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A Little Knowledge Is 'Definitely Maybe' A Dangerous Thing

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky coauthored the 1971 science fiction novel <em>Roadside Picnic.</em>
Courtesy of the Strugatsky Estate
Boris and Arkady Strugatsky coauthored the 1971 science fiction novel Roadside Picnic.

A great truth is this: Some discoveries, like the sting of a painful memory, do a number on your psyche. Definitely Maybe accomplishes just that. It's one for those with a penchant for the strange, those drawn to the grim and the darkly funny — those, like myself, interested in the beautifully rendered pessimism of manic scientists. Never mind, just for a moment, the current state of science fiction. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, brothers, celebrated Russian geniuses, give it all in this dystopian gem. All and then some.

Originally published in the late 1970's under the title A Billion Years Before the End of the World, this is not your ordinary sci-fi offering. Like much of their catalogue, it's more rooted in realism — in exploring complicated human ideas — than in extraterrestrials and space travel. Conversely, Definitely Maybe separates itself from the fantastical works that marked a golden era in the genre: Its first official release fell victim to Soviet censors – but in this first-ever uncensored English edition, readers get the full text exactly the way the brothers intended. Noted translator Antonina W. Bouis brings their energetic prose to the forefront in this reissue from Melville House.

Ambitious and incredibly determined, Dmitri Malianov is an astrophysicist who can't seem to get anything done. His wife and son have gone away on holiday and he has committed to making good use of the time. But he just can't make any headway on his experiments. Diversions present themselves at every turn. "The damn phone rang again." And "The doorbell rang." Telephone calls, the constant pestering from friends inquiring about his research, a scantily dressed woman at the door with a note. These interruptions might be forgivable were he simply trying to do the dishes or see to the laundry.

However, Malianov is engaged in something far more demanding. His life's work, which he describes as "plain ordinary astrophysics and stellar dynamics," has him on the precipice of something major. "Smells like the Nobel Prize to me," he says — if only the universe would stop intruding. He's frustrated. He's drinking cognac and entertaining guests. Soon — after a series of odd twists — he becomes a suspect in a terrible crime, and a criminal investigator threatens him with the prospect of "fifteen years in prison camp." Malianov is lost and confused, unsure about what is real and what is not. "I could be doing much work done right now!" he laments. "But I can't think!"

Through hilarious inner monologues and sharp, concentrated prose, the novel goes to unexpected places, posing worthwhile questions along the way. There's an anxiety that drives each page — a lingering paranoia — as scientists in a variety of disciplines, all connected by a common interest, struggle to make sense of the madness that surrounds them. Theirs is a battle against forces beyond their understanding — natural forces that seem to operate as direct threats against scientific progress. Could it be the heat? "They say it hasn't been this hot in two hundred and fifty years," says Gubar, the hapless inventor of the bunch. And where is that woman?

As time passes, each individual must choose his own fate. To fight or to simply back off, to cease from continuing his research or remain an enemy of ignorance — for which the repercussions can be extremely dangerous. One by one, they decide their path. Malianov, insufferable and lovable all at once, is torn. He finds himself being pulled in different directions, all the while considering how his actions might affect his family. The brothers Strugatsky, in this deeply layered novel, weave a disturbing tale, not an overtly political one, but with hushed anti-Soviet undertones at the core. You'll laugh, you'll look around suspiciously, you'll throw the text across the room. You'll pick it back up and go on, gladly welcoming the distraction. Knowledge is a dangerous game.

Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.

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