The Strugatskys are among the most Westernized sources of Eastern European SF, and normally their work thus rings familiarly upon the ears of the American aficionado. But competitive pressure from Poland's Stanislaw Lem has apparently sent them back in search of their roots. The result in [the case of Definitely Maybe] is a story that combines the gloomy desperation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's seminal We with a Lem-like satirical strain expressed as slapstick humor.
The proposition is that the universe can sense attempted reversals of entropy—the grand thanatopsical running-down of all energy to the state of matter at Absolute Zero. The Strugatskys postulate that the universe wants it that way. Accordingly, whenever intelligent life begins making fundamental discoveries about how the universe works—discoveries which might have anti-entropic practical applications—the universe frustrates them. So far, so good, but by faking liquor orders at the grocery, sending nubile "cousins" to overwrought savants whose wives are on vacation, and causing mature trees to appear overnight in barren courtyards?
Zamyatin—a contemporary of H. G. Wells and, oddly enough, a spiritual father of Ayn Rand—finds his best Western reflection in George Orwell. What was passable in the early chaotic days of the 20th century in Russia, however, is not likely now. Nobody who lives there is going to publish a version of 1984 these days. Lem, a cantankerous and very self-aware personality, writes satires on human folly … carefully out of context. So it is perhaps inevitable that the Strugatskys' self-conscious universe is made frivolous rather than impressive, and that the principal satiric scenes feature drunken comic scientists declaiming at each other like dialecticians rather than like even broadly cartooned investigators of real things.
Definitely Maybe treats a grand theme slightly. Dedicated thought by the reader will, with patience, reveal the book that might have been written. The human struggle against total obliteration has inspired more than one work of genuine SF literature. The theme awaits proper satirical treatment because the human presumptuousness involved in any contention with infinity is, in truth, good for a gargantuan laugh, as readily as it is for a tear. Few, however, attempt that ambitious mode, preferring the clichéd up-and-at-'em treatment usually given it by conventional SFnists. A pity that circumstance—or something—frustrated the Strugatskys here.
Algis Budrys, "Interstellar Chronicles," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), September 3, 1978, p. E3.∗