помните, вы все у меня допытывались, как это так: люди разных национальностей, а говорят все на одном языке и даже не подозревают этого. Помните, как это вас поражало, как вы недоумевали, пугались даже, как доказывали Кэнси, что он говорит по-русски, а Кэнси доказывал вам, что это вы сами говорите по-японски, помните? А теперь вот вы привыкли, теперь эти вопросы вам и в голову не приходят. Одно из условий Эксперимента. Эксперимент есть Эксперимент, что здесь еще можно сказать?

That’s not science fiction, that’s the kind of bullshit non-sf authors come up with when they want an effect and don’t want to have to think about how to produce it plausibly. And the reader gets very sick of that catchphrase “the Experiment is the Experiment,” which is trotted out constantly; needless to say, we never find out what the Experiment is or who’s carrying it out. The final few paragraphs suggest that maybe it was All a Dream, or maybe it was just the prelude to a Neverending Adventure, or some other lazy cliche. I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.

But since I’ve now read fifteen Strugatsky novels and probably won’t read any more in the foreseeable future (though I may eventually get around to some of their less notable books), this seems like a good occasion to sum up my thoughts on them. I was lucky to be introduced to them via Попытка к бегству (Escape Attempt; thanks, MOCKBA/Dmitry!), an early work that’s still one of my favorites, and my follow-up was what is still my favorite (as it is of most readers), Трудно быть богом (Hard to Be a God), which I wrote about too briefly here — its combination of intriguing characters, gripping plot, and a fully realized “medieval” alien world is unmatched. That’s on its own in first place; on a slightly lower rung is Пикник на обочине (Roadside Picnic), with its mesmerizingly strange alien Zone (it was filmed as Stalker); then come Попытка к бегству (Escape Attempt), Улитка на склоне (Snail on the Slope), Гадкие лебеди (Ugly Swans) and the novel into which it was later inserted (Хромая судьба [Lame Fate]), За миллиард лет до конца света (One Billion Years to the End of the World), and the Maxim Kammerer novels: Обитаемый остров (The inhabited island, translated as Prisoners of Power), Жук в муравейнике (Beetle in the Anthill), and Волны гасят ветер (Waves extinguish the wind, translated as The Time Wanderers). The rest are fun, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to someone wanting to get the Strugatsky experience.

I think the curse of the Strugatskys is their obsession with the Soviet experiment, first as acolytes (their early work presumes a happy and successful communist future), then as skeptics (more and more focus on human nature keeping that future from working), and finally as embittered naysayers (though never dissidents). Their best work was done in that middle period, when they were trying to combine sf tropes with progressive ideals while trying to deal with doubts; by the time of The Doomed City they didn’t give a damn about anything but pouring out their naysaying. (They knew when they were writing it, in 1969-72, that it was unpublishable, probably in their lifetimes and maybe ever; even under perestroika, it was surprising when it appeared in the magazine Neva in 1988-89.) They were, of course, right to say nay, but I wish they’d done things differently, dialing down the allegory and dialing up the plausibility. As it is, it’s probably not a book I’ll revisit.


  1. I forgot to mention that the title is from this 1914 Nikolai Roerich painting; since it’s Church Slavic, the second word is pronounced /obrechénnyi/ (no ё).

  2. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Since everything reminds me of Borges (as it’s supposed to), and since I astonishingly seem not to have provided this quotation here before, let me brighten this underwhelmed thread with his take on the original tale of the doomed city.

    The plot of the Iliad is really, in itself, not a charming one—the idea of the hero sulking in his tent, feeling that the king has dealt unjustly with him, and then taking up the war as a private feud because his friend has been killed, and afterwards selling the dead man he has killed to the man’s father.

    But perhaps (I may have said this before; I am sure I have), perhaps the intentions of the poet are not that important.

    What is important nowadays is that although Homer might have thought he was telling that story, he was actually telling something far finer: the story of a man, a hero, who is attacking a city he knows he will never conquer, who knows he will die before it falls; and the still more stirring tale of men defending a city whose doom is already known to them, a city that is already in flames.

    I think this is the real subject of the Iliad.

    And, in fact, men have always felt that the Trojans were the real heroes.

    We think of Virgil, but we may also think of Snorri Sturluson, who, in his Younger Edda, wrote that Odin—the Odin of the Saxons, the god—was the son of Priam and the brother of Hector.

    Men have sought kinship with the defeated Trojans, and not with the victorious Greeks.

    This is perhaps because there is a dignity in defeat that hardly belongs to victory.

