Definitely Maybe

The history of science fiction in Russia — before, during, and after the Soviet period — is a subject as deep as Lake Baikal. The authoritative online Science Fiction Encyclopedia opens its coverage in 1795, with Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov’s Puteshestvie v zemlyu Ofirskuyu (Journey to the Land of Ophir) and, several thousands of words later, culminates with a long list of fine young writers active today.

A curious and metatextually informative tranche of this large domain consists of those too-rare translations into English of Russian SF stories and novels. Always bad about giving foreign works adequate representation in the marketplace and suffering for seventy-some years from varying levels of geopolitical ideological intransigence, English-language publishers offered but a small and possibly unrepresentative selection, starting from about 1961 onward: mostly anthologies, with here and there a novel.

In 1977, Macmillan started a series titled Best of Soviet Science Fiction, issuing fifteen books over the next seven years. These editions to this day often remain the only English editions of these particular works and consequently command high prices among collectors. (Pssst, here’s a secret: I often find my copies cheap on public library sale racks. It seems that Macmillan was quite successful in placing these books with librarians, a new generation of whom are now busily deaccessioning them.)

Prominent among the authors chosen by Macmillan was a team of brothers, Arkady (1925–91) and Boris (1933–2012) Strugatsky. Titles by the pair accounted for nearly half the Macmillan list, seven volumes in total. At about this same time, DAW Books, a core genre bastion, also began featuring the Strugatskys, with Hard to Be a God in 1974. Consequently, the Strugatskys became almost the exclusive public face of Russian SF in the West (a stature abetted by Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1979 film Stalker, an adaptation of their novel Roadside Picnic).  

The  star of the Strugatskys has gone somewhat into eclipse since their heyday, especially among novice readers arriving to the genre only in this young century. Although he survived his brother by two decades and kept in touch with the field, Boris more or less abandoned new SF writing with the death of Arkady — now hardly anything of theirs remains in print.

But we can hope that the new edition from Melville House of Definitely Maybe will herald a revival of their prominence. And since this publication represents “the first-ever unexpurgated edition,” the book also offers old-timers a good reason to return to the text. (Boris Strugatsky details the relevant  instances of censorship in an afterword.)

The first thing to note is that though the Strugatskys did write novels in the vein of “Hard SF,” this isn’t one of them. No far-future venues, no rockets or ray guns or aliens. Well, maybe some aliens, but we’ll get to that issue shortly. Instead, it’s a kind of exercise in Philip K. Dick–style surrealism, with a contemporary setting and a Kafkaesque ambiance.

Our protagonist is a physicist, Dimitri Malianov. He is home alone in his apartment on a hot summer day, since his wife, Irina, and son, Bobchik, are holidaying in Odessa. Malianov putters about absentmindedly, his brain whirling with theories and equations relating to an ongoing brainstorm that he is convinced is of great magnitude. He trembles on the verge of revelation…

 …and then the interruptions start. Wrong-number phone calls. An unexpected but subsequently handy delivery of groceries. Most disturbingly, the unexpected arrival of a beautiful woman, Lida, a school chum of Irina’s who asks to stay overnight. Malianov’s brain feels as if it might explode. He seeks some relief in conversation with his neighbor, a military scientist named Snegovoi, who offers some ominous and enigmatic warnings. Malianov returns to his own place, gets stinking drunk, and falls asleep.

The next morning Lida is gone, Snegovoi is dead, and a nasty fellow named Zykov from the Ministry of Internal Affairs is grilling Malianov and accusing him of murdering his neighbor. Malianov survives the inconclusive interrogation and is then contacted over the phone by an anxious old pal, Weingarten, a biologist. Weingarten rushes over with another researcher, Zakhar, who brings along an odd boy who was suddenly presented, by one of Zakhar’s ex-lovers, as his illegitimate son. (Zakhar, as in some archetypical Fellini dream sequence, has been besieged by every woman he ever slept with.) Eventually two more scientists are hauled into the colloquy: the mathematician from upstairs in the building, Vecherovsky, and Glukhov, an “orientalist.” Once assembled in Malianov’s digs, the five men begin to try to make sense out of the various unlikely disturbances and roadblocks and assaults that have recently interrupted the work of all of them. They arrive at three theories.

