Unbearable Lightness of Being, 100 Years of Solitude, and now The Doomed City – something about novels set in a geopolitical context that once seemed a faint memory but that now appears in the news every day is appealing, suddenly.
The Doomed City is the second novel I’ve read recently by the legendary Strugatsky brothers, Russians trying to get sci-fi novels published in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This novel was written in 1972, as the two brothers explain in a prologue and an afterword (written separately). In some ways it feels like a precursor to Metro 2033, a ridiculously difficult game. There are no dark ones, however, or any other of that video game nonsense; instead, people go crazy living in The Experiment, which feels to me like a thinly veiled poke at the workers’ paradise of the USSR.
Metro 2033 trailer:
Some notes on the novel:
- the various sections vary dramatically. In the first section Andrei, the protagonist, is a solid communist with a little c, working to create an egalitarian society. The powers that have created The Experiment – called the Mentors -, though, seem to throw all kinds of odd monkey wrenches into the day-to-day life of the City, essentially dooming it as an experiment.
- The first section ends with a farmer’s revolt that is put down by a charismatic fascist. Andrei has power, and is given his own agency to run. He gets lots of worship, and seems to do little work.
- The Dear Leader (not called that in the novel) then requests that Andrei go to find the Anticity, a place where none of them have been. The are not sure it even exists.
- After an arduous trip, Andrei’s team makes it to the Anticity, only to fall apart in an intrasquad battle. Andrei was off on a scouting mission when this happens, and he returns with two comrades to find everyone dead and their equipment destroyed.
- The book finishes with an odd, hallucinatory final section in which Andrei and Izya, his antagonist but friend, struggle to find out what lies beyond the Anticity. They flashback to a time in the Crystal City, a place that felt mythical but at which they might have stayed, only to leave in order to keep looking for more of what’s out there.
- I think that Andrei essentially ends up shooting his mirror image (and killing himself) in the last scene, but I would not swear to that.
- Boris Strugatsky writes at the end of the afterword that they were interested in what happens in an ideological vacuum, and the comment makes me curious, because the novel feels intensely Russian from the Cold War period in its intense invocation of all kinds of ideological struggles. Perhaps he is talking about the sort of vacuum that happens when there is no direct ideological structure that is adhered to by state powers…if that is the case then fascism seems to be the result in this equation.
- Andrei’s trip, though, becomes brutal, a state of nature in its full Hobbesian sense. The team is terrified, and is about to return when an iron statue starts walking around the city. This terrifies them so badly in Andrei’s absence that the intra-squad battle happens. The modern scientific expedition morphs into a vision quest.