Hard To Be A God (1964) is a fast-paced and philosophical piece of science fiction from the Soviet era. It presents another planet much like our own, except its society has not progressed from the feudal, medieval-like stage of development – and so its mankind remains in an ignorant and primeval state. Among these brutes are a small number of undercover spies from modern Earth, who are employed in a strictly observational capacity; they are forbidden from interfering in political affairs, and must only record events for the benefit of off-planet academics.
Don Rumata is one of these observers, a man who is well-placed in this society as an aristocrat with access to more advanced knowledge and technology than those around him. The novel explores the dilemmas arising from his elevated status. He is pulled in opposite directions by his academic duties as an observer, and moral duties to those around him, who become brutalised by a world in which he has the God-like capability to intervene. In looking at these problems, the novel examines the role of history in the development of mankind, and the role of the individual within a hostile society. In doing this, parallels are drawn with Russian and German history.
However, the book is not only a philosophical piece. For large parts it has the tone of a low fantasy, with its frail heroine, arch villain, court intrigues, daring rescues, and generally boisterous and alcohol-fueled antics. These genre trappings provide a pleasing counterpoint to the more didactic passages, and make the book read briskly overall. Hard To Be A God appears in the SF Masterworks line as a 2014 translation by Olena Bormashenko which feels fluidly written; I recommend it to readers of both SF and fantasy, and those looking for something which deftly mixes action and matters regarding the development of society.