Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz edition, art by Dominic Harman.

Following on from Rendezvous with Rama and Solaris, next up in my sporadic reading of SF that deals with the cosmic weird is the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (coincidentally — or not — another book adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky). First published in the Russian literary magazine Avrova in 1972, then in book form after a five-year delay (the brothers became somewhat frowned upon by the Communist authorities), it first came out in English in 1977, translated by A W Bouis. I read the 2012 translation by Olena Bormashenko (you can read an interview with her here).

The novel is divided into four chapters, dipping into the life of Redrick Schuhart, or “Red” as he’s known, between the ages of 23 and 31. Red is a Stalker, one of a small group of “desperate young men who, despite the grave risks, sneak into the Zone and smuggle out whatever they find”. What, then, is “the Zone”?

Six of these mysteriously transformed areas appeared, suddenly, after an incident known simply as “the Visit”, during which it’s assumed aliens briefly landed on Earth. (It was later calculated, from the path the scattered Zones describe across the surface of the Earth, that they originated from the star Deneb in Cygnus.)

Pocket Books 1978 edition, art by Alan Magee

The Zones’ weirdness is never fully catalogued or even remotely explained. Everything about them seems to defy human understanding of the physical universe. There are, for instance, pockets of sudden, intense gravity (known as “bug traps” to the Stalkers, “graviconcentrate” to the scientists), stepping into which will immediately crush you flat. There are similar areas of intense, blistering heat. A substance the Stalkers call “hell slime” (a “colloidal gas” to the scientists) turns anything that touches it into a similar slime. A voyage of just a few hundred steps into the Zone, then, is fraught with mortal danger, and a need to be constantly ready for something new, deadly, and unexplainable at any moment. The authorities, naturally, stop people from entering, so Stalkers go in at night.

Why go in at all? The Zone is littered with objects of immense value — alien artefacts that scientists are still struggling to understand, but which the black market has found uses (and prices) for. “Spacells”, for instance, are inexhaustible batteries. “Black sparks” are used in jewellery for their property of absorbing light then emitting it in modified form. There’s a bracelet that seems to promote health, and a substance called “blue panacea”. There are also highly dangerous items such as the “death lamp”, which emits a deadly ray (and whose current whereabouts are unknown, along with the Stalker who found it). Other objects are simply mysterious, though are studied at length by scientists. For instance, the numerous “empties”, which are pairs of saucer-sized copper-coloured disks that remain paired together, with a constant 18-inch gap between them, yet no physical connection. In an echo of Lem’s Solaris, numerous papers have been written about these things without anyone coming any closer to understanding how they work, or what they’re for.

The weirdness of the Zones (though we only see one, in the town of Harmont, in an unspecified country) isn’t, though, the focus of the tale. Rather, Roadside Picnic (whose name draws an analogy between the alien detritus of the Zones and what human visitors to a forest might leave behind after a picnic), centres on the lives of people trying to make a living from it. To the Stalkers, the Zone is both a “treasure trove” and “an evil temptation” — “The damned hag. My lifeblood,” as Red says — a place that draws them with the promise of much-needed gains, while ruining them both psychologically and physically. The constant mortal danger, for instance, instils an ingrained cynicism about their own and others’ lives. (Do you rescue a fellow Stalker when he loses his legs to hell slime, or leave him, perhaps even give him a quick death?) And if they do escape, they’re at constant risk of discovery by the authorities; all of them have spent time in jail. There are weirder effects, too. Red, for instance, has had several moments in the Zone when his perceptions become preternaturally, almost painfully, acute. These moments seem to be leaking into his outside-the-Zone life, too, like LSD flashbacks. And then there are the children. Although the Zone is not radioactive, Stalkers’ children tend to have mutations. Red’s daughter is known as the Monkey for her pelt of silky fur. Another Stalker’s daughter is exceptionally beautiful, yet resembles neither of her parents.

As the Stalkers’ dealings with the Zone are on a practical level — how to survive, what to retrieve, how to sell it on afterwards — none of them really pause to think about the deeper implications. That aspect — the more cosmically weird aspect — only gets brought up once, in a conversation with a scientist, Dr Valentine Pillman, to whom the most profound fact about the Zones is their mere existence. They tell us, he says, that we are not alone in the universe, and this single fact outweighs everything else about them. That said, he’s aware that what’s found in the Zones “could potentially allow us to skip a few rungs in the ladder of progress”, if only any of it could be even remotely understood. The current state of Zone-related studies, though, is just a series of “miraculously received answers to questions we don’t yet know how to pose”. (Pillman has the best line in the book, when he speaks of the possible world they might live in if all of the Zones’ mysteries were unleashed: a “time of cruel miracles”.)

