Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Reviewed by Karen Langley
Science fiction writing often gets a bad press; dismissed as lightweight genre writing, mocked for some of the horrendous cover art which has graced the books over the years, and rarely taken seriously, the form actually allows for amazing writing and experimentation. From Wells to Ballard, authors have taken on serious subjects using what have become science fiction tropes to approach their issues. A new series from Penguin, the Science Fiction Classics, aims to reverse that view by publishing a number of books which challenge the stereotype, presented in stylish new editions, and I’ll be covering some of these for Shiny New Books.
The first title is from two Russian brothers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who produced many classics of science fiction writing, including Roadside Picnic (filmed as Stalker). The authors have been described by Ursula LeGuin thus: “One of the Strugatsky brothers is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekhov, but nobody is sure which is which.” Their One Billion Years to the End of the World had a complex publishing history, finally making it into print in its original language in 1977. This translation, by Antonina W. Bouis, was initially published in the USA in 1978, and was more recently available in an edition titled Definitely Maybe from Melville House in their ‘Neversink Library’ range. That physical edition (and indeed earlier releases) is now hard to get and expensive, so this is a welcome release in the first batch of the new Penguin imprint.
The Strugatskys set out to tell the story of Malianov, an astrophysicist. The place and time are unclear to start with, but it is in high, hot summer and mention of White Nights soon reveals that the narrative is located in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was during Soviet times). Malianov should be on holiday, but he has sent his wife Irina and son Bobchick away as he feels he is on the verge of a great discovery. However, he is finding it very difficult to work…..
If the weather conditions were not bad enough, there are the interruptions. First, a large delivery arrives from the local store, with caviar, vodka and all kinds of goodies. Then an attractive young woman turns up, apparently an old friend of his wife. His neighbour in the flat opposite, also a scientist, commits suicide and some strange heavies turn up to interrogate Malianov, accusing him of murder. His scientific colleagues visit, relating tales of also being unable to work owing to distractions. Who or what is causing these problems – is it aliens, or some weird supercivilisation? – and does the mathematician Vecherovsky, who lives upstairs, have a clue to the answer?
This is a fascinating book on a number of levels, and very gripping and readable. It’s written as a series of extracts from a journal, so the story dips in and out, which is a clever device to move the plot along, but also keeps you guessing about quite what is happening. Poor Malianov is a likeable protagonist, struggling to keep his thoughts together despite the sabotage to his work which is going on. There are clutches of scientific talk where I’m not sure whether it was real scientific talk or not, but in many ways that doesn’t matter. What matters is Malianov’s struggle – who it is against and what it’s for.
And here we get to the nub of this book – is it science fiction (for which the Strugatskys are known) or is it satire? That’s a good question, particularly as the term sci fi encompasses such a wide range nowadays, from classic speculative fiction a la Wells, to modern space sagas of strange alien armies fighting each other for aeons (and all things in between!) It seems to me that the brothers were using a sci fi format to house their satire – and obviously doing a good job as it got past the censors mainly intact. But if satire is a literary form that critiques the current regime or norm, then this is certainly it – and a satire with depth and compassion.
As a brilliantly written piece of speculative fiction, the story stands in its own right. However, this being a piece of work produced under the Soviet regime, any reader would be looking for a sub-text – and it’s not difficult to find. Malianov’s struggle is obviously an allegorical one, with the right to do his own research challenged by external forces. Of course, these forces represent the huge weight of the Soviet state, a constant malevolent power that seemed to be able to throw things in the path of a citizen in the most unexpected way. Although farcical in places, it’s chilling to find that the methods used to try to stop Malianov are often the same used by the state in Soviet Russia.
Who knows what’s in store for us? Who knows what it will be? The strong will be, and the blackguards will be. And death will come and sentence you to death. Do not pursue the future….
And so the book becomes a poignant discussion of personal integrity – it is easier to be strong if you are a single person like Vecherovsky, who at the end of the book is the only one left fighting. Malianov goes through much soul-searching before coming to his final decision – the consequences of which he will have to live with forever. He recognises that others have faced the same choice he has to make:
I rolled up into a tighter ball. So that’s how it was. The man had been squashed. He was still alive but no longer the same man. Broken flesh, broken spirit. What did they do to him that he couldn’t take? But there must be pressures, I guess, that no man can take.
How this book got published in Soviet times is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of the forces ranged against the protagonists are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche. Malianov’s decision is a realistic, human one and he knows the consequences.
Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.
One Billion Years… manages to be funny and sinister at the same time, and the commentary on the Soviet regime is fascinating. This is a particularly interesting aspect, because as I said at the start of this review, science fiction itself is a genre which at its best explores issues, discusses the world and looks at possible futures for our race. The book is a really thought-provoking and quite emotional read and it’s impressive that the Strugatskys managed to squeeze so much into a short sci fi novel. The new Penguin imprint’s stated aim is to ‘challenge stereotypes about the genre’ and One Billion Years… most certainly does that!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is nostalgic for the future we never had…
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, One Billion Years to the End of the World (Penguin Books, 2020). 978-0241472477, 160pp., paperback.
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