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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: "Roadside Picnic"

Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (translated by Olena Bormashenko)
Title: Roadside Picnic 
Plot Type: Science Fiction
Ratings: Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2   
Publisher: Chicago Review Press (2012)

     "First published in 1972 and immediately acclaimed as a science-fiction classic, Roadside Picnic is included on almost every list of the hundred greatest science-fiction novels, despite the fact that it has been out of print in the United States for almost thirty years. It was the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's film masterpiece Stalker and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games that have proven immensely popular. 

     "This brand new translation corrects many of the errors and omissions of the previous one. Finally, one of the greatest science fiction novels-and one of the most popular pieces of Russian fiction-is back in print in an authoritative version. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are the most famous and popular Russian writers of science fiction. Their books have been widely translated and have been made into a number of films. Arkady died in 1991; Boris lived in St. Petersburg until his death in 2012, the year this translation was published."

     Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are the most famous and popular Russian writers of science fiction, and the authors of over 25 novels and novellas. Their books have been widely translated and have been made into a number of films. Arkady Strugatsky died in 1991. Boris Strugatsky died in November 2012. Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of A Wizard of EarthseaThe Left Hand of Darkness, and other science-fiction classics. Click HERE to read the Wikipedia article on the Strugatsky brothers.

     Click HERE or HERE to read a different translation of the novel on line (translator: Antonina W. Bouis, first English translation, 1977).

     Click HERE to read the Wikipedia article on the novel. 

     Click HERE (Part 1) and HERE (Part 2) to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's classic 1979 film, Stalker, on YouTube. (Be sure to click on the "subtitles" icon in the group at the lower right of the screen.) The film is based on Roadside Picnic. Click HERE to read the Wikipedia article on the film.

     Click HERE to read a review of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the series of video games released between 2007 and 2010 that were inspired by the film. The letters in the acronym stand for Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explores, Robbers. The games are set in a different location than the book and the film—in the area surrounding the abandoned city of Chernobyl after the nuclear meltdown of 1986. Click HERE to read the Wikipedia article on the game. 

                       THE NOVEL                       
     Theodore Sturgeon (Red) Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of the extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a "full empty" something goes terribly wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.

     First published in 1972 [in Russia], Roadside Picnic is still widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels, despite the fact that it has been out of print in the United States for almost thirty years. This authoritative new translation corrects many errors and omissions and has been supplemented with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and a new afterword by Boris Strugatsky explaining the strange history of the novel’s publication in Russia.

     Imagine a novel that conjures up two completely different mental images: the closing moments of the 1998 movie Antz and the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. The premise of the novel is that aliens landed on Earth in several small areas, stayed for awhile, and then left—never going beyond the relatively compact borders of their landing areas. Although the people who lived within the Zones eventually died of horrific side effects of the alien invasion, the aliens did not overtly harm the residents. In fact, no one on Earth actually saw them. Now, the Zones have become Chernobyl-like areas of devastation, littered with the detritus left behind by the Visitors. 

     Here, one character presents his hypothesis about the Visit: "A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras…A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about…Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp…and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone's handkerchief, someone's penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers 
Scene from Antz
form another meadow…" 
Yes, it's as if the aliens just made a brief rest stop and then took off, leaving the insignificant denizens of the area to sort through their trash. Just as the citizens of New York City never paid any attention to the ants in Antz, the aliens seemed not to notice the existence of the citizens of Harmont (the town next to the Zone). (Click HERE to watch the final moments of the 1998 movie Antz. Move the cursor along to the very last minute to get the full effect of the camera pulling up and away from the tiny, insignificant ant colony that was the setting for the entire movie. That will give you an idea of how these aliens probably viewed their Earthly rest stop/picnic area/trash dump.)

     Unfortunately for the local citizens, the rubble comprises a variety of unfamiliar and dangerous objects—some visible, some tangible, and some imperceptible to the human eye. The pieces of trash fall generally into several broad categories: items that humans can figure out how to use in some helpful way; items for which humans have been unable to find a use; and items that, if touched or inhaled, cause death or mutilation or mutations. In her excellent Foreword, Ursula K. Le Guin describes the problem: "Most of the mystifying debris is extremely dangerous. Some proves useful—eternal batteries that power automobiles—but the scientists never know it they are using the devices for their proper purpose or employing (as it were) Geiger counters as hand axes and electronic components as nose rings. They cannot figure out the principles of the artifacts, the science behind them." One other side effect of the aliens' Visit is that the dead in the cemetery within the Zone soon begin to rise, but they are so placid and silent (mute, actually) that they have little effect on life in Harmont. This is that rarest of zombie invasions in which the zombies go back home and move in with their living relatives.

