Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Definitely Maybe

I just read the novel Definitely Maybe by the Soviet SF authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. (See also.) I will suppress my urge to gush and describe and just say, if you like thoughtful, beautifully written, seedy and itchy prose, this is a very worthwhile read.

Maybe a snippet? Taken at random, cause I gotta get to bed:

Malianov was flabberghasted. He had known Val Weingarten for twenty-five years and Weingartedn had never expressed an iota of interest in Malianov's work. Weingarten had never been interested in anything but Weingarten himself with the exception of two mysterious objects: the 1934 two-penny and the "consul's half-ruble," which was not a half-ruble at all but some special postage stamp. The bum has nothing to do, Malianov decided. Just killing time. Or maybe he needs a roof over his head, and he's just building up to the question?

"What am I working on?" he asked with gleeful malice. "I can tell you in great detail if you like. You'll be fascinated by it all, I'm sure, being a biologist and all. Yesterday morning I finally broke through. It turns out that in the most general assumptions regarding the potential function, my equations of motion have one more integral besides the integral of energy and the integrals of momenta. If the equations of motion are given in vector form and then the Hartwig transformation is applied, then the integration is performed for the entire volume, and the whole problem is reduced to integro-differential equations of the Kolmogorov-Feller type."

To his vast amazement, Weingarten was not interrupting him. For a second, Malianov thought that they had been disconnected.

"Are you listening to me?"

"Yes, very attentively."

"Perhaps you even understand what I'm saying?"

"I'm getting some of it," Weingarten said heartily. Malianov suddenly realized how strange his voice was. He was frightened by it.

"Val, is something wrong?"

"What do you mean?" Weingarten asked, stalling.

"What do I mean? With you, of course! You sound a little funny. Can't you talk right now?"

"No, no, pal. That's nonsense. I'm all right. It's just the heat. Do you know the one about the two roosters?"

Well, that gives the slightest taste of a few of the elements of this story. It's a wonderful example of writing in which essentially nothing happens but the reader is pulled marvellously along to a
satisfying and unusual ending. I found myself tapping tables in anticipation of getting back to Definitely Maybe whenever life got in the way.

Definitely Maybe, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis, Introduction by Theodore Sturgeon. Collier Books, NY NY, 1978. Published in Russian as
За миллиард лет до конца света in 1977.

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