The Strugatsky brothers, Boris and Arkady, were celebrated Soviet science fiction writers; their best-known book, Roadside Picnic inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Many of their novels have been available in English for years, but The Doomed City, audaciously dystopian, finished secretly in 1972, and widely thought to be their greatest novel, is out for the first time in English, using Andrew Bromfield’s skilful translation. The book was so controversial that the Russian version did not see the light of day until the more tolerant perestroika era of the late 1980s.
Andrei Voronin, whose everyman viewpoint the novel follows, is a 1950s Soviet astronomer; he finds himself in a mysterious sociological “Experiment” with a selection of other people from different countries and decades. All these characters have been abducted and assembled in the eponymous city, as part of an endless, incomprehensible experiment with their lives: a metaphor for Soviet communism.
The characters live in a menacing Truman Show-style construct, an enclosed space, between a wall and a void, with a sun that can be switched on and off. The novel predominantly follows Voronin’s evolution, as a communist true believer, from garbage collector to “top‐ranking bureaucrat … and arbiter of human destiny.” This trajectory was what made the book so dangerous when it was first written. Voronin gradually becomes a man suspended “in an airless ideological void.” This, Boris Strugatsky writes, in the novel’s late 1980s afterword, was a trajectory the authors and many like them were familiar with: the path of an entire post-war generation.
Overseeing the Experiment are the equally mysterious “Mentors”; some characters believe their captors are aliens, watching them as “in a fish tank or … zoological garden”. Voronin is convinced that they are “human beings from a different dimension”, benevolently aiming “to create a model of communist society”; others that they are future colonizers of earth, studying the psychology of their slaves. The characters spend hours debating the nature of the Experiment and the city they find themselves in, arguing about war and politics, morality and religion.
In places the novel feels like a surreal dream; elsewhere it is a thinly veiled account of bureaucratic reality. An old man compares their city to scenes by Hieronymus Bosch and Dante; their discussions produce some of the novel’s comic moments: “You’re a Manichean!” the old man interrupts. “I’m a Komsomol member!” Voronin protests.
Russia has a rich tradition of philosophical novelists, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Viktor Pelevin, but The Doomed City also prefigures global trends in speculative fiction. The pioneering writers built up an agenda of moral, social, and ethical problems, which has influenced the genre since, from Star Trek’s dilemma-based episodes to Ursula K. Le Guin’s explorations. The subjects’ helplessness and the chillingly allegorical quality of their situation is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s unfortunate clone-students in Never Let Me Go. At other times, with the violent streets full of inexplicable baboons or “shark wolves” and controlled by sinister overlords, the scenarios resemble Suzanne Collins’ dystopian fantasy series, The Hunger Games.
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