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Literature / Hard to Be a God

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Hard to Be a God (Russian: "Трудно быть богом" Trudno byt' bogom) is the fourth novel by the Strugatsky Brothers to be set in the Noon Universe.

The novel follows Anton, who goes by the name Don Rumata on his job as an undercover Earthling observer (not a "progressor", the institute of progressors was only created later) on a Dung Ages planet going through a Renaissance and a religious backlash, just starting to border on a full-blown Inquisition. Notable as an exploration of the Alien Non-Interference Clause concept.

The novel was adapted into two films: a 1989 German production by Peter Fleischman and a 2014 Russian production by Aleksei German. It was followed by a computer game that served as a sequel.

Tropes found in the novel:

  • The Ace: Rumata gives off this impression to the people of Arkanar. It helps that he's aided by advanced Earthling technology.
  • Addled Addict: Father Kabani, who descended into alcoholism after seeing too many of his inventions be used for war and violence, and is a complete wreck when we see him.
  • The Alcoholic: Many Arkanarians drink copiously.
  • Alien Non-Interference Clause: Not exactly, the novel is in between the non-interference era and the progressors era. Rumata is saving scientists from prosecution, but isn't allowed to influence political matters.
  • Becoming the Mask: In morality level. The greatest fear of all human watchers.
  • Being God Is Hard: This is the topic of the book. Even though the Sufficiently Advanced Earthlings are not literally gods by any measure, to the native Human Alien population of Arkanar, they are, with all the expectations and responsibilities that come with it.
  • Berserk Button: Never, ever hurt Kira.
  • BFS: Pampa wields a giant zweihander. At one point he fends off a group of storm troopers by swinging it around above his head like a helicopter blade.
  • Catchphrase: "I see no reason for noble dons not to do X" by Don Sera. X can be anything from playing dice to getting whipped by the inquisition. Achieved memetic status in Russia.
  • Crapsack World: After a series of ill-advised wars that all ended in losses, common people in Arkanar are living in extreme poverty and the nobles struggle to hold on to their wealth. The king is incompetent and the kingdom's educational system is in shambles. The kingdom is surrounded by hostile powers on all sides. The only people who really thrive are the Grey Stormtroopers and the local criminal gang. You can pretty much count on everything that shows the slightest hint of goodness being twisted, corrupted, used in the service of darkness or outright destroyed. Considering the state of public sanitation in Arkanar, this is almost literal.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: In the 2013 movie, one man is drowned in shit for the crime of writing poetry.
  • The Don: Waga the Wheel controls almost all the organized crime in Arkanar.
  • Dual Wielding: Anton/Don Rumata is famous for his awesome-yet-practical fighting style. So awesome-yet-practical, in fact, it was seen as evidence of his supposed Deal with the Devil.
  • Dystopia: Arkanar.
  • The Empire: The entire Gulf region (which the Kingdom of Arkanar is part of) is officially ruled by one of those. The problem is that Empire has been on a slow decline for centuries, gradually losing control of all of its outlying "provinces." By the time the novel opens, most outlying provinces are acting as independent powers in all the ways that matter. So long as they never formally break their ties from the Empire, the emperors seem content to let them do that (though the novel strongly suggests that the Empire couldn't rein in its former subjects even if it wanted to).
  • Evil Cripple: Arata the Hunchback, though he's more morally ambiguous than evil.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: A mixture of Late Medieval / Renaissance Italy, Spain, and France, complete with Romance-sounding names and titles.
    • Word of God states that Arkanar was designed with Japanese flavor: for example, the "Don" honorific stems not from Spanish "don", but from Japanese "dono". Two swords of noble Dons remind of samurai swords...
  • Le Film Artistique: Aleksei Gehrman's adaptation, for better or worse. A rare example of the film being even weirder and darker than the book.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Arata witnesses several circles of the revolution. Avoiding this circle is the reason for the Alien Non-Interference Clause.
