I just finished reading my fourth novel by the brothers Strugatsky and for the fourth time I wonder how these Russian sci-fi novelists are not more popular, because hardly anyone I know has heard of them. “Strugatsky”, in my opinion, should be right up there with all those writers’ names that everyone has at least heard of, if not read. Not only is their prose extremely interesting, it is so well written, that it surpasses the “genre” and fits right in with the reputed works of modern fiction.
My boyfriend thinks that they found a very inconvenient time to be Russian writers. They wrote most of their novels in the ’60s and ’70s, so he thinks they would have definitely reached the masses had they been American during the Cold war.
Still, it’s not to say no one knew about them. One of the greatest movie directors of all times, Andrey Tarkovsky, made his famous movie “Stalker” after their novel “The Roadside Picnic”. That’s one of their novels I read and I highly recommend it.
Side-tracked from a great discovery
My last read by the Strugatskys, “A Billion Years Till the End of the World,” as is its literal translation, or “Definitely Maybe”, as is its official translation in English, is another very pleasant and surprising reading experience for me. Surprising, because I usually don’t expect that amount of literary skill and philosophical musings in a sci-fi novel. I wouldn’t, actually, call this a sci-fi book at all. I think it would even be stretching it to say it is futuristic. Because to me, this book talks about very real things in a nicely mysterious, weird way.
Malyanov is a scientist who is on the verge of a great discovery involving stars, diffuse matter and how they affect one another. Or something like that. He is very excited about his work and we often hear his inner discussions with himself, tracking his thought process and how he evaluates new ideas that pop in his mind. He feels he is on to something big.
From page one, before we even learn what he actually does, how he lives, that he has a wife and son who are away on vacation allowing him to work in peace, etc., strange things start happening. We don’t even realize at first that something is out of the ordinary: mistaken phone calls, unexpected delivery of a box full of expensive liquor and other treats, and very soon a visitor who claims to be his wive’s childhood friend and wants to stay overnight. She is attractive and comfortable, so why not? She spaces out a few times during their conversation, which is when I start thinking: maybe she is an alien, but only because I know this is officially a science fiction novel.
Soon Malyanov starts talking to his other “notable figure” friends, all of whom are currently working on important discoveries in different fields. It turns out all of them are being side-tracked from their work in crazy ways. One of them is offered a fantastic position as director of some institute, which will provide him excellent work opportunities and improve his finances by far. The other is receiving visits from women all the time and sometimes there are more than one of them in his apartment, fighting over who will get to him. That’s no way to work, really…
Aliens in our way
They start hearing rumors about some advanced civilization that has made it a point of preventing people from discovering certain things about the universe, because these discoveries will supposedly bring an end to life as we know it.
The choice is brought upon Malyanov: he can continue fighting with the invisible force until it kills him, but he’ll have the satisfaction of continuing his life’s work, knowing he didn’t succumb, or he can surrender and continue living with his family, perhaps hating himself for the rest of his life.
The novel is dialogue-dense and I love good dialogue. Luckily, it’s very well translated so I really enjoyed Malyanov’s and his friends discussions on life, science and ethics between sips of vodka or whiskey and bites of caviar.
I also like how the novel ends and think that only very confident and skilled writers can pull off such ending. The whole book is a metaphor for how brilliant minds are on the frontier of progress, how they are often also the victims of progress, and how the rest of us live our tiny little lives, while they fight the universe.
If you’ve never read anything by the brothers Strugatsy, I suggest you start with “Space Apprentice” (my favorite), then “The Roadside Picnic” (excellent and dark) and then move up and down their bibliography list anyway you choose. Though I only read four of their novels, I feel like not one of their books can be a disappointment.
P.S. Though I haven’t seen it, the plot of The Zero Theorem suggests that Terry Gilliam stole the idea from the Strugatskys. I like his movies, I think he’s brilliant, and there’s nothing wrong with stealing a little – all creatives do it – but maybe he should have been more subtle? (If he really did do it.)