Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Blogging from the Bookshop: On the Strugatsky Brothers' Definitely Maybe

"....the white July heat, the hottest it had been in two hundred years, engulfed the city. The air shimmered over red-hot rooftops. All the windows in the city were flung open, and in the thin shade of wilting trees, old women sweated and melted on benches near courtyard gates."
from Definitely Maybe

Ah, the old Neversink over the face. A signature indie bookseller move.
I claim no originality, but false modesty aside, I do think it looks good on me.  

Definitely Maybe, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. Melville House Neversink Library, 2014. 160 pages; 15$. A strong case could be made that the Strugatsky brothers are among the most important sci-fi writers of the 20th Century. Their cult 1971 novel Roadside Picnic, in which government-patrolled remains of alien crash sites known as "zones" birth a subculture of young urban exploration renegades called 'stalkers' who smuggle dangerous contraband alien technology on the black market, was the basis for filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's mystical art house sci-fi classic Stalker, for which the Strugatskys also wrote the brilliant screenplay. We can count among the Strugatskys living champions Ursula K. Le Guin, Theodore Sturgeon, Hari Kunzru and many others. They wrote high-stakes, philosophical and speculative sci-fi under close scrutiny from censors within the Iron Curtain, brazenly defying and satirizing the very real and dangerous ideological fervour of the Soviet era in which they lived with sly social commentary and searing wit. (A fascinating afterword to the 2012 reissue of Roadside Picnic, written by surviving brother Boris, chronicles in detail the oppressive creative conditions of the time and the novel's close brushes and daring escapes among the authoritiesthe consequences of artistic transgression and not toeing the Party line were very real indeed, and a mixture of ingenuity, fortitude and luck allowed Roadside Picnic and other Strugatsky novels find their way into print). Luckily for English readers, their books are also beginning to find their way into translation: Definitely Maybe is the latest addition to Melville House's always golden Neversink Library, and the occasion marks both it's first appearance in English, and the first time it has been published in a completely unexpurgated version.

It tells the story of astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov, who has sent off his family in order to isolate himself so that he can work distraction-free on the project he is certain will win him the Nobel Prize. And yet he just can't seem to get down to business. Once the Interruptions begin, they don't seem to want to stop. An unexpected delivery of a crate of vodka and caviar, a beautiful young woman in a provocative short skirtand then several of his peers and friends show up, also claiming they were on the verge of a major discovery when...Is there something in the air that wants to forestall human progress? Is it the disembodied will of the universe? God? Or are the distractions engineered by a far less mysterious force? And what will happen when Dmitri begins to seek out the cause? Definitely Maybe is political satire by way of probing speculative fiction, a suspenseful nail-biter that asks how one can hope to "explain fantastic events without a fantastic hypothesis?" 

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