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The more I think about this book the better it gets.
It starts rather abruptly with a prologue that shows three youngsters wandering around a wilderness to no real purpose. The real function of this prologue isn't clear until the epilogue...
Then suddenly everyone has grown up and we're on a different planet which is remarkably like Earth (same ecology, humans live in a feudal society with mediaeval technology) a bizarre coincidence that is never addressed. We also learn that back home on Earth a genuinely Communist society has taken root globally and technology has advanced greatly - interstellar travel is practised, after all. The visitors from Earth are historical observers - they are supposed to be collecting data to support the prevaling theory of history which dictates that there is only one eventual result of human history - the Communist State of course. But things seem to be going wrong - an alarming individual, a minister to the King, seems to be trying to eliminate all centres of learning and all literate individuals. Is it a bid to establish a Totalitarian State? That shouldn't happen according to the accepted theory of history.
The observers from Earth are not supposed to interfere, but it's hard to be a god and remain aloof when surrounded by misery, disease, ignorance, brutality and persecution. What's the right thing to do?
It's a thematically complex novel that nevertheless could be read by a young person simply as a kind of adventure tale. Unsurprisingly many of the themes are political; censorship and suppression of learning, Totalitarianism and will to power, Communist theory, religious oppression, but some are as much ethical: is interference in an attempt to improve the lot of the masses justified or not? And (perhaps the most interesting and unexpected to me) if you take a person from an ideal society, Utopian, safe, stable, moral, with fair and equal distribution of resources and put him in the antithetical situation, largely isolated from his peers, what happens? Does he maintain the moral code of home, or does the society around him eventually corrupt him? What exactly happens at the end is left a little ambiguous but the implication is clear. The impact is made clear in the epilogue, back on Earth, with the three friends from the prologue re-united.
There's an afterword to this translation which appears to date back to 1997, by the surviving Strugatsky brother. It's as fascinating as the book itself, setting a context for its writing that is very illuminating. Initially a straight-forward SF adventure story in the vein of Dumas' Musketeers novels was the sole aim, but it was the early 1960s and the political situation in Russia inevitably reared its ugly head. A furore arose regarding whether the SF community's younger elements' satirical and critical attacks on the status quo of political oppression, ever changing approved political doctrine, hypocrisy were allowable. Older writers, government shills, were loudly complaining. The regime was visibly critical of much of the new art, visual, literary or even musical. Was there going to be a crack-down?
Well, the Strugatskies decided to risk it and turned their prospective piece of pure escapism into an attack on those in power, Communist theory, Totalitarianism in general and the will to power of individuals. The crack-down never came and the book was not treated severely by the censors, though their editor persuaded the authors to change the name of the villain from Rebia (anagram of Beria, a prominent politician of the time) to the marginally more subtle Reba.
The other thing the afterword establishes is that there was a thriving market for SF in Soviet era Russia, big enough to have a society specifically for SF authors, a fact that it would be hard to believe given only the evidence of what has been published in English translation. Another observation is that just as social and political concerns are frequently explored in English language SF, so they were in the Russian SF of that time, with the same somewhat reduced level of scrutiny by dismissive people in power. (Compare with Solzhenitsyn, who published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, the same year Hard to be a God was being written).
I'll certainly be looking for the other Strugatsky books with editions in English but I'm also interested in picking up any other Russian SF available in translation to further compare and contrast the trends and themes of Russian and Anglo-American SF.
An oddity so far not addressed is that humans go 'thousands of parsecs' to another world and what they find when they get there is humans, horses, oats...