The Doomed City by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, translated by Andrew Bromfield
The Doomed City is a late 1980’s work by, according to my jacket liner, the two “greatest Russian science fiction masters”: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Having never read their other works, or much at all by any other Russian sci-fi authors, I can’t speak to the validity of that statement. But certainly The Doomed City, translated here by Andrew Bromfield, is a fascinating and thoughtful work, one that I thoroughly enjoyed even as I sensed I was probably missing some of the layers/allusions more specific to their homeland.
The setting is a roughly 50-square-kilometer metropolis lit by an artificial sun and bounded by an endless void on one side and a towering yellow wall on another. What lies to the north (and to a lesser degree the south, past the farms and swampland) is a mystery. The city is the “lab” for a grand experiment being run by “the Mentors,” a group of beings who have recruited, seemingly at random, Earthfolk from various times and regions and plunked them down here for their mysterious purpose. The inhabitants are well aware that they are part of an experiment — each has their own mentor with whom they speak at times, and the line, “The Experiment is the Experiment” is frequently tossed around by the Earthpeople to shrug off whatever odd events happen, such as a sudden onslaught of baboons, as happens in the first few pages.
The protagonist is Andrei Voronin, a 1950’s-era astronomer from Leningrad who firmly believed (believes) in communism and now is equally firm in his faith in the Experiment. As the city goes through political and social upheaval over the years, we watch his rise through the hierarchy, from his beginnings as a garbage collector (regardless of their original professions/training, the city inhabitants are mandated to change jobs every few months) to an official Investigator, through his job as Executive Editor and eventually as a top counselor and science minister to the eventual dictator of the city. Focus also falls upon his small group of consistent associates, including a 70’s Swedish woman (Selma), a former Nazi (Fritz), a 1960s American professor (Donald), and especially a 20th century Jew who is both a constant foil and companion (Izya Katzman).
A mix of the surreal, the absurd, and the nightmarish, combined with a dash (really, just a dash) of science fiction, a more than healthy dollop of social criticism, and a pinch or two of existential questioning about the meaning of life, The Doomed City reads like a blend of Kafka, Vonnegut, Orwell, Huxley, and Camus. That isn’t at all to say it is derivative; one can see its thematic antecedents pretty clearly (I’m sure there are others, especially Soviet ones, but I’ll have to plead further ignorance), but it reads wholly and bracingly original in its events, details, and imagery, which together form a perfectly balanced mélange of vivid reality and stimulating ambiguity.
Things happen, but I wouldn’t call it plot driven, at least not until the last section which has a sharp focus on an exploratory expedition into the north. Much of the book consists of surreal encounters (the aforementioned baboons, a mysterious red building that appears in various places into which people disappear), people complaining about the absurd inefficiency of the bureaucracy, or people arguing about social/ethical/power systems. That sounds a lot less interesting than I mean it to, because as mentioned I found the book utterly fascinating, both thanks to the discussions themselves, which are thought-provokingly compelling on their own, and to the changes, sometimes horrific, in Andrei over the years as he moves from certainty to a sense of being utterly lost. Certainly one can plot some clear and direct criticism aimed particularly at the Soviet system, but it would be a mistake to think this novel is so narrowly focused. Its musings and warnings and mockery are all perfectly at home in today’s world long after the Soviet Union’s collapse into the dustbin of history.
Not knowing Russian, I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the translation to either the literalness or spirit of the original work. Even though I don’t know the original languages, I sometimes feel I can tell I’m reading a work of translation (sometimes even a work of bad translation), but I never had that sense here; the prose sped along quickly and fluidly, and I never felt a mismatch between implied tone and language. Humorous scenes felt funny; grimly cynical moments felt grimly cynical.
I don’t know if the Strugatsky brothers are indeed Russia’s “greatest” science fiction authors, but based on The Doomed City, I’ll certainly look for more of their work. Recommended, especially for those who like thoughtful considerations of large social questions.