Godforsaken paths

The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Wellcome Collection.  (CC BY 4.0)

One Billion Years to the End of the World
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky,
translated by Antonina W Bouis (1978).
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2020 (1977).

“I was told that this road
would take me to the ocean of death,
and turned back halfway.
Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

Yosano Akiko (attributed)

A physicist, a biologist, an engineer, an orientalist and a mathematician walk into an astrophysicist’s apartment. No, it’s not the start of a joke but essentially the main action of this immersive novella by the Strugatsky brothers, also translated as Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances.

Set in 1970s St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, most of the action takes place in astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov’s apartment while his wife and son escape the city’s hot and humid July oppressiveness in Odessa on the Black Sea. Here he seems to be on the brink of discovering a link between stars and interstellar matter which he dubs ‘Malianov cavities’.

But he is constantly being interrupted, by phone calls, a delivery from the deli, even a visit from one of his wife Irina’s schoolfriends. And he is not the only specialist who isn’t able to settle to achieving a breakthrough — which is where the physicist, biologist, engineer, orientalist and mathematician come in. What is there to link their inability to progress their work, and who or what is causing it?

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‘All right,’ Weingarten said very calmly. ‘These events did happen to us?’
‘Well, yes.’
‘The events were fantastic?’
‘Well, let’s say that the were.’
‘Well then, buddy, how do you expect to explain fantastic events without a fantastic hypothesis?’

Chapter 6

The fantastic hypotheses these specialists come up with are that either alien beings from a ‘supercivilization’ are attempting to stop the human race from too rapidly innovating or that a Homeostatic Universe is itself trying to protect itself. These seem to be the only ways to explain why distractions, headaches, mysterious notes, warning visits, even natural phenomena, all seem to conspire to divert the scientists from their work. But are they correct in their hypotheses?

This was such a diverting read, simultaneously humorous, philosophical, suspenseful and speculative. Written during the years when Soviet Russia was under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev the novel is rife with barely suppressed paranoia, a paranoia which — despite being variously ascribed to the notion of ancient masters of the occult, alien intelligences or the Cosmos itself — aroused sufficient suspicion from the Soviet authorities that the novella first appeared in an expurgated form.

Interestingly, apart from occasional exclamations, God is never evoked as the cause of the scientists’ woes, though perhaps the concept of divine intervention in human affairs is ridiculed by the mathematician Vecherovsky:

‘Why measure nonhuman expediency in human terms? And then remember with what force you smack yourself on the cheek to kill a crummy mosquito. A blow like that could easily kill all the mosquitoes in the vicinity.’

Chapter 7

Behind the bewilderment of Malianov and his colleagues, and doubtless the bewilderment of many readers, there is a sense that the whole narrative is really a Cosmic joke — were it not for a couple of unsettling features. Firstly, the story sequence is presented as a series of numbered ‘excerpts’, each often starting or ending mid-sentence, as though extracted from a typescript by an observer. Secondly, about two-thirds or so through the text the excerpts switch without warning from third person to first person, with Malianov himself as narrator whereas before he was the observed subject. With such tricks (along with a suicide, the unexpected appearance of Irina’s friend Lida, a duplicate passport and cryptic telegrams) do the authors maintain the suspense and suspicions so essential to the creation of paranoia. And we mustn’t forget the unbearable heat and humidity that dominate events, even when a thunderstorm precedes the climax, intended to add to the oppressive atmosphere.

As my introduction to the work of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky this slim volume didn’t fail to impress. The brothers survived the siege of Leningrad, with Arkady becoming an editor and translator of Japanese and English texts and Boris working in the fields of astronomy and engineering. Their complementary specialisms feature strongly in this novella (which, incidentally, works well as the basis of a filmscript), from the boffin babble that punctuates the men’s agitated conversations to the citing of authors Graham Greene, John Le Carré and H G Wells, and what must be a quote from a tanka by the Japanese feminist poet Yosano Akiko which peppers the text and eventually concludes it.

The tanka’s bleak, fatalistic nature provides part of the yin-yang appeal of this fiction, and even unconsciously echoes the then unreported meltdown and accidents at the Leningrad nuclear power plant in 1975, not long before the novella’s publication.

Artwork by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com, quote from ‘Babylon’s Ashes’ by James S A Corey

Read for Novellas in November #NovNov and SciFiMonth

27 thoughts on “Godforsaken paths

  1. piotrek

    I don’t know, I think I have a bias against Russian authors… there are some I acknowledge as great, and Strugaccy represent genre in that group, but I rarely enjoy reading them. I should probably read more to get rid of this attitude…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m absolutely no expert in this field, Piotrek, in fact the reverse, so take each one as it comes. All I can say is that this was one I enjoyed and will look out for more Strugatsky-penned fiction—like Roadside Picnic which seems highly rated. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very glad you loved this, Chris – I think it was my first Strugatsky experience and I thought it was marvellous. I love the way they twist things, and in this book you never quite know who’s behind what. With Soviet writing I often see satire and subtexts, and I certainly did with this one – they manage both funny and sinister at the same time, which is no mean feat!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My first Strugatsky too, so looking forward to more now! After I read this and was looking at the background to publication I was wondering how the Soviet authorities managed to expurgate the text without rendering it unintelligible! But yes, simultaneously funny and sinister is exactly what it is. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. John Martin’s images were apparently favourites of the Brontë siblings when they were writing their adolescent chronicles. I used this image to hint at the modern residential tower blocks of Leningrad that the brothers and the characters in the novella lived in, and also the summer storm that threatens through most the narrative. You might like to know that the brothers were held in such hight esteem as SF writers that an asteroid was named after them.


        1. I felt their writing would be very influential and have found that China Mieville’s Railsea owes something to them and Ursula le Guin has written the foreword for an edition of Roadside Picnic.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, this novella has a favourable quote from UKLG on the cover, but I’m now fascinated to know their work fed into Miéville’s Railsea — another reason to read more of their stuff and to think how Le Guin’s early SF might relate.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. It was entirely a chance buy in a bookshop as I was looking for a short SF title and this looked to fit the bill for this month’s events! Definitely intriguing, which I liked.


  3. Pingback: Novellas in November (#NovNov) Begins! Leave Your Links Here | Bookish Beck

  4. Pingback: It’s Novellas in November time – Link to Your Posts Here! #NovNov

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