Hard to Be a God

Holy Order

Hard to be a God is a 1964 science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky set in their ‘Noon Universe (a fictional setting in the 22nd century). The novel follows Anton, an undercover operative from the future planet Earth, in his mission on an alien planet, that is populated by human beings, whose society has not advanced beyond the Middle Ages. The novel’s core idea is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be effective tools of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment.

The title ‘Hard to be a God’ refers to Anton’s (known by his alias ‘don Rumata’ throughout the book) perception of his precarious role as an observer on the planet, for while he has far more advance knowledge than the people around him, he is forbidden to assist too actively, as it would interfere with the natural progress of history. The book pays a lot of attention to the internal world of the main character, showing his own evolution from an emotionally uninvolved ‘observer’ to the person who rejects the blind belief in theory when confronted with the cruelty of real events.

The prologue is a scene from Anton’s childhood, when he sneaks away from his boarding school with his friends, Pashka and Anka, for a small role-play in the woods. It reveals that children live in a futuristic utopia, and the teenagers feel drawn to adventures on far-away planets, where Earth tries to stimulate progress by sending undercover agents (known as ‘observers’ as opposed to the Strugatsky brothers’ later ‘progressors’). The children find an abandoned road with a road sign reading ‘wrong way.’ Anton decides to go further and discovers remnants from World War II – a skeleton of German gunner chained to his machine gun. Later it emerges that both Anton and Pashka grow up to be observers on a distant planet, each based in one of two neighboring states: Anton in the Arkanar Kingdom and Pashka in the Irukan Duchy.

The actual story begins when don Rumata (Anton) visits the Drunken Den, a meeting place for observers working in the Lands Beyond the Strait. He has the current task of investigating the disappearance of a famed scientist, Doctor Budah, who may have been kidnapped by the Prime Minister of Arkanar, don Reba. Don Reba leads a campaign against all educated people in the kingdom, blaming them for all the calamities and misfortunes of the kingdom. Rumata feels alarmed, as the kingdom is rapidly morphing into a fascist police state. Apparently, all Rumata’s efforts concentrate on saving the most talented poets, writers, doctors and scientists and smuggling them abroad into neighboring countries. However, don Reba’s régime murders or breaks most of his native friends.

Rumata tries to convince his colleagues that a more active intervention must take place. However, don Goog (Pashka) and don Kondor (an elder and more experienced observer) feel that he has become too involved in native affairs and cannot see the historical perspective objectively. They remind him of the vices of overly active meddling with the history of the planet. Not convinced, but left with no other choice, Rumata agrees to continue his work.

Back in the city, Rumata tries pumping multiple people for information, including Vaga the Wheel, the head of local organized-crime. He also attends a soirée organized by don Reba’s lover, dona Okana, who is also rumored to be don Reba’s confidante. Rumata hopes to seduce her and pump her for information, however, he cannot hide the disgust of whoring himself out, and has to retreat. Rumata’s love-interest, a young commoner named Kira, who can’t stand the brutality and horrors of fascist Arkanar any longer, asks to stay in Rumata’s house. Rumata gladly agrees and promises to eventually take her with him to ‘a wonderful place far far away’ – meaning Earth, of whose existence Kira is unaware.

His other plans don’t go that smoothly. Life in Arkanar becomes less and less tolerable. Reba orders the torture and execution of dona Okana. Rumata – faced with the horrible consequences of his power-play – goes into a drunken stupor. Finally, left no other option, Rumata openly blames don Reba in front of the King Pitz VI for kidnapping a famous physician whom he (Rumata) had invited to tend to King’s maladies.

The ensuing events prove that don Reba has anticipated and prepared for this. After confessing that he, in fact, kidnapped Dr. Budah, fearing that the man is not to be trusted with King’s life, don Reba apologizes. He then brings forward a physician, introducing him as Dr. Budah. The next night, Rumata, whose turn it is to guard the royal prince and the only heir to the throne, is suddenly overwhelmed by dozens of Don Reba’s men, and while fighting for his life witnesses them murdering the prince. They are in turn massacred by monks, apparently members of the Holy Order, a militaristic religious sect. Defeated, Rumata is brought in front of don Reba.

