When discussing Soviet-era science fiction, it is impossible to omit the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Despite their relation, their separation in early life lead to each bringing wholly unique experiences into their collaborative works. Notably, Arkady’s time as a translator for both English and Japanese while in the military, and Boris’ education in astronomy. These tidbits show up in nearly all of their works, but are even more pronounced in Definitely, Maybe, or A Billion Years Before the End of the World. This deeply personal connection to Definitely, Maybe is seen in little details such as the character Glukhov’s interest in US-Japan relations, or Malianov’s big discovery being galactic “M cavities”. “We saw ourselves in the subtext,” wrote Boris in the afterward, “all the characters have a prototype… …it was a piece of our life, a very concrete, very personal life, filled with absolutely concrete people and real events.”
This element of “real”-ness is easily seen in the text itself. Of the novels read so far for this project (excerpts from I, Robot, The Left Hand of Darkness, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Solaris), the characters and reactions from the group of scientists in Definitely, Maybe have read, to me, the most lifelike. The issue the men grapple with, while of course equally as obtrusive when compared to the other aforementioned titles, is more subtle, more human in its approach. I was impressed with how many conflicting emotions and thoughts the brothers were able to fit in the modestly long novel. While only 143 pages, the cast portrayed different fears, values, and personalities. And, perhaps most impressive, I found myself pleasantly surprised at the presence and character of Malianov’s wife, Irina.
There are two major female characters in the novel, Lida Ponomareva (Lidochka), an incredibly attractive woman who claims to be an old classmate of Malianov’s wife, and Irina, the wife. Lidochka is a deliberate distraction, implied to have been sent to Malianov’s apartment by separate force to lead the man off the track of discovery—and, later, to stir tension between him and his wife. Lidochka had purposefully left a pink bra in Malianov’s apartment, despite being described as deliberately not wearing one, implying the action to be purposefully obtrusive. Irina, on the other hand, is a source of comfort to Malianov. Her presence soothes him, and she miraculously believes him when he attempts to explain what was happening to himself and his colleagues. However, while Irina is often a positive influence in Malianov’s life, she too is shown to hold back his ambitions. Where Lidochka attempts to sabotage Malianov’s work with direct involvement, Irina’s presence is too valuable to Malianov, and he worries about losing her. The thought of putting her and Bobchik, their son, in danger was the final push to get Malianov to “give up”. When finally forfeiting his work to Vecherovsky, “Bobchik” was all Malianov had to say in explanation when handing the envelope to his cohort.
If both Lidochka and Irina are distractions to Malianov, and they are the only two women in the entire book, how do the Strugatsky’s keep this from being cliché, or worse, a reflection on all women? Most effective is the fact that Irina is never portrayed as a shrill. When she cuts her vacation short to return home and finds not only her husband acting odd but also another woman’s bra in their son’s room, her reaction is understandably and realistically upset. Still, it is not comically so. When she rebukes him, she does so “calmly and cuttingly”, and though she is crying, she is not weeping hysterically, or throwing things at him, or any other typical “hysterical wife” action. In fact, when Malianov understands the situation and lets out an exclamation, she looks at him with hope, for she does not want the situation to be as it is.
While he explains his plight, he rests his cheek on her leg, and she caresses his hair as a storm overpasses them. This position poses Irina as not only caregiver but also protector. Malianov is expressing his most vulnerable self, for there is no real reason for Irina to believe him besides trust alone. But because she accepts him, and comforts him, this places her in a position of near power over him. It is comforting, but at the same time, now he truly cannot leave. She even tries to reason with him, and provides some insightful commentaries on the situation. “And it’s really not important what you decide,” she says, references to whether or not he continues his research, “The important thing is that you’re capable of such discoveries.” While Malianov is unconvinced, it is not presented that she is simply too stupid to understand the situation at hand. He values her, and it feels as though the Strugatsky’s value her as well. She is a character, while maybe not going far past “Malianov’s wife”, she certainly feels more alive than the dead wives in 2001 and the manmade women of Solaris.