So, if Roadside Picnic isn’t explicitly about the weirdness of the universe that’s implied by the Zones, what is it about? One obvious possibility, considering it was written and published in the USSR, is that it’s a criticism of capitalism, in the way the semi-miraculous weirdness of the Zone is immediately exploited in every possible way by these (evidently Western) humans — and, of course, the way this exploitation leads to a moral and spiritual decay in the exploiters. But equally, I wondered if the novel wasn’t a highly-veiled satire on living in a totalitarian state, in the way it presents ordinary human beings doing their best to make a living in the face of this incomprehensible but powerful thing, which operates under no stable set of rules and can issue instant death without a moment’s notice.

The best take I found on the novel, though, came from Theodore Sturgeon, who emphasised the positive moral qualities brought out in the book (the full article is here):

“Add the Strugatskys’ deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness, and you have a truly superb tale, ending most poignantly in what can only be called a blessing. You won’t forget it. ”

The ultimate prize to be found in the Zone is the Golden Sphere, a rumoured object said to be able to grant any wish. It sounds like pure fantasy, but none of the Stalkers question it, and in the final chapter Red sets out to find it. But if the Golden Sphere is the Holy Grail, and the Stalkers the flawed knights that seek it, Red is no pure-souled Galahad. Yet, however cynical and bitter he thinks he’s become, the mere proximity of this ultimate magical object brings out, from some long-dormant depth, a benevolence for all humankind that surprises even himself. And, in a way, this may be the best thing this Holy Grail has to offer him: if it can’t set the entire world magically to rights, the mere possibility of its existence might, nevertheless, restore his deeper humanity.

1979 Penguin edition, art by Adrian Chesterman

Areas of weirdness like the Zone have popped up in this blog before. Ballard’s ever-spreading area of “time dilation” in The Crystal World, for instance. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land could be seen as a sort of inverted zone-of-weirdness, in that its weirdness covers all the world except the one, final island of human normality in the Great Redoubt. Ryhope Wood from the Mythago Wood books is a fantasy zone-of-weirdness, with its own version of “cruel miracles”. The earliest example I can think of is in Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” (the Strugatskys’ Zones have odd colour effects, too), while a more modern take is in Annihilation, based on Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (which I’ve not read).

Reading Roadside Picnic, I felt sure John Clute must have covered Zones, as a category, in the Encyclopedia of SF. And yes, they’re there — and, as a bonus, they’re not even given the wildly unexplanatory sort of nomenclature he so often uses (“Polder”, “Braid”, etc.). I guess Zones are just too strange, and primal, to be given any other name than “Zone”.

Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker was based on his pick of a number of scenarios the Strugatskys suggested, based on their book. It reduces the novel to its simplest element: a journey into the Zone, in search of the central room where wishes come true. The fact that the Stalker leads two men, known only as the Writer (a cynic, to whom the world is “hopelessly boring… ruled by cast iron laws” with no room for miracles or wonders) and the Professor (a physicist, who, it turns out, sees the wish-fulfilling room as a potential creator of would-be-tyrants and world-dictators), made me at first think it was going to be about bringing the “two cultures”, science and art, before a source of mystery and awe. But by the end it’s apparent the actual dichotomy is between these two — who are both intellectuals — and the Stalker himself, a much more innocent and instinctual man, who leads people to the wish-fulfilling room but feels no need to partake of its wonders himself. If this film is about art then the Stalker, not the Writer, is the artist, leading people to the vision, the wonder, and letting them decide how to see it, what to do with it. (He believes the dangers of the Zone aren’t there to ensure only the “good” or the “bad” reach the room, but those “who have lost all hope… the wretched.” The essential survival qualities, for him, are “pliancy” and “weakness”.)

It feels rather like a science fictional version of Waiting for Godot, with an ending almost opposite to the Strugatskys’ burst of hope. Here, the Stalker, who is driven by faith in humanity and a basic sense of wonder, feels worn down by the cynicism of those he takes into the Zone. Nevertheless, he’s drawn back to guiding people into the Zone, for, as his wife says: “It’s better to have a bitter happiness than a dull, grey life.”


