From the Orbital Library: “Definitely Maybe”

Russian science fiction goes claustrophobic in this work by the Strugatsky brothers—a review

There’s something disconcertingly contemporary about Definitely Maybe, a novella by the masters of Russian science fiction, brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1974 and has every appearance of taking place in that world. Earlier this year, Melville House brought out the first unexpurgated English translation, a task impossible before the dissolution of the Marxist-Leninist state in 1991. This may seem like ancient history to those born into a world of ubiquitous, instantaneous digital communication. But within this slim volume, there are hints of the frustrated ambitions and pervasive distraction that define our present.

Dmitri Malianov, an astrophysicist, is on the cusp of a discovery, one that in his estimation might very well bring him a Nobel Prize. His wife and child are away, visiting family in Odessa. With nobody but his pet cat to take care of, Malianov has the time and freedom to make a breakthrough. But soon come anonymous deliveries of expensive food and alcohol. Then friends and colleagues start calling him out of the blue, first by telephone and then in person, nervously asking questions about the progress he’s made. A woman unexpectedly shows up at Malianov’s door, a school friend of his wife, beautiful enough to drive the scientist to distraction. Events are conspiring to keep him from his discovery.

The personification here is deliberate. Chance operations seem malicious, contrived in advance. The pressure to give up begins on the very first page. The story plays out at the height of summer, “the hottest it had been in two hundred years.” Malianov’s temporary bachelorhood has left the apartment a mess. Sleep eludes him. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that someone or, more accurately perhaps, something wants him to abandon his research.

Here to aid Malianov, or to hinder him, is a parade of eccentric scientists and technicians, all of whom are experiencing the same blockage in their own work. There’s Weingarten, Malianov’s oldest friend, a biologist now descending into an alcoholic stupor. Next door lives Arnold Snegovoi, a rocket scientist weighed down by some terrible secret. Some floors below, Vecherovsky, an urbane mathematician, is also showing cracks in his otherwise composed persona. Glukhov, an engineer, inveterate womanizer, and friend of Weingarten’s, suddenly finds himself sexually irresistible—that is, until a former lover deposits a child into his care, a sullen young boy who may or may not be his.

The assembled scientists eat Malianov’s food and drink his booze, all the while comparing experiences and speculating about their sudden inability to make progress. The meetings have the air of adventure about them, as if a team of misfits were about to set off on some doubtful adventure. They don’t get that far. Their efforts are confined by their immediate surroundings, a drab apartment complex made even more stifling by the weather and by the frayed nerves of its inhabitants: a bottle episode as they call it in TV trade.

The sets don’t change. Nobody goes anywhere or does anything. The characters can only stay at home and work out their problems, increasingly without hope for a solution. Whatever knowledge they gain is strictly provisional. Is their procrastination a result of some secret effort on the part of the government, a global conspiracy enacted by extraterrestrials in disguise, or something even more cosmic and difficult to explain? The universe itself seems to be keeping the scientists from the task at hand, slowly driving them insane.

Definitely Maybe is certainly science fiction, but it will disappoint those looking for spaceships, planetary vistas, and aliens—those of the humanoid variety at least. High technology is completely absent. To anyone who came of age after the internet, the sequence of letters, telegrams, house calls, and late night colloquies might seem downright archaic. But much like the work of Philip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard, the Strugatskys anticipate developments in mentality far more accurately than they do the actual science and technology.

The “pressure” that Malianov and his compatriots feel mimics the familiar anxiety brought about by constant partial attention, the sense that one is always on the cusp of some significant achievement only to be led away by some uninvited message, some new piece of information, that needs to be analyzed and interpreted. Those who sense the influence of something conspiratorial in their own inaction should feel a pang of recognition in the scenarios presented here.

The Strugatskys worked in a rich literary tradition. Readers of Mikhail Bulgakov, particularly his SF satire of the Russian Revolution, The Fatal Eggs, will find parallels in the critique of scientific progress presented here. Much has been made of the relative prestige that speculative literature enjoyed in the Eastern Bloc countries, and with reason. Though science fiction nominally conformed to the dictums of historical materialism, the allegorical nature of the genre allowed its authors a measure of freedom to critique state power. Definitely Maybe can be read as a dark comedy of the late Soviet Union, and it succeeds fully as such. But it is the Strugatskys’ power to evoke our own digitized and networked neuroses that propels their work forward into continued relevance.


Matthew Spencer is a writer, born and raised in western Colorado, who lives in Seattle, Washington. He worked as an English-language teaching assistant for the 2013-14 academic year in the town of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. He blogs about art, music, history, and literature at Unpaginated.