    Borges’s original delivery starts at 03:50 here:

  3. That’s an excellent and apposite quote, thanks. (Needless to say, Borges is the actual author of this blog, as of most things.)

  4. Unlike Lovecraft, I am not usually a big fan of Roerich’s artworks. That one I find really striking though. The snake—and the associated scale ambiguity—makes it extremely creepy.

    As I have intoned many times, when creating fiction (especially weird fiction) it is not that difficult to make things seem deep and mysterious if you don’t intend to explain anything anyway. Some people like enigmas just for enigmas’ sakes, but most readers or viewers seem to want to have some of the strangeness explained to them by the end of a work. And such explanations are almost inevitably going to be, most of the time, letdowns. So I can understand why some authors decide that it’s better not even to try to make sense of the worlds they have created. (The repeated mention of “the Experiment” in the post made me think of Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment. By the end, the reader and the protagonist do learn what the titular experiment is about, but it would have made a better story if the mystery had never been resolved—since it comes down to finding a purely fictional solution to a purely fictional problem,* ipso facto something that the reader will have no investment in. However, that’s certainly not the only problem with The Dosadi Experiment.)

    * It comes to mind that that’s also what makes the ending of Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers a failure, in spite of book’s excellent cyberpunk worldbuilding.

  5. And such explanations are almost inevitably going to be, most of the time, letdowns.

    Very true, which is why it’s best (in my opinion) to hew as closely as possible to readily explainable world-building. Once you start tossing in random baboons and moving buildings and whatnot, it’s like (as the man said about free verse) playing tennis without the net.

  6. @languagehat: I don’t think it’s necessary to explain everything in a logical way; some mysteries—some wandering baboons, perhaps—are acceptable, if enough things are ultimately made clear. Naturally, it helps more to explain the plot-critical enigmas than the more peripheral ones. I think of Gene Wolfe as an author who leaves a lot of things completely mysterious, yet he does eventually give the reader enough information to make sense of most of the important things that have happened. He toes close to the line in this regard, but I think he pulls it off—although there are undoubtedly some readers who would disagree. For contrast, there is the more recent British science fantasy author China Mieville, whose writing, I think, falls on the other side of that line; Mieville does explain a few things, but he also leaves multiple hugely-plot-relevant elements of his setting as complete enigmas.

    @Giacomo Ponzetto: You did quote that before, actually, but finding the link led me to an interesting discussion from last year.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    I’m just now reading Picknick am Wegesrand, my first go at the Brothers Strugatzkov. The drunken shenanigans are boring. I would have tossed it aside, wäre it not for the afterword by Lem, a survey of sci-fi plotting from War of the Worlds on. It is relevant to the present discussion about explaining everything.

    Still it’s a regression to high school homework. I feel like I have to turn in a book review by Monday.

    They say Lem wrote it for the German edition.

  8. in my theater world, we call them “umbrella/sewing machine problems”, from the dada juxtaposition. you want the audience to be asking questions about the relationship between the umbrella and the sewing machine, not trying to figure out whether what they’re seeing is an umbrella, a folded kite, or a lacrosse stick.

  9. I like The Doomed City (like almost all Strugatskys) though I agree with all that Hat writes. These things just don’t bother me (except very superficial treatment of women characters, indeed Strugatsky’s blind spot. I don’t know whether their peripheral interest in women is due to realisation that they cannot create a compelling woman character or because of the old timey belief that it’s the man’s role to go out into the world and change and explore it. Indeed, the only reasonably well developed woman character in Strugatskys whole ouever I can think of off top of my head is Maya Glumova who never got the central billing) Think about all the strangeness as a dream world, for example. I find it an interesting story with interesting characters, well written. And the whole thing with the Experiment and then, of course, Experiment on Experimenters is in my mind a satire on “building Communism” which was an excuse for every Soviet idiocy. Or at least that’s how I see it.

  10. Ok, I looked up Boris Strugatsky’s “Comments” (not sure how to translate it, not sure there is an English translation. Russian is Комментарии к пройденному), which were written with the help of their diaries. That’s what he writes about DC (DeepL, with my help)

    “The main purpose of the novel is not at first, but gradually formed in this approximate way: to show how under the pressure of life circumstances radically changes the worldview of a young man, how he passes from the position of a hard-core fanatic to the state of a man, as if hung in the airless ideological space, without any support under his feet. The life path close to the authors’ which seemed to them not only dramatic, but also instructive. After all, an entire generation walked this path between 1940 and 1985.

