BOOK REVIEW: "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)
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 technology. A powerpack found in the Zone has created cheap renewable energy, but the aliens almost certainly did not use it for the same purpose; our use of it is similar to a primitive using a calculator as a hammer.
A black market for the alien artifacts exists and stalkers risk their lives illegally entering the Zones at night and bringing out the artifacts to sell. The stalkers deal with black market dealers who buy swag or alien artifacts. Some of them buy the artifacts to sell to scientists; others want to make weapons out of the swag.
The novel focuses on the life of a Canadian stalker, Redrick Schuhart, and is divided into four major sections, when Red is 23, 28, and 31, with one remaining section narrated from the point of view of another person affected by the Zone, Richard Noonan, when he’s 51. The majority of the novel portrays three of Red’s jaunts into the Zone with his partners. In each jaunt one of his partners is either killed or badly wounded. Just the mere fact that Red survives makes him one of the better stalkers (he does end up in jail on a couple of occasions).
Kirill, Red’s only friend, is a scientist who studies the “empties” for the International Institute for Extraterrestrial Cultures. Empties are dual copper disks the size of a saucer held together by an unexplained force with a space of a foot and a half between them. They can’t be pulled apart or pressed together.
In a previous jaunt into the Zone, Red saw a full empty, possibly the only one on Earth, in a Garage. He tells Kirill about it to raise his spirits because Kirill is depressed that his research has told him nothing about the empties.
As Red leads Kirill and his assistant into the Zone to locate the full empty, the novel does a good job portraying Red’s paranoia as he deals with the obstacles and uncertainties of the zone where anything, a shimmering in the air, a shadow, a silvery shining spiderweb in a dark garage could mean death. Kirill backs into the shimmering web, and dies later that night of a heart attack. Red blames himself for the man’s death; after all, he should have warned him or given his eyes more time to adjust to the dim light inside the garage.
In the second expedition, Burbridge, another of Red’s partners, falls into Witches Jelly, which burns his legs off below the knees. Red drags him out of the Zone and drives him to a doctor that attends to Stalkers in exchange for swag.
The novel’s last section details Red’s attempt to find the Golden Ball, a legendary object that grants wishes. His partner is Arthur, Burbridge’s son, and a naïve amateur at stalking. Finding the ball is important because Burbridge wants his legs back, and Red wants his daughter cured of her mutations.
Burbridge had long asked Red to retrieve the Golden Ball, but Red had refused to do so, only agreeing when Monkey goes into a decline and loses mental touch with the world around her.
Burbridge is a deeply flawed character: “He was the last of the old stalkers who had started hunting for treasure right after the Visitation, when the Zone wasn’t called the Zone, when there were no Institutes, or walls, or UN forces, when the city was paralyzed with fear and the world was snickering over the new newspaper hoax. Redrick was ten years old then, and Burbridge was still a strong and agile man – he loved to drink when others paid, to brawl, to catch some unwary girl in a corner. His own children didn’t interest him in the least, and he was a petty bastard even then; when he was drunk he used to beat his wife with a repulsive pleasure, noisily, so that everyone could hear. He beat her until she died” (60). Burbridge is such a bastard that after Red takes him to a doctor, Burbridge’s daughter curses Red for saving her father’s life. After losing his leg, Burbridge becomes a dealer in swag and helps younger stalkers, sometimes at the cost of their lives, to go into the Zone.
Red is reluctant to go after the Golden Ball because he thinks doing so will make him more like Buzzard, which is Burbridge’s nickname. Buzzard had located the GB during a previous stalk, but could not quite reach it and did not have the equipment to bring it out of the Zone. Red and Arthur retrace Buzzard’s route to the GB, which requires navigating through several symbolic obstacles. One obstacle involves crawling through rotten green slime while thunder and lightning explodes directly overhead. When Red clambers through the slime, he thinks: “Whoever walks behind Buzzard walks up to his neck in filth” 143).
The last obstacle before the Golden Ball is the meat grinder, which as the name implies rips apart anyone who passes through it. Someone must die in the grinder before it’s safe for the next person to go through it. The grinder is the primary reason Red has refused to go after the GB in the past. Red dragged Burbridge to safety earlier in the novel; he was not willing to leave even Buzzard to die. Now, to reach the Golden Ball and save his daughter, Red has to lead an innocent to his death. Burbridge told Red that he would send one of his men, someone expendable to die; he ends up sending his son.
Arthur serves as a sacrifice to the Golden Ball, which is the closest thing the stalkers have to a god. The fact that Burbridge is willing to sacrifice Arthur is similar to Agamemnon’s willingness to sacrifice his daughter to Poseidon, or Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to Jehovah. Great sacrifices must be made to gain the gods’ favor.
The novel’s conclusion is ambiguous. When Arthur approaches the Golden Ball, he wishes happiness for everyone; although he’s a fool, he’s more generous than the other characters. As he rushes to the ball, the grinder lifts him into the air and kills him.
Red is overcome with guilt and grief after Arthur’s death and cannot decide what to wish for. He can’t make himself wish for his daughter’s health, money, or happiness; instead he wishes, as Arthur did, for happiness for everyone, but he also states that the all-knowing artifact should know what he really wants and grant it. The novel ends at that point.
Are we to assume that after sacrificing Arthur, Red experiences moral and spiritual growth and requests salvation for the human race? Can the Golden Ball grant salvation or wishes at all? We just don’t know, and the aliens remain enigmatic and possibly indifferent.
Overall, the novel is imaginative and contains excellent characterization and ideas. It’s somewhat bleak, but not overly so: Red remains sympathetic throughout, even when his actions are harsh. He is driven by a quest for transcendence, which he believes he will find in the Zone, and by a desire to protect and provide for his family. The conclusion suggests he may find transcendence.
Critics like to debate the differences between SF written in various countries. I’m not an expert at Russian or Eastern European SF, but I’ve read quite a bit of work by the Strugatsky brothers and by Stanislaw Lem, and one thing I’ve noticed is that they rely on ambiguity more than American SF writers. The tendency to clearly explain dates back to American Golden Age SF, which contained within it a strong faith in science and rationality. Russian SF, on the other hand, is often ambiguous for political reasons. Since the Strugatskys cannot openly criticize their government, they make Canada similar enough to the Soviet Union that an attentive reader realizes the authors are parodying the sclerotic bureaucracy of communism. The Strugatsky’s novels are often ambiguous for aesthetic reasons as well, which explains the enigma of the aliens and the novel’s ending. They demonstrate that alien life might be impossible for us to understand, and that they do not have the same confidence in science and rationality that you see in Golden Age SF. Instead of portraying an independent individual unraveling the mysteries of the novel, as you might see in Heinlein, they show humans encountering the limits of their knowledge and understanding.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?
I don’t see why not. It’s intelligent, well written, and imaginative. With that said and done, if you expect SF to be optimistic or to focus on heroic characters you might not care for the novel.
Staffwriter Robert Bee is a professional librarian and freelance author working out of New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org