The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Doomed City is a classic Russian dystopian novel which was started in the 1960’s but not released until the 1980’s. Writing the novel and then hiding it was a seditious act. Owning the once solitary manuscript copy was to court disaster in the form of the harsh retribution of the state.

What was all the fuss about? I don’t want you to be put off by the idea that because the novel was written in the politically harsh and defunct Soviet Union that means that, as an outsider, you can never pick up on its nuances. The queues that were ubiquitous in the old Soviet Union appear in The Doomed City as well. I think also that the siege of Leningrad serves as a paradigm of human suffering that has a lease on the imaginations that wrote this story.

Maybe you had to be there? But no, as science fiction it’s a genre buster, non-formulaic. Comparable to the texts of Orwell and Kafka, The Doomed City is a twentieth century mind fucker.

Andrei is the guiding character. We first meet him as a garbage man. He loves his work! But before he came to the city he was a stellar astronomer. Later on in the story he will be a detective, the editor of a literary newspaper, and finally a high functionary of the state. In the city, you rotate your occupation. A doctor for one period of service, maybe a roofer for the next. There’s a character named Wang who loves the simple life. When he is appointed a caretaker he’s happy with the low stress job. When he’s later assigned to be a factory manager he resists and tricks the bureaucracy into keeping him on as a caretaker beyond his time. He’s finally caught out and sent to the swamps for six months as a punishment.

In the city they turn on the sun and turn it off, like the ceiling fixture in my home office that I don’t like to use because the light is so harsh. And then there are the baboons. This is real early in the story so it’s not a spoiler. All at once, the city is overrun by baboons…you know…our primate cousins. They cause chaos and the civil authorities seem amazingly incompetent in restoring order. Drawing on mid-twentieth history, there’s a sprinkling of Nazis in the citizenry. The populace is drawn from all over. Some of the characters make anti-Semitic remarks and there’s at least one homophobic reference. Women are not treated very well in The Doomed City either. This is a man’s world.

You get the idea that you had to be pretty hard up to enlist in the city. But it’s an experiment. “The experiment is the experiment” is the most quoted line in the book. You may suffer or be bewildered now, but you are suffering towards a utopian goal that it seems gets infinitely postponed. Some malcontents even whisper that the experiment really ended years ago and they have been abandoned, as if their gods have walked away from them.

The Soviet Union may have been a nightmare of incompetence and terror and The Doomed City is its funhouse mirror. But even in hell there are levels, as in Dante. Beyond the city is an abandoned urban wasteland, as if centuries ago the experiment was tried before and failed. “Shark wolves” and “Iron heads”…monsters…are said to roam this wasteland which may contain the secret of our characters’ fates.

And beyond that…there are more beyonds than you can count in this nightscape…there is rumored to be the greatest terror of all, “the anti-city” with it’s “anti-residents”. Xenophobia reigns in The Doomed City but is also nobly confronted. Hey, Russia never was a liberal democracy and that has consequences. But look who we have running for office in our country, so I’m not getting smug about it.

I hope I have interested you in The Doomed City without revealing too much about it. Clarity would be contrary to the ethos of the book…until the very end anyway. I admire the Strugatsky brothers for their work on this most ambitious of their novels, and Russia has always done high art well. As someone in the book says, it’s not literature until someone reads it. Put another way, it’s not a book unless it’s opened.