Definitely Maybe by Strugatsky, B. & A., 1977

Definitely Maybe by Strugatsky, B. & A.

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For most of its lifetime, SF has been considered to be of interest primarily to white, single males who speak English as their mother tongue. It has been particularly successful in North America, and probably because of the influence of film, has become identified as a big product of the two nations on our continent. This despite the incredibly rich SF tradition in the UK: Consider the irony that the first genre book, Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus, was written by Mary Shelley, a British woman. But I have always been very curious about what non-English speaking nations had done in the genre. I personally think that its a sad fact that very little of foreign SF is ever translated into English. I happen to know that Japanese authors have put out some pretty good works. And then there is Stanislaus Lem, Jules Verne, and a few others who have managed to make a splash here. But after that, unless you are willing to dig pretty deeply, you will not find very much non-English SF here in the United States. But thanks to some enterprising translators, not the least of whom is Mirra Ginsberg, Russian and Soviet SF has managed to make a minor, but observable dent in the American market. The two authors who wrote this week's story are the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Boris is an astronomer and Arkady was an expert in Japanese culture. Together they are credited by David G. Hartwell in his World Treasury of Science Fiction anthology as the main motivating force in Russian SF after the 1960's when government control loosened up enough to allow it to even be reintroduced there. In my opinion this is not their best novel, but it is very original and well done, and tells an intersting story to boot. Im not sure what effect this book had on other genre authors because I know virtually nothing about its availability after it was published in Russia in 1977, though I will pass along a rumor that the British band Oasis took the title for one of their earlier albums.

Definitely Maybe is a slightly alcohol tinged story of conflict between a group of Soviet scientists who are all working on pet projects to different ends, and some unknown enemy who wants to stop them from making further scientific discoveries in any field. The main character, Malianov, is a physicist who is working on a paper concerning the effect of stellar bodies on near by gas clouds, and though we are never told this, it seems that he is on the verge of making an enormous discovery that could change the way we use physics. Malianov works out of an apartment he shares with his wife and son who have both gone off on a vacation to his mother-in-law's home in the South. As Malianov sets down to working, which seems difficult to do because of the incredible heat wave that has struck the city, he is set upon by one distraction after another. First a merchant accidentally delivers boxes and boxes of food and alcohol. Then a stunning looking woman shows up who claims to be a long-lost friend of his wife's. Then neighbors begin visiting randomly. Eventually one of his neighbors is found dead in a way that is suggestive of suicide, though because of some signs of foul play, and the police begin to investigate Malianov as a suspect. During brief bouts of sobriety Malianov discusses what is going on in his life with friends of his who are scientists too, and learns that some experiencing the same phenomena. Some even have been visited by a mysterious red-haired man, very similar to the investigator who has been hounding Malianov over the murder. The red haired man tries to strong arm them to stop working on their various scientific projects.

Malianov and the other scientists commiserate with each other, but are afraid of alerting the Soviet State of the problem for fear that they will be put into an asylum for the insane. So they investigate on their own, and form competing hypotheses that their enemies are either aliens who want to stop research on this planet so as to hold us back to a primitive level of technology, or a shadowy group of near immortals called the Union of the Nine who are dedicated to mastering all scientific disciplines and using that knowledge to keep humans from destroying themselves. None of this really sits well with Malianov, or any of the other scientists for that matter. Eventually they hypothesize that it is the universe itself that is against them, and that nature seems to have decided that humans have come far enough, so now we need to be held back before we discover disciplines that allow us to affect the basic laws of nature. They think that that the universe has a vested interest in protecting, and is apparently willing to go to any extreme to stop us.

I once took a Russian literature course at University, and found that I loved the literature that Russia and the Soviet writers produced. This book is very literary, and makes use of a lot of the tropes and motifs that I found fascinating in the classic literature. There were a lot of cultural references in this book, some of which I understood (such as the oddities of a centrally planned economy, demonstrated when Malianov's wife has to rush home to Moscow on a cargo plane loaded with refrigerators and coffins) and some of which were over my head (for example, a French character called Tonton Macoute, to whom the police investigator is compared innumerable times). The Strugatsky brothers also have woven in the pretty typical Russian fascination with death, and a pretty typically Soviet paranoia, both of which figured prominently. There are a lot of similarities with the work of Stanisaw Lem as well, primarily the inability of scientists to overcome natural phenomena. Give these guys a try if you are a fan of Russian literature, or if you seek SF told in a slightly different voice. Four out of five stars.

NOTE: Macoute is the Hatian Boogey-Man.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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