The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Reviewed by Kerry Dodd. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Strugatsky brothers are often synonymised with their most famous novel Roadside Picnic – which is hardly surprising as it certainly is a breath-taking read. Until fairly recently finding copies of their less well-known works, such as Hard to be a God or Monday Starts on Saturday, has been a veritable challenge. SF Masterworks’ re-publication of these iconic classics is both a joy and a tribute to the rich literary output of the brothers. Particularly timely given last year’s re-release of Stalker, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic directed by Andrei Tchaikovsky, these novels offer a thrilling window into SF written during the Soviet era whose core messages still have an urgency that resonate in the modern day. Indeed, Dmitry Glukhovsky, who himself has become a key figure in Russian SF following the cult success of Metro 2033, writes in his introduction to the new release of The Doomed City that ‘there comes a point at which science fiction is transformed into a means for at least hinting at the true state of affairs.’. Proudly declaring on its front cover that this is a book that was ‘so politically risky that its very existence was kept secret for sixteen years’, The Doomed City evidently is unafraid to challenge systematic hegemony and re-inscribes how SF offers not only poignant messages about the future, but equally the present. 

The Doomed City

The Doomed City centres around ‘The Experiment’ in which people from different countries and time-periods within the twentieth century are separated from their previous lives and forced to co-exist in an artificial new city, where the sun is akin to a giant lightbulb that can be turned off in an instant, and the occupants can mysteriously understand each other, regardless of language barriers. As the title suggests, this social experiment is one which is not marked for success. Each occupant must take part in the job lottery, a system which dictates every person’s function and place within the metropolis. Following the political rise of Andrei Voronin, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad, who transitions from garbage collector, police investigator, newspaper editor and eventually bureaucrat, The Doomed City interrogates the core conceptualisations of social hierarchy. Each chapter focuses on the challenges that Andrei faces within these roles, from a hoard of baboons that descend upon the city to the Red Building that uncannily appears and abducts people seemingly at random. The novel is overtly one with many questions, few of which are concretely resolved. For although the city’s quirks add a sense of intrigue to the narrative, the Strugatskys’ writing really shines in the realistic conversations that simultaneously affirm and expose the social stratification which the experiment has artificially induced.  As the novel progresses, some of the critiques are evidently closer to the surface than others. The stark contrast in Andrei’s disposition to professions he deems as being ‘lower’, as he rises through society, has overt classist overtones; meanwhile, the apparent lack of any creative industry within the city is mentioned in an almost ephemeral aside that has a chilling parallel to modern anxieties towards arts funding cuts. The concluding expedition to discover what lies beyond the city, as well as the mythical supposition of an anti-city, is one which seeks to push the human to its extreme – to analyse what the term ‘human’ even means. As Andrei reaches the ‘final understanding’ at the novel’s close this is clearly the opening of one small area amongst a much wider vista. Each of the sections has a wistfully vignette style to them, for while at times they may be all too brief, the small allusions have a pervasively haunting nature. The Doomed City is a robust novel that is not just a gateway to Russian SF or Soviet censorship but one whose core ideas will retain a continuing relevance as the human race scrutinises social stratification against the enduring backdrop refrain that ‘the experiment is the experiment’. 

Copyright Kerry Dodd. All rights reserved.

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