  • The Generic Guy: Reba is described as being an utterly average and forgettable man who was simply lucky enough to secure a high ranking position in the government.
  • God Guise: Rumata attempts to avert this, but people who know him well enough realize that he cannot be human and Clarke's Third Law corollary applies. Still, while some (Dr. Budakh, Kira) see a god in him, others (Don Reba, Arata) think he is a devil.
  • A God Am I: Rumata. Far from the usual use of this trope, however, which usually overlaps with Drunk with Power, Rumata is instead nigh incapacitated by the responsibility and duty that comes with being a god and that is, quite obviously, too much for an individual who is most definitely a human.
  • Kill the Cutie. Twice. Uno and Kira are both dead by the end.
  • The Ingenue: Kira, probably the most innocent (and, more importantly to Anton, Earthling-like) girl in Arkanar.
  • Inherent in the System: The reason why Rumata can't change Arkanar for the better.
  • Lower-Class Lout: Many Arkanarian peasants, who cheer on the slaughter of intellectuals and support the transformation of Arkanar into a fascist dictatorship.
  • Magical Accessory: Don Rumata's camera circlet, from the natives' POV.
  • Master Swordsman: Don Rumata is universally acknowledged as the best swordsman in the Estorian metropole. Justified by the facts that his physical condition is superior to any native and that his swordfighting techniques wouldn't be discovered in Arkanar for another couple of centuries. Still, even the best swordsman cannot hold long against multiple attackers, all of whom are larger than himself. Especially when he is hampered by Thou Shall Not Kill rule.
  • Mind Screw: The 2013 movie is weird in its execution. Combined with the fact that the story is pretty dark to begin with, it verges on Surreal Horror.
  • Mood Dissonance: The narrating style is somewhat lighthearted, with many funny moments thrown in. The overall story... isn't.
  • Mutilation Conga: Arata has endured one after leading and losing many uprisings.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Grey Stormtroopers.
    • The Monks supplanting the Grey Stormtroopers works like the SS supplanting the SA.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Nice job helping Reba to kill a king, Rumata!
    • Also, Rumata's Roaring Rampage of Revenge will only make the situation worse, and he himself at one point explains why.
    • And before the book's events, other humans tried to interfere, with disastrous results.
    • And the dialogue between Rumata and Budakh implies that everything Earthlings could do would result in this.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Word of God claims that Don Reba is inspired by Lavrentiy Beria, State Sec chief during the Stalinist era. The character was even called Don Rebia in an early draft.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Rumata pretends to be another vain nobleman to disguise his true intention of rescuing intellectuals.
  • Out-Gambitted: Tsupick, Aba, and Rumata—all by Don Reba. However, ultimately Reba makes a fatal mistake and is killed by Rumata.
  • Persecuted Intellectuals: Intellectuals of all kinds (derisively dubbed "book-readers") are persecuted by the Evil Chancellor Don Reba and his stormtroopers, to better prepare the country for annexation by an Enlightenment-hating theocracy.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: Sufficiently Advanced Earthlings
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Most Earthlings strictly follow this rule (as an exception, we hear about an Earthling, who, posing as a guard officer, tried to stop witches' burning by ordering his soldiers to shoot the executioners. He failed).
  • Title Drop: Rumata thinks "It's hard to be a god" during a conversation with Arata.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Rumata goes into one after Kira is killed.
  • Urban Legend Love Life: Rumata has to keep up the reputation of the real Rumata, who was, it appears, a bit of Casanova. Alas, Rumata cannot bring himself to sleep with local ladies—because of his morality and because they're so damn dirty. He manages to arrange matters so that noble women lie about their affairs with him because of their pride.
  • Vestigial Empire: On paper, Arkanar is still a province of the Estor metropoly, but nowadays it doesn't mean much. Notably, once Rumata claims that he is of much nobler birth that even Arkanarin king.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Subverted. Rumata's slaughter of the soldiers is portrayed as a total moral failure.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In the finale, Rumata goes berserk and slaughters dozens of people to get to Don Reba and kill him off.