Malianov is trying to work, but he keeps getting distracted. He’s an astrophysicist employed at an elite Soviet institution, living in an apartment with other scientists, and he’s on the cusp of what he thinks might be a great discovery. The weather is hot, which is not good for work, and his wife is gone with their son, which is very good for work, but somehow he is constantly getting interrupted. First, a man comes to deliver a big box of delicacies - chocolate, caviar, and copious amounts of premium alcoholic drinks. Such a box is something neither Malianov nor his wife can afford, and there isn’t any other source it could have come from. Then his friends (also scientists, but in different fields) start calling him, asking questions about his work they’ve never asked before. You have to keep in mind that these are the times distraction has to come from the outside in the form of other human beings. Alien to our twitter-driven, endorphin-addicted modern culture, but it shouldn’t take too much imagination to put yourself in Malianov’s shoes. Through the next couple of pages, it turns out that Malianov is not the only one being mysteriously distracted from his work; his friend Weingarten soon appears on stage, with another in tow, to make the matters more complicated.
What follows is a genuinely creative story on science and progress, the kind you don’t read that often these days due to a couple of reasons. To begin with, it’s not only about the technical workings of technology or science, but about how we as humans engage with it, and even make it. The reader gets a look into the elite of the Russian science establishment, which is genuine I think, because the Strugatsky’s were connected in it, with one of them being an astronomer and mathematician. The scientific jargon used in conversations is excellent, and doesn’t read forced at all. Malianov, for example, is an astrophyisicist, and mentions about a mathematical property of stars having a certain shape. To give a documented example of physicists working in a similar manner, Richard Feynman writes in his collection of anecdotes Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! that when listening to descriptions of mathematical treatments, he forms distinct objects in his head, giving them colors and shapes, sometimes spikes and hair. A recurring joke is that Malianov figures out that a certain Hartwig’s function is promising for his research problems, but due to the repetitive distractions, he cannot follow the idea to completion. A quick Google search reveals that there is a Hartwig who is an astrophysicist, but he’s too young for his findings to feature in the novel, so I’m assuming the function in the novel is fabrication, but it’s definitely the kind of thing you have in physics texts.
One would think that a book whose contents are as I have described until this point would be mostly exposition, but that’s fortunately not the case. It is in fact enchanting how much conversation there is in the book, and how entertaining and realistic it is. Malianov is constantly conversing with his guests, accompanied with copious amounts of alcohol – thanks to the crate of alcohol practically delivered at the beginning of the book. One can practically hear them drunkenly moving from topic to topic, masterfully rendered by the Strugatskys, without falling into a pattern of he-said-she-saids. The humor in the conversations is mostly derived from old friends playfully insulting each other, but there are a couple of comic factors, such as Zakhar’s getting burdened with an insolent child, that provide just the correct amount of absurdism. The conversation frequently contains very interesting Russian phrases, such as “There’s the estate and there’s the water”, uttered by Snegovoi, which turns out to be significant later on, but to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really understand why.
The longest and most animated of the conversations takes place in Malianov’s kitchen after his buddy Weingarten and Weingarten’s friend Gubar descend upon him with their stories of distraction. They sit in the kitchen and wreck their brains, trying to come up with a solution to their predicament. If this were some ordinary novel, there would be a resolution, wherein a root cause for the events would be revealed, and the wonderous events would achieve an explanation, even if it were an explanation just as wonderous. In the long chat in Malianov’s kitchen, the characters go through some possible explanations, such as an alien supercivilization or maybe a “group of nine” who steer the future of the world. Malianov is not too late to make fun of such an explanation, also getting rid of any expectations one might have that the novel will take such a simple direction: “Make sure Pioneer Vasya breaks up the evil gang in the end and saves the world” (p. 81). It comes down to Vecherovsky, a character that serves as the good angel of the whole story, to dissimulate the others of their theories, and also give what could be what I would term the non-theory that could be the canonical explanation of the happenings. His main argument against a superior force being behind what they end up calling “pressure” is that it is just another myth, like religion, and does not have any effect on what one should do now. But where does this pressure come from? Vecherovsky’s theory is that it is not some conscious actor with a name and will, but nature itself that is trying to keep a kind of equilibrium. Nature is trying to keep humanity from reaching a level where it decodes so much of nature that it can bend it to its will. The reason I would call this a non-theory is that the actor is non-entity, and it directs the attention to the more ethical question of what to do now?
If you are a scientist, or even a knowledge worker, spending time trying to concentrate in front of an empty piece of paper or editor window, you cannot avoid asking yourself: Is there a more personal reading of this book, as the individual’s drive to walk away from work, because shinier things are right over there? Maybe the distractions are all coming from the inside, and the whole conspiracy is something the scientists, driven to madness by the heat, are cooking up, in order not to feel guilty? The fact that some of the “pressure” to avoid work appears to be psychosomatic, as in the case of Glukhov, who after gathering material for his research project for a decade, had to lay it all down, because he got very strong headaches the moment he sat to it, is fuel for this approach. If you feel, like I did, that this is the more faithful reading of the Strugatskys’ story, you will have to heed the answer Vecherovsky, the conscience of the pack of drunk scientists (himself never drunk, coincidentally), gives to their predicament: “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” (p. 117).
There is one thing I just cannot not mention: The cover of this book. It’s a joy to look at and hold in your hand. I thought the graphic was a custom one for this book, but it’s in fact an independent artwork, but it’s a wonder how well it fits the story. This book, not available in English in a proper form in decades, finally got the attention it deserves.
“When I feel bad, I work…When I have problems, when I’m depressed, when I’m bored with life, I sit down at my work. There are probably other prescriptions, but I don’t know them” (p.55).