(Warning! There *are* slight spoiler elements to this review!)

I don’t like to be away from my Russian authors for *too* long, and it’s always a delight to explore writers you haven’t read before. The Strugatsky brothers are a case in point – I’d heard of them through their novella “Roadside Picnic”, upon which the Tarkovsky film “Stalker” is based, but I’d never actually read any of their works. However, I picked up another novella of theirs, “Definitely Maybe” in London recently, and really felt drawn to read it soon – and as I’m a person who always follows their reading whims……. 🙂 It *is* very highly rated, and the great Ursula LeGuin says:

”One of the Strugatsky brothers is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekhov, but nobody is sure which is which. This is definitely, not maybe, a beautiful book.”

“Definitely Maybe” was published in 1974 1976/1977/1980 (thanks for the correction, languagehat – see comments!) and tells the story of Malianov, an astrophysicist. The place and time are unclear to start with, but it is in high, hot summer and mention of White Nights soon reveals that the story is set in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was during Soviet times). Malianov should be on holiday, but he has sent his wife Irina and son Bobchick away as he feels he is on the verge of a great discovery. However, he is finding it very difficult to work…..

If the weather conditions were not bad enough, there are the interruptions. First, a large delivery from the local story, with caviar, vodka and all kinds of goodies. Then an attractive young woman turns up, apparently an old friend of his wife. His neighbour in the flat opposite, also a scientist, commits suicide and some strange heavies turn up to interrogate Malianov, accusing him of murder. His scientific colleagues visit, relating tales of also being unable to work owing to distractions. Who or what is causing these problems – is it aliens, or some weird supercivilisation? – and does the mathematician Vecherovsky, who lives upstairs, have a clue to the answer?

This is a fascinating book on a number of levels, and very gripping and readable. It’s written as a series of extracts from a journal so the story dips in and out, which is a clever device to move the plot along, but also keeps you guessing about quite what is happening. Poor Malianov is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep his thoughts together despite the sabotage to his work that is going on. There are clutches of scientific talk where I’m not sure whether it was real scientific talk or not, but in many ways that doesn’t matter. What matters is Malianov’s struggle – who it is against and what it’s for.

And here we get to the nub of this book – is it science fiction (for which the Strugatskys are known) or is it satire? That’s a good question, particularly as the term Sci Fi encompasses such a wide range nowadays, from classic speculative fiction a la Wells, to modern space sagas of strange alien armies fighting each other for aeons (and all things in between!) It seems to me that the brothers were using a Sci Fi format to house their satire – and obviously doing a good job as it got past the censors mainly intact. But if satire is a literary form that critiques the current regime or norm, then this is certainly it – and a satire with depth and compassion.

arkady and boris strugatsky

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As a brilliantly written piece of speculative fiction, the story stands in its own right. However, this being a piece of work produced  under the Soviet regime, any reader would be looking for a sub-text – and it’s not difficult to find. Malianov’s struggle is obviously an allegorical one, with the right to do his own research challenged by external forces – not the authorities, not aliens, not a supercivilisation, but a kind of homeostasis; a self-regulating force of nature that wants to stop humanity developing anything that might one day bring about the end of the world. Of course, the forces of nature represent the huge weight of the Soviet state, a constant malevolent force that seemed to be able to throw things in the path of a citizen in the most unexpected way. Although farcical in places, it’s chilling to find that the final, successful method that Nature uses to stop Malianov is the same used by the state in Soviet Russia – to threaten a person’s nearest and dearest.

“Who knows what’s in store for us? Who knows what it will be? The strong will be, and the blackguards will be. And death will come and sentence you to death. Do not pursue the future….”

And so the book becomes a poignant discussion of personal integrity – it is easier to be strong if you are a single person like Vecherovsky, who at the end of the book is the only one left fighting. The minute you care about anyone else you become vulnerable, and Malianov goes through much soul-searching before coming to his decision – the consequences of which he will have to live with forever. He recognises that others have made the same decision he has to make:

“I rolled up into a tighter ball. So that’s how it was. The man had been squashed. He was still alive but no longer the same man. Broken flesh, broken spirit. What did they do to him that he couldn’t take? But there must be pressures, I guess, that no man can take”.

How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche. Malianov’s decision is a realistic, human one and he knows the consequences.

“Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

DM manages to be funny and sinister at the same time, and the commentary on the Soviet regime is obvious. I found the book a really thought-provoking and quite emotional read and I salute the Strugatkys for getting so much into a short novella. I definitely want to read more of their work – there’s no maybe!