The first indication that something is seriously wrong in the city is the arrival of the baboons. They appear without warning at the garbage dump by the hundreds, rapidly fanning out through the rest of the city and wreaking havoc wherever they go.
Where did they come from? Nobody knows. Why are they here? Nobody knows. What can be done about them? Very little, apparently: after attempts to kill or capture them fails, the government institutes a policy of “adopting” a baboon and caring for it.
Such is the mixture of surreality and absurdity that characterizes The Doomed City, the brilliant 1972 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, only published in English for the first time this year. It is an intricate, elegant, and haunting combination of allegory, science fiction, and horror that will stay with you long after finishing.
It is no surprise that The Doomed City is a magnificent novel, considering its authors also wrote the incredible science fiction story Roadside Picnic, of which I’ve blogged before. The Doomed City, however, is really their masterwork: a dense and meticulous commentary on society through the lens of a supernatural city.
The City exists outside of the normal space and time of Earth. It has been populated by beings called Mentors, who have invited people from various times in history, over at least the range from World War I to the 1960s. These people have been brought to The City to participate in an “experiment” whose purpose and plan is not even clear. The City is bounded on one side by an infinite wall and on the other by an infinite chasm; it lies on a strip of land several kilometers wide but which stretches off to an unknown distance. The sun switches on and off abruptly at the same times every day.
The city is viewed through the eyes of Andrei Voronin as he climbs the social ladder in the city, moving up through jobs of increasing importance: from garbage man to detective to newspaper editor to city counselor. Along the way, he must struggle to adapt to changing and sometimes catastrophic circumstances that face the city and its citizens; the aforementioned baboons are the least of them. He also faces a number of unsettling and impossible mysteries, such as a red brick house that seems to move around the city and which people enter and never leave. And, in the end, he sets off on a dangerous quest to explore the countryside far beyond the City and see how far it goes.
As I have said, The Doomed City is what I would call a meticulous novel: it moves at a very deliberate pace, setting forth its characters, setting and mysteries carefully and with great effect. I found the first few chapters to be slow-going, but the momentum of the book increases relentlessly and I stayed up very late one night to reach the ending. The ending, like the book as a whole, is masterfully surreal, and it throws a number of peculiar ideas at you so fast you might miss them — but they can make you look at the rest of the book in a new light.
There are, however, no solid answers to many of the book’s mysteries. It is, in large part, a political allegory, and is more concerned with presenting ideas than giving answers. The Experiment — which nobody really understands and may already have failed — is quite obviously an allegory for the Soviet Union itself. It should not be considered a dated commentary on Soviet-era politics, though, as the Strugatskys are far too clever for that. I view The Doomed City as a general commentary and exploration of human nature and how human beings coexist, or fail to do so.
The political aspects of the novel delayed its publication for years. Originally written in 1972, it was only shared privately among friends because of its potentially subversive nature. The end of the Soviet Union allowed it to be finally published in 1989, though as we have said an English edition did not appear until this year. This edition includes a foreword by Dmitry Glukhovsky (author of Metro 2033) and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky that give more background about the book and put it in its proper historical context.
In summary: The Doomed City is a brilliant, beautiful and thoughtful novel. It is an instant, albeit delayed, classic and I am grateful that an English edition has finally become available.