ROADSIDE PICNIC

Posted: December 14, 2014 in Chat
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ROADSIDE PICNIC, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Published by Gollancz Sciene Fiction, 1977

CAUTION Contains Spoilers!

RP1

For such a short book this is extraordinarily provocative.
Published in the Soviet Union by two technical and science professionals, the novel keeps close to the real world. And this allows any deviation to appear even more devastating.
The book gives us a number of accounts over a period of time, of an event that happened in the recent past.
Style-wise we hear ‘70’s gritty Americana, full of dime-store fiction traits, and reeling with unregenerated gender mine-fields. The setting of the book is in fact an undisclosed area of America.

The basic premise is given early on, and we learn the details and consequences as the different narratives develop.
Twenty year’s previously the Earth was visited by an alien race. It seemed to happen on a sudden and be over before anyone unconnected realised.
The opening narrator is a Nobel Prize winning scientist, whose work revealed the origin of the Visitation to have been in the region of Cygnus. Coming in on the earth’s transit the Visitors landed in an arc of six separate places across the surface of the earth.
What was discovered in these places afterwards was so anomalous and dangerous that these landing places had to be fenced off, isolated: people had to be protected from them. The Zones were the site of strange artefacts, substances, occurrences.

Local people not caught in the original Visit became ensnared in a fascination for the Zone. Stalkers would enter in secret , learn safe pathways, where the danger areas were, and bring out objects. Red Schuhart was one of these. Stalking was punishable by imprisonment, but it was a compulsion. The objects retrieved developed their own black market system, because some, like the batteries that never ran out, showed great potential.  But there were also spillages: ditches full of ‘witches  jelly‘ which we later learn was colloidal gas – no matter what the name its effect on the human body was devastating.

Stalkers developed their own terminology for what they came across in the Zone: witches jelly, so-so’s, mosquito mange, black sprays.
Scientific Institutes provided a legitimate outlet for interest in the Zones. Red took a post at the Institute. His boss was a Russian, Kirill, the only one Red could respect and admire; Kirill’s motives were purely scientific, but he was careful, knew how to play the game with the authorities and yet retain his integrity.
They were working with ‘empties’ until  Red mentioned he knew where there were some ‘full empties’. What were these? No one knew – the Zones contained areas of a completely unknown kind of physics. ‘Empties’ were like glass jars, with metal top and bottom – only the glass, or whatever was the container material was not visible or accessible to analysis: two metal discs held in an unbreakable relationship; but Red had seen them contain blue material in between.

In one of the witty concepts of the book they gained a license to enter the Zone, and used the ‘flying boot’, a kind of hover car. The ‘full empties’ were obtained, and Red paid handsomely, but the consequences were severe: a moment’s lapse of concentration led to disaster. And guilt. Money, guilt and a mind increasingly disordered by Stalking in the Zone left Red to count the continual cost.

What was the Visitation? At one point Red runs through the possibilities – was it a statement of intent by an alien race, of contact? Will they come again? It was certainly an indication that we are not alone in the universe, and that there were other intelligent beings out there. That they had an interest in us. Later he wondered with a jolt – was it the beginning of an invasion? A slow seep of poisonous ideas and materials into our ordered world? Or was it, as someone else said, just a roadside picnic site – that they never even knew or cared we were there? That all these objects, anomalies left behind were just the garbage and refuse of lazy, loutish picnic-ers?

All this alien technology threw our own scientific knowledge and certainties into the waste bin. And along with them our ideas and hopes of progress. Our own civilisations can be seen to be no more that errors, blips, on the universe.

And then we begin to see the ecological impact implicit in this – a mirror of our own impact on the earth. The spill-off materials altered the soil, composition and environment of the Zones in unpredictable and unimaginable ways. It was found that the children of Stalkers were different; there was no detectable radiation in the Zones, but things were beginning to happen. Red’s own daughter changed – she was born with a hair covering, but a child despite that. In time she became less human, but not some other species. One night Red’s father appeared; he had died years before the Visit. ‘They aren’t people’, scientists declared. ‘We call them moulages’ they were the bones of the dead, and flesh material had gathered around them again. They walked, ate, breathed. What were they?
Like Red’s daughter they were not human, nor an alien species, but existed in some form, in some definition.

And the denouement was a trek into the Zone for the fabled Golden Ball.
It granted wishes, the legends said. As Red made the perilous journey it was a journey into the self: they will not be any old wishes it grants, they will the deepest wishes, the deepest most unknowable of the heart’s desires. He was the last of the real Stalkers – only he had the nous, the  knowledge for a protracted, perilous journey through the Zone.

All along, with the terrible price he was willing to pay, he had to prove he was worth this, that he was fundamentally a ‘good’ man – even with his petty, lowdown history, with the last ultimate deed he allowed happen, he had to be fundamentally ‘good’, ‘honest’, one of the few, the book reveals, of the surrounding sharks, gangsters and abusers of the community around the Zone.

The book leaves us with this.
We now realise he never intended to come back; his last act was to be one of sacrifice for the greater good.

Was that a wish to wipe away the Zones altogether, as if they never happened? Was ignorance preferable? Or did he wish something else?

Theodore Sturgeon in his Introduction writes of the book’s ‘deft handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness…’. Another angle of the book is that between the ideal, desired, and reality. The book opens with Doctor Valentine Pilman trying to deflect the interviewer from pinning him down as the originator of the Visitor origin area: it was not so straight-forward or simple, a boy came up with the idea, but he got the Prize.
Throughout we see the desired life, rewards, and then the reality at odds with each other. At the end we see the Golden Ball –… only then Redrick looked up at the ball. Carefully. With caution. With a sudden fear that it would turn out wrong – that it would disappoint him… it was not golden, it was more a copper colour…’.

The influences of the book can be seen in Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’, based on the Red’s character.

RP2

The witch’s jelly/colloidal gas’s effects can be seen in the the ‘mineral acid’ blood of the aliens in the film Alien . The Zone uncannily reflects Chernobyl’s own devastated zone.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky:

RP3

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