A good read? Definitely.
As good as Roadside Picnic? Maybe.
I’ve already mentioned my obsession with Roadside Picnic, so you can imagine my joy at finding out that Melville House were going to publish another book by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky as part of their Neversink Library.
This new edition was published in the last month but I found out about it AGES ago. It was like the break in the fifth season of Breaking Bad. I tried to hustle an advanced reading copy, but they were having none of it. I had to wait like everyone else. With all of the anticipation, I couldn’t help wondering if Definitely Maybe could fill the boots of Roadside Picnic…
When I finally picked it up (from my favourite bookshop, in person), the damnedest thing happened. Every time I sat down to read it, something or someone would interrupt me. It was almost as if the Universe didn’t want me to read it. A couple of days ago, I said ‘to Hell with you, Universe’, and jumped right in.
Set in Leningrad in the 70s, the story concerns Malianov, an astrophysicist working on a thesis about how stars react to gas clouds…or something. He has sent the wife and child off on holiday so that he can get a bit of research done. When he finally sits down to work, it isn’t long before he realises that he is onto something, something big, something worthy of a Nobel Prize. But then the damnedest thing happens…
The chain of interruptions that follows leads Malianov to meet up with other professors who are experiencing similar weirdness to varying degrees of severity and in curiously individual forms. They try to find a link between their diverse fields of study and when they fail, they try getting drunk instead.
That doesn’t work either and just as the chaos whirls to a crescendo, something really strange happens without the vaguest hint of warning. About half-way through the book, something changes, stays changed and is never explained. I don’t want to spoil it, but you can’t miss it and it’s definitely one of those rare double-take moments.
But, maybe that’s a little on the cryptic side.
To get back to the concrete business of what the book is actually about, it’s a story about a man who accidentally stumbles across something unimaginably powerful and has to decide between realising his lifelong ambitions and losing everything he has ever loved. The story itself has the pace and the mystery of a conspiracy thriller and it’s delivered with deadpan, defeatist humour, all without losing the cloud of certain doom.
I approached this book with one question on my mind – how does Definitely Maybe compare with Roadside Picnic? They both deal with humanity’s futility in the face of unknown powers. The message in both books is clear – we are all insignificant specks in a universe that doesn’t care about us, ignorant primates who only climbed out of the trees a few thousand years ago, hopeless playthings of vastly more intelligent beings.
It’s definitely not all bad though. In the world of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, we encounter wonders equally fascinating and terrifying. Like a chimpanzee trying to work a landmine out, these alien artefacts could kill us at any moment, but we are still compelled to understand them. However, like poor Malianov, even the merest fraction of insight could come at a terrible cost.
Okay, maybe it is pretty bad, but that doesn’t change the fact that these stories are fantastic in every sense of the word. So give Definitely Maybe a go – it’s a bit left-field, a bit obscure, but you’ll read it in a couple of days…unless you get interrupted.