Fascinating and important work. Published in 1964, I feel that it may have been an influence on, or at least a precursor to, many of my favorite books. I saw thematic similarities with some of Iain Banks’ Culture novels, especially Inversions, and Kage Baker’s Company series.
The story deals with a ‘deep’ agent from an advanced civilization, who is supposed to observe and record the feudal society he’s been planted in, without interfering. However, the society he’s working in is on the verge of a shift from feudalism to fascism. Purges of intellectuals are increasing, and the agent finds it harder and harder to maintain any kind of objectivity. Meanwhile, he also battles the tendency to lose sight of his identity; he finds himself becoming more and more like the callous, boorish aristocrat he is impersonating. But he also finds himself truly caring for his native lover…
There’s a lot going on in the relatively brief book. Anton, while maintaining his cover identity as Don Rumata, tries to balance his ethics against the demands of his job. His attempts to rescue the scientists and artists that he sees as the lights of hope in a dark and ignorant world make for an exciting story. But it’s also very philosophical, exploring the ramifications of a non-interference policy, the tendency toward abuse of power, and the nature of humanity.
It’s very interesting to see science-fiction themes which I’ve seen explored from American and European perspectives many times from the point of view of Russian authors. Here, the advanced, peaceful and free society which the researchers are from is, of course, one where the ideals of communism have come to full fruition. I wished I could see more of that world – and may have to seek out some of the Strugatsky brothers’ other books to explore further. However, their vision is not all starry-eyed: the world of Arkanar and its Inquisitorial brutalities are very clearly parallel to abuses and purges from Russia’s history.
Highly recommended – both as a great reading experience, and for anyone interested in the various facets of science fiction as a genre.
Copy provided by NetGalley – thanks for bringing this book to my attention! As always, my opinion is purely my own.