Don Reba reveals that he has been watching don Rumata for some time – in fact he recognizes Rumata as an impostor – the real Rumata died a long time ago. However, don Reba realizes that there is some supernatural power behind Rumata. Rumata’s gold is of impossibly high quality and Rumata’s sword-fighting style is unheard of – and yet – he has never killed a single person while staying in Arkanar. Don Reba instinctively feels that killing Rumata may lead to retribution from Rumata’s presumed supernatural allies (he assumes Rumata to be a denizen of hell) and tries to forge a treaty with him.

During their conversation, Rumata finally understands the magnitude of Reba’s plotting. The presented physician was not Budah – the impostor was promised a position as the royal physician and was instructed to give the King a potion that was really a poison. The King died and the physician was executed for murdering the king. With the death of the royal prince during Rumata’s guard and the king dead at the hands of ‘Budah’ – a doctor summoned by Rumata against Reba’s wishes – Rumata can be easily blamed for staging a coup – in fact nobody would ever believe that he is not Reba’s accomplice. In the same time, the organized-crime group of Vaga the Wheel, secretly encouraged by don Reba, starts pillaging the city.

Don Reba then called in the Holy Order’s army, which quickly dispatched the criminals and the guardsmen alike, seizing the defenseless city with minimal losses. Reba – who may have served as a pawn of the Holy Order from the beginning – has become a new head of state, a magister of the Holy Order and bishop and governor of Arkanar. Shocked and infuriated, Rumata still holds his ground, and forms a non-aggression pact with Don Reba. He uses his new status to rescue the real Dr. Budah as well as his own friend Baron Pampa from prison. Around him, Arkanar succumbs to the Holy Order. As the last of his friends and allies die and suffer in the turmoil, Rumata acts with all haste to expedite the departure of Budah. Rumata returns to his home to discover his most loyal servant killed during a fight with a squad of Reba’s stormtroopers who had gained entrance into the house; a unit of the Holy Order then saved the rest of the household.

The three observers meet again to discuss the future. Both his colleagues feel tortured by remorse, however, there is nothing to be done now. Don Kondor suggests that Rumata act carefully, as it is clear that the rascal don Reba can go back on their deal at any moment. He particularly advises to send Rumata’s lover, Kira, to Earth with utmost speed, as ‘all that we hold dear should be either in our heart or on Earth.’

Before Budah’s departure, Rumata poses to him a theological question: ‘what would you ask a god, if he could come from sky and fulfill any of your wishes?’ After a long discussion – with Budah wishing and Rumata explaining the dire consequences of each of the wishes, Budah finally states that the only true gift a god could give the people is to leave them to their affairs. To this, Rumata replies that god cannot bear the sight of their suffering.

Budah crosses the border successfully and is saved. Feeling confident in his superior abilities and contacts in the military and the criminal world alike, Rumata plans to escape with Kira to Earth. However, a unit of soldiers (either the friends of Kira’s brother, or more likely, henchmen of don Reba) arrive in order to capture Kira. In the confusion a crossbowman shoots her through the window. She dies in Rumata’s arms. As the soldiers break the front door, Rumata, maddened with grief, unsheathes his swords and waits for them.

In the epilogue Pasha summarizes subsequent events to Anka: the space station went on alert when the house was attacked, however, they did not have chance to react. The Earthmen doused the entire city with a sleep-inducing gas, but before that Anton-Rumata had fought his way through the city towards the palace – bathing his way in blood – where he finally killed don Reba. Remembering their childhood, Pashka wonders whether that episode, when Anton decided to disobey ‘wrong way’ sign, and found a skeleton, had a deeper meaning – as going back to the past – to a medieval world – could bring nothing but trouble.

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