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Concept-driven Narratives

With Hard to be a God by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

I think the books I love best manage to blend narrative and concept: the story is fun, and the ideas behind the story are thought-provoking. But fiction can’t explore ideas in a straightforward, analytical way, as a non-fiction book would. Today, I’d like to look at how to create a story both entertaining, yet with depth. How to explore an idea or a concept, sometimes a complicated concept, and unpack it through fiction in a way that is engaging.

A good example for this is Hard to be a God by the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris). You might have read or heard of their novel The Roadside Picnic, adapted into the film Stalker. Writing in Soviet Russia, these two authors loved to explore concepts around free will, how to create a better world, and class divisions in society. But as they were writing to avoid censorship, they did so through fiction, and more specifically SFF, hiding powerful ideas behind ‘light’ genre fiction.

SFF, and Fantasy especially, are often stories which lend themselves to escapism. Let’s be clear: I have nothing against a good book to escape from the world for a couple of hours, to simplify the things we worry about, where everything can be solved by slicing the monster in two and grabbing a beer at the tavern. But I think Fantasy can be a lot more than that. It lends itself to exploring interesting concepts, simply by virtue of being fiction where the author is allowed to change the rules. The author can change variables in the story such as gender, social divides, power, etc, and see where that carries the plot and characters. It’s an incredibly useful sandbox to question the ideas we take for granted and explore alternatives.


Hard to be a God is a ‘high concept’ story, by which I mean the novel has a core idea or theory which carries the narrative. The Strugatsky brothers are clearly trying to make a point, not simply carry their readers to another, fantastical place.


One thing Hard to be a God does beautifully is exposition: it reveals information slowly, letting us catch up with the plot. We know what the characters are trying to achieve, or have an idea of what they might want, and by watching them from a distant third-person POV, seeing what they do and avoid, the sort of conversations they have, the things they understand – or not! – we start piecing together their story, which often is not quite as it seems. I was halfway through the book before I understood exactly what was happening.

(Do not read the blurb. The blurb gives it away, when half the fun is to uncover it yourself.)


The title is also key to understanding the plot: it works as a clue. It is quoted by the narration, which I find is an interesting device. That way, it flags up important information – as soon as we read the line with the title in it, we know this is something we should pay attention to.

Hard to be a God is, arguably, somewhere in-between Science-Fiction and Fantasy. It reads like Fantasy – apparently the Strugatsky brothers wanted a novel which was close in tone to Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. And it does feel a bit like a swashbuckling story: it’s action-packed, with swordfights, getting drunk in taverns, a king of thieves ruling the city’s underworld, our hero pinning a flower to his shirt to show his love for a woman, a city being attacked, a lonely girl locked inside her house, and an evil ruler who sells his country to the religious fanatics.

Without giving too much away, because it’s such a wonderful book to read, Hard to be a God, despite its Fantasy setting, has elements of Science-Fiction woven within the plot.

Through this action-driven, pacey story, the novel explores a theory of history. It questions why history repeats itself, why it moves forward in a certain way, whether we can escape the same mistakes and massacres. Specifically, it looks at Marx’s theory of history, the idea that if history runs it course in a certain way – notably, if it manages to escape fascist, authoritarian regimes – then it will naturally slide from democracy to a communist utopia.

Our main character wants the world to be a better place, to reach a satisfying end to history. The ways in which he fails – because coming from two disillusioned writers who have seen theory and practice clash during their lifetime, it was doomed to fail – is what’s interesting, is what makes us wonder how we could do better.

Through the lens of fiction, what could be a rather dry, distant theory of history becomes a vivid, immediate, engaging story. The reason why a theoretical model of history is important is because people we love are dying. The reason why debating how to prevent wars and fascism is important is because, if we don’t, our best friend will be tortured to death in the tower’s dungeon. That’s why we have to care.

Reminding people why caring is important – why engaging with ‘boring’ politics is crucial, because it has a real, human cost – is something a textbook can’t do. Fiction can, because good fiction, before anything else, is the art of making people care.

By making us empathise with the characters, stories encourage us to engage in an emotional way with the ideas behind them. Arguably, plot, pacing and character, rather than getting in the way of the core question or concept, enable us to engage with it. This is something only fiction can do. And SFF, because of the creative freedom it grants, lends itself to that exploration. From Ursula Le Guin to Octavia Butler, from Philip K. Dick to Ted Chiang, we have a wealth of stories which explore utopias, dystopias, gender, justice, and much more.

Fiction isn’t about providing answers, but about raising questions, provoking thought and debate, in a more immediate, empathetic way than a theory can produce.

22 Mar. 22

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