In Roadside Picnic, a classic novel of Russian science fiction, aliens have landed on several locations on Earth, remained briefly, and then just as mysteriously disappeared. They’ve left behind artifacts in landing areas known as Zones, dangerous places where people encounter bizarre obstacles that can kill without warning, sometimes swiftly and sometimes slowly, such as burning fluff, death lamps, and spitting devil’s cabbage. Many people who enter the Zone, even those with special suits who work for the army and scientific organizations, die gruesome deaths.
Natural laws change within the Zones. Gravity shifts, becoming so powerful it can suddenly crush and kill in areas called graviconcentrates. No radiation has been located within the Zones, but the children of Stalkers are sometimes born mutated. The protagonist’s daughter, Maria, affectingly called Monkey by her parents, is covered with silky, golden, long fur and over times has become less responsive to the world around her. Resurrected corpses, known as moulages, shamble into town from cemeteries within the Zone.
When the aliens first landed, the inhabitants of one neighborhood, termed the Plague Quarter, died from a horrible disease. In three neighborhoods everyone went blind because of a loud noise, an impossibility according to the doctors treating them. In many abandoned buildings, Witches Jelly, a flaming substance that burns at the touch, breathes malignly. Since Chernobyl this novel has anachronistically taken on resonance because its abandoned and apocalyptic community is reminiscent of Russia’s nuclear disaster. The film Stalker was loosely based on the novel, and it heavily influenced the video game, S.T.AL.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. The novel portrays the aftermath of bizarre, inscrutable, incredibly advanced aliens landing on Earth, and demonstrates Arthur C. Clarke’s theorem that any sufficiently advanced science can appear to be magic.
A Nobel Prize winning scientist, Valentine Pilman, postulates that the Zones are the remains of a roadside picnic. “A car drives off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond” (107). Humans are the insects and animals staring at the bizarre and terrifying after affect of the picnic, and encountering the incomprehensible artifacts the aliens left behind. The roadside picnic is only one theory for the Visitation. Another, more comforting explanation, is that the aliens deliberately left the artifacts behind to help humanity raise itself to the next level of technology, much like Clarke’s monolith guided human evolution in 2001.
The Brothers Strugasky were two of the most popular SF writers in the world. Arkady Strugatski was a humanities scholar who studied English and Japanese and worked as a translator and editor before becoming a writer. Boris Strugatski was a computer mathematician at an astronomical observatory before writing science fiction full time. With their combined literary and scientific background, they made the perfect SF writer. Their early books were optimistic and socialistic and met the approval of the Soviet authorities. After that, their work displayed a greater appreciation of the tragedy of human history, and often satirized the bureaucratic morass of the Soviet Union, making it difficult to publish. Soviet authorities delayed publication of Roadside Picnic for years, and when it was printed censors rewrote sections and changed the names of characters.
Roadside Picnic critiques xenology, which the authors claim is the attempt to apply human psychology to aliens. The Strugatskys, instead of creating humanoid aliens, depicted inscrutable beings whose motivations we cannot understand. We never see the aliens and don’t know their motivations or even their appearance; we only see the effects of their landing. The aliens may not have even noticed the human race during the Visitation, any more than we would notice an ant colony. The greater civilization leaves us postulating theories about the reason for the Visitation and the purpose of the artifacts left behind. The characters pick over the god-like aliens’ refuse, which has revolutionized human