Sunday, April 30, 2023

Perhaps Absolutely

I'd enjoyed reading Roadside Picnic and was looking for more work from the Strugatsky Brothers. The next book I picked up was "Definitely Maybe." Slightly more slender at around 150 pages, this work is less obviously science fiction, but does ultimately inhabit that space.




The book focuses on a scientist named Malyanov, working at home alone on a research project. As the story continues more and more interruptions come into his life: incessant phone calls, mysterious deliveries, his wife's old friend. He gets increasingly agitated at the situation, eventually drawing into his orbit a cluster of other scientist friends who it turns out are going through their own, not necessarily similar, struggles.

There's a pretty delicious feeling of unease and uncertainty that seeps into the book as it continues. It felt a bit familiar and I've been trying to think of what it reminds me of: maybe the paranoia of Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy or Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. In these works, there's a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence that piles up, and the protagonists are struggling to try and understand how to make sense of it all. These could all just be coincidences, but the odds of it happening strain credulity. Perhaps there is a sinister conspiracy operating behind the curtain, orchestrating these events for some nefarious purpose. Or it could all be a put-on, someone playing a practical joke to make the victims believe in a conspiracy. Or maybe there's some metaphysical dimension to these events that transcend our limited comprehension. The characters variously consider these theories, unable to definitively prove just what the reality is, and the books themselves let the ambiguity extend through to the end.


Something kind of shocking happens about halfway through the novella, not with the book's plot but with its structure: it abruptly shifts from third person into first person. Malyanov had just been the most prominent character, but then he suddenly becomes the narrator, continuing the story as if nothing had changed. Everything else stays the same, including the chapter and section intros. I'm honestly not sure what to make of this, but it's an arresting change.

Near the end of the book, it seems like the hypotheses narrow down to two main possibilities. One kind of reminds me of the Dark Forest hypothesis from Three Body Problem: some intelligent civilization is out there in the universe, and sees humanity as a threat, so it uses its advanced capabilities to block us from crossing the threshold to become a supercivilization. The other is the "homeostatic universe" hypothesis: this is a bit harder to follow, and Malyanov himself admits not completely understanding it, but the idea seems to be that the natural laws of the universe seek to maintain an equilibrium between the forces of entropy (another great Pynchon analogue!) and the forces of creativity, so when something moves too far in one direction, it inevitably returns to the other: not through any guiding intelligence, but because of the universe's fundamental laws.

The edition I read included two afterwords, one from an author and the other from the translator, giving some context to the book's creation. The Strugatsky Brothers wrote in the Soviet Union and always had to deal with censors and government interference in their book; the translator notes that their work was intensely political, but they had to smuggle in their political messages to be able to publish their work while staying out of jail. In a separate afterword, an author notes that the censors' biggest objection was to the concept of the "homeostatic universe", which I found really interesting. I wonder if it's a coded reference to the rigidity of the Soviet Union as a whole: anything that got too far out of line would need to be hammered back into place in order to maintain social order.


This was a much faster and easier read than I was expecting, and I liked it a lot. I do think that the original title of the book, "One Billion Years Before The End Of The World" is more compelling, but on closer reflection, "Definitely Maybe" probably gets more at the feel of the book: uncertain and uneasy, balanced between possibilities and unable to commit to a single view of the world.

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