     Several groups are interested in the rubbish that litters the Zone: scientists, who want to become rich and famous by discovering new uses for these items; anti-Zone people who want all of the trash to stay in the Zone; and stalkers who go out alone or in pairs to collect bits and pieces from the Zone and sell them on the black market to the highest bidder. Most of the stalkers don't live very long because they go into very dangerous areas within the Zone and frequently come in contact with invisible traps, lethal liquids, and various other dangerous substances. One stalker, for example, steps in some slime that melts away the bones in his legs, and another suffers a fatal heart attack soon after brushing against a silvery web. 

     Redrick (Red) Schuhart, the hero of the story, is a stalker whose DNA is mutated to the point that he fathers a child who looks like a monkey: "The Monkey was dozing peacefully...she was a small sleeping animal. Redrick couldn't resist it and stroked her back, covered in warm golden fur, and for the hundredth time marveled at how silky and long it was…" Monkey or not, Red loves his daughter, and he dedicates his life to stalking the Zone so that he can make enough money to support his family.

     The book is divided into four parts that take place over a period of about eight years. The first, second, and fourth are told from Red's point of view, and the third takes the perspective of his friend, Richard H. Noonan. The first two sections follow Red as he goes in and out the Zone, sells his loot, and interacts with his family and friends. At the end of the second section, Red gets caught and is sent off to jail. His friend, Noonan, looks out for Red's family (and admires his wife), while running his own loot-fencing business. In the final section, Red gets out of jail and agrees to make one final run into the Zone to bring back the Golden Sphere, which—according to legend—will grant a person's deepest, most heartfelt wish. The Sphere is the Holy Grail of the stalkers.

Debris at Chernobyl
Abandoned Gas Masks at Chernobyl
     This is classic Russian science fiction: a bleak and dreary setting; beaten-down, hopeless citizens; and uncaring, inefficient government officials. The descriptions of the Zone reminded me of the descriptions and photographs of the Chernobyl disaster. For me, the best parts of the story were the straightforward narrative scenes in which Red heads into the Zone, butts heads with the villainous guys who buy his loot, and makes his final journey. The most hopeful scenes are right at the beginning when Red is working in a laboratory with Kirill, a scientist who has become his friend (and who, unfortunately, has some really bad luck on his first trip into the Zone).

     Towards the end, the authors have a pair of characters muse on various aspects of the human condition, and those parts sometimes get rather draggy. The high point of those discussions is their conversation about the hubris of human beings. We arrogant humans tend to believe that we are at the highest end of the intelligence scale, never imagining that there could be another race that is far superior to us. One character describes the aliens' Visit as a "unique event that could potentially allow us to skip a few rungs in the ladder of progress. Like a trip into the future of technology. Say, like Isaac Newton finding a modern microwave emitter in his laboratory." Although some people fear that the aliens will return, this character believes that the aliens never even noticed that the humans were there (like the ants in Antz). The other character is outraged by this viewpoint: "Damn you scientists! Where do you get this disdain for man?" He just can't accept the fact that anyone could possibly ignore the human race.

     One aspect of the story that makes it solidly modern is the effect of technology on the world of the stalkers. "A new breed of stalker has appeared--armed with technology. The old stalker [like Red] was a sullen, dirty man, stubborn as a mule, crawling through the Zone inch by inch on his stomach, earning his keep. The new stalker is a tie-wearing dandy, an engineer, somewhere a mile away from the Zone, a cigarette in his teeth, a cocktail by his elbowsitting and watching the monitors." It's like the difference between a Revolutionary War soldier armed with a sword and a Gulf War soldier armed with an automatic weapon, or the difference between a WWII fighter pilot and a 21st century drone operator, or the difference between the old-time American mob and the modern Russian cyber Mafia. Technology marches on.

     The authors get in plenty of sly digs at creaky bureaucracy, useless public officials, and single-focused police officers, but this is not a political rant by any means. It does portray the barrenness and futility of life as it was under the Soviet regime, but these citizens are not in an uproar about politics or anything else for that matter. Their lives are focused on survival, not on revolution. Red is just a guy—a hard-drinking, hard-working, under-the-radar petty thief who wants the best for his wife and his Monkey girl.

     I had some difficulty with the ending, which could be interpreted in a number of ways, but that didn't negate my enjoyment of the story. Red's adventures—both dark and light—are so entertaining that they made up for the tragic ambiguities of the ending. If you are a science fiction fan, this book should be on your to-read list.

     To read or listen to an excerpt from Roadside Picnic, click HERE to go to the novel's page where you can click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

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