Book Review: Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Oct 15, 2018

Definitle Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky were the greatest science fiction writers of the Soviet era: their books were intellectually provocative and riotously funny, full of boldly imagined scenarios and veiled—but clear—social criticism. Which may be why Definitely Maybe has never before been available in an uncensored edition, let alone in English.

It tells the story of astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov, who has sent his wife and son off to her mother’s house in Odessa so that he can work, free from distractions, on the project he’s sure will win him the Nobel Prize.

But he’d have an easier time making progress if he wasn’t being interrupted all the time: First, it’s the unexpected delivery of a crate of vodka and caviar. Then a beautiful young woman in an unnervingly short skirt shows up at his door. Then several of his friends—also scientists—drop by, saying they all felt they were on the verge of a major discovery when they got… distracted…

Is there an ominous force that doesn’t want knowledge to progress? Or could it be something more… natural?

In this nail-bitingly suspenseful book, the Strugatsky brothers bravely and brilliantly question authority: an authority that starts with crates of vodka, but has lightning bolts in store for humans who refuse to be cowed.

This book is like philosophical discourse disguised as fiction. It reminds me of one of their other works, Roadside Picnic. In Roadside Picnic, there is a scene where two characters discuss how aliens could have visited Earth just like they were having a, you guessed it, roadside picnic. While initially, I thought it was a bit out of place, it became my favourite part of the book. Definitely Maybe is like that conversation but instead of a couple pages, it’s an entire book.

The discussion in this book revolves around two main things: a theory similar to The Great Filter and duty to mankind.

A big oversimplification of The Great Filter is the theory that civilizations can only evolutionize and innovate to a certain point. This could be a reason why aliens have not yet communicated with us yet. In Definitely Maybe, it seems like the filter could be something naturally occurring. There are several men who are on the verge of scientific breakthroughs which could very well lead men into the stars. However, they are always distracted by their work. I enjoyed this discussion greatly as I was immediately reminded of The Great Filter. It really made me wonder and it was just so clever. The only reason why I would even call this book sci-fi is because of this aspect. While I don’t think The Great Filter is as “mystical” as that, it’s an interesting take.

The other half of the book revolves around the men and their dilemmas. Do they continue their work at the risk of harming their loved ones? These men live and breathe their work. If something was impeding them from doing their work, which could be potentially ground-breaking work, why should they stop if it means elevating humanity? There is a sense of defiance in some of the characters that I admire. But also something touching as they mull over their loved ones and horrors they could put them through.

That being said, I feel like there’s very little actual story in this little book. It’s a lot of back and forth between characters about these two topics. Thankfully, the Strugatsky brothers do make the characters quite interesting and inject enough personal issues to make it fiction.

There is no wonder why the Strugatsky brothers are one of the greatest science fiction writers. They approach science fiction from a very human perspective. The human reaction to technology is core to science fiction and they just nail it.