1) Aliens in the form of a “supercivilization” are intent on hindering the progress of mankind.

2) A group of humans known as the Union of the Nine is causing the disruptions.

3) The half-sentient cosmos itself — the “Homeostatic Universe” — has inherent strictures in place to quell innovations.

The men argue back and forth, ringing in Fermi’s Paradox and other intellectual conceits and moral stances, but fail to resolve anything. They all split up, Malianov’s wife, Irina, returns, and the next day Malianov resolves on a desperate and despairing course of action, which he discloses to Vecherovsky in the latter’s apartment. The book ends thus, in Malianov’s intermittently first-person voice:

I lowered my eyes. I sat hunched up, clutching the white envelope to my stomach with both hands and repeated for the tenth time, the twentieth time: “Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me…”

And so inconclusively concludes a book full of suspense, tension, drama, and consequential ethical quandaries, one that takes place entirely in a single apartment building — mainly in one apartment — populated by sweaty, boozing, frantic intellectuals. (The Strugatskys brilliantly anchor all the high-flown talk with intense physicality. “And he began slurping his tea, rubbing the back of his hairy arm across his nose.”) It’s Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot conflated with J. G. Ballard’s High Rise and Barry Malzberg’s Galaxies: a chamber play about the fate of some sensitive individuals in an uncaring or actively hostile universe; about whether their theories of existence are true or false; and about how to get over “can’t go on” in order to go on. Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film La Grande Bouffe, in which a group of chums decide to make a grand hedonistic exit from life, also resonates, as do the more absurdist stories of Robert Sheckley.

Ultimately, the authors deploy a Heisenbergian uncertainty about all such matters. The more the characters try to pin down one aspect of their troubles, the more other aspects wriggle out from under their thumbs and escape and mutate. The Strugatskys have a grand time making fun of a number of SF clichés. “Humanity, united by the general alarm, fights off the supercivilized enemy shoulder to shoulder across the entire planet,” says the coolly analytical Vecherovsky, perhaps the ultimate savant of the group. Finally, the only thing Malianov can salvage is grace under pressure. No matter what the cause or motive of oppression, a man can control only his own response.

The Strugatskys speak in their afterword of the allegorical underpinnings of this book, the real-life Soviet nonsensical hindrances and threats and prosecutions that contoured the fiction. But I will take a heretical stance and say that the authors have disingenuously misrepresented or misunderstood their own work. The political allegory is the weakest aspect of the book. The pure existential reading, the Phildickian “Homeostatic Universe” angle, is much more potent, and in fact is the real reason for the book’s continuing allure, now that the Soviet empire no longer exists.

Curiously enough, the American author Frederik Pohl, in his 1967 short story “Speed Trap,” covered the exact same ground, and I wonder whether Definitely Maybe is not a deliberate response to Pohl’s story, whose core conceit emerges in a moment of dialogue:

“You know what Fred Hoyle said?”

“I don’t think so, Larry.”

“He said the minute a man does anything, anything at all, the whole world enters into a conspiracy to keep him from ever doing it again. Program chairmen invite him to read papers. Trustees put him into committees. Newspaper reporters call him up to interview him. Television shows ask him to appear with a comic, a bandleader and a girl singer, to talk about whether there’s life on Mars.”

Whatever the source of the Strugatskys’ inspiration — domestic oppression or existential unease — they constructed a classic parable of man against the universe that is simultaneously a nurturing environment for our species and an antagonistic arena.

Finally, no discussion of this edition could conclude without praise for the new translation by Antonina W. Bouis, which renders the Strugatskys’ original prose into elegant, trenchant, and vivid English that lets the underlying wit and philosophical banter shine through.

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