    “How to live in an ideological vacuum? How and why?” It seems to me that these questions remain relevant today [2001], too – the reason why Grad…, despite all its overwhelming politicization and being indomitably fit-for-purpose, is still able to interest the modern reader – if he, the reader, is interested in problems of this kind at all.”

    As you see, not quite what I take from it…

  11. And the whole thing with the Experiment and then, of course, Experiment on Experimenters is in my mind a satire on “building Communism” which was an excuse for every Soviet idiocy.

    Sure, but I have no interest in that kind of thing. Once the idea of “building Communism” has failed for all to see, who cares about a satire on it? Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote satires on the tsarist state of his day, but people don’t read them because they do a good job of sticking it to Governor So-and-So but because they’re well written and tell good stories. The Strugatskys did a good job of that in many of their books, but not (to my mind) in this one. When a writer decides to be a prophet and/or political activist, it doesn’t end well.

  12. No objections from me on this point. I am just stating what all this talk of Experiment means. But the City is fascinating in its own right without the explanation why it is that way. I just think that it is a well written good story and you don’t. No explanations are necessary! For example, I have no idea why the world of One hundred years of solitude is the way it is. It is just an engaging writing. My best guess, it is just Colombian history read while drinking mate and chewing on coca leaves. And I don’t do any of the three.

    And if I can make a suggestion for Mr. Clayton above, don’t read Strugatskys if it feels like homework. It should be fun. They are not a profound, essential writer. The way you might feel compelled to read Shakespeare or Joyce (or Tolstoy) even if it is not what you are into.

  13. Agreed! (And if you don’t like drunken shenanigans, Russian literature may not be for you…)

  14. Stu Clayton says

    I rarely bother with a Great Book if I don’t get anything out of the first 10 pages or so. Sometimes I change my mind later, of course.

    Most prominent in my memory was tossing aside a second-hand copy of Das Kalkwerk in the 70s, when my German was little better than my Korean now. Later I became a Bernhard fan – but from my own experience I can well imagine why many people find his work maddening and depressing. I can’t even explain why I myself like him so much.

    My point with Picnic was that Lem’s afterword gave a perspective on sci-fi writing I hadn’t come across before. I read it soon after starting the novel itself.

    Once you get into a homework assignment, it can become more interesting than it first seemed.

    Next up is Solaris. No, I do not expect to change my mind about Le Guin.

  15. David Marjanović says

    this 1914 Nikolai Roerich painting

    “The Doomed City is a painting by Nikolai Roerich which was uploaded on October 14th, 2017.”

    Well, that’s… a sentence.

  16. Later I became a Bernhard fan – but from my own experience I can well imagine why many people find his work maddening and depressing. I can’t even explain why I myself like him so much.

    I haven’t read a whole lot of Bernhard, but I find him bitterly hilarious at times, in contrast to Sebald, who is consistently dour (and I like Sebald).

    All my book are in boxes at the moment, but there’s a throwaway scene in one of Bernhard’s books (one of the short ones) where the narrator and a companion are in a seedy cafe in a town forgotten by time, when a crowd of schoolchildren come in. I can’t recall the exact wording, but the narrator says something like “we watched these children eat their cakes and thought with horror of the adults they would one day become.” Now that made laugh, which I rarely do when reading.

  17. January First-of-May says

    and probably won’t read any more in the foreseeable future

    If you hadn’t gotten around to Monday Begins On Saturday yet (it’s not on the list so I don’t know if you had), I very much recommend that you should (eventually) read it. It’s a classic for a reason.

    (Now that I think about it, it’s also one of the very few Strugatsky novels – possibly the only one – that isn’t excessively depressing.)

  18. I do not know how to draw the line between a novel’s flaws (what I do not like about a given novel) and the problem of optics (the novel is written by and for people who live in a different world). The problem of optics does seem to exist. You want to be able to enjoy a novel about the Earth written by extra-terrestrials rather then just get irritated with how earthlings are “unrealistic”.

  19. If you hadn’t gotten around to Monday Begins On Saturday yet (it’s not on the list so I don’t know if you had), I very much recommend that you should (eventually) read it. It’s a classic for a reason.

    I have in fact read it, and I enjoyed it but did not feel that vast love that most Russians seem to (I read somewhere that it is, or was back in the day, the most popular of their books). I got the fairytale references and enjoyed the satire, but it just felt flimsy to me in a way that the books I listed don’t. Same goes for Tale of the Troika, which is sort of a sequel.

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