Devils by Dostoevsky

When I first read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I came away with a list of books he’d mentioned that I was determined to read, and thirty or so years later I’ve finally got round to one of the last of them, Devils by Dostoevsky (also translated as Demons and The Possessed), having previously read — though a long time ago, now — Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The thing that sold me on the book was that Wilson made it sound like a combination of thriller and existentialist exploration of the human condition. In the run-up to tackling it, I read a few short articles and watched an introductory video or two — it’s a long book, and I needed to supercharge my enthusiasm to get stuck into it — and everyone presented it in pretty much the same way: it’s about a nihilist/anarchist cell in a small, mid-19th century Russian town who commit a series of terrible crimes in the knowledge that a certain Kirillov has agreed to sign a letter taking the blame, before ending his own life.

But the nihilist/anarchist portion of the novel, though undoubtedly the best part of it, only takes up about a quarter of the book, if that.

Throughout reading Devils (in Michael R Katz’s translation from Oxford World Classics), I was constantly reminded of David Lindsay’s take on its author:

“Of all the writers, Dostoevsky is perhaps the greatest. Not one of his characters is real and life-like; they are simply carriers of emotions. This makes his books dull and boring. But after yawning through a hundred pages, suddenly a passage arrives which is not only pure gold itself, but which makes one realise that the previous hundred pages have been pure gold.”

I don’t know if I can agree with this entirely. Are his characters not lifelike? I remember thinking the same of Dickens, whose characters are basically caricatures, until I realised that most of the people I knew casually would absolutely work as Dickensian-style characters — and I’m sure the same is true of me from their perspective. (And who are we to say what is “lifelike” of a novel written a century and a half ago? Reading a classic novelist like Dostoevsky or Dickens, I always wonder if, in some subtle way, we’re getting a glimpse of how people genuinely were back in the nineteenth century. I particularly like, in Devils, how a character like Shatov can be so fiercely shy, that when asked a direct question he’ll stare determinedly at the ground for minutes then leave without saying a word, yet people still like him and he gets invited to all the social gatherings. Maybe people were generally more tolerant of a greater range of personality types in those days?)

I’d also disagree with Lindsay that, when the great passages come, they turn the previous ones into gold. With Devils, I seriously wonder if the bulk of the book really adds much to the bits I most enjoyed (the nihilist/anarchist bits). But that’s not to say it’s without any effect. The main cast of nihilist/anarchists don’t turn up until the end of part one of this three-part novel, but when they do, Dostoevsky’s narrator has had the chance to build them up with rumours and anecdotes, meaning they come loaded with a sort of star quality that instantly sets them apart. When they finally appear, it feels like things are getting underway at last. (And they do — for a bit.)

So, if it’s not merely about the nihilist/anarchist story, what is Devils about? It seems Dostoevsky wanted to write about two generations, and the effect that radical thinking has on both. The nihilist/anarchists are the second generation, the grown-up children of the earlier generation who start the novel, and whose story forms the bulk of the book. This first generation — including the parents of that second generation, though parents who haven’t done much, if any, actual parenting — are a set of wealthy, cultured, small-town nobility, officials, intellectuals and the like, who think of themselves as being fashionably radical. They’re typified by Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, a man who sees himself primarily as a radical writer, to the extent that when there’s an outbreak of radicalism in the country, he panics and writes to the authorities to assure them he had nothing to do with it. He has, in fact, written very little — he made his living as a private tutor, and has since been supported by his patroness and former employer, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, who provides him with living quarters, an income, and regularly pays off his gambling debts. The likelihood is that, when he writes to the authorities, they wonder who this nobody is. We get very little of Stepan’s actual ideas in the book — though I suspect there’s a lot of cultural context I’m not so much aware of, such as how radical his professed atheism is — but I’m assuming he (in his role as tutor rather than writer) is one of the main ways in which these ideas got passed to the next generation.

The second generation is typified by two young men. One is Stepan’s son, Peter Stepanovich Verkhovensky, who was raised elsewhere and has barely ever seen his father. Peter is something of a Steerpike, a schemer and manipulator who works his way into the favour of the gullible-but-influential, and who’s at the core of the “group of five”, the nihilist cell who, he tells them, are but one of many such groups seeded throughout Russia and Europe. Peter claims the orders he gives come from higher up, but (I can’t remember if it’s explicitly stated, or just hinted), the likelihood is he’s made the whole thing up — there’s only one cell, and he’s coming up with all the orders.

The other young man is Varvara’s son, Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, who was tutored by Stepan. Nikolai is the one man Peter cannot manipulate; he’s also the man all the nihilists and other members of that generation seem to instantly admire and look up to, even fall in love with in the case of the women. At some point in the past, it seems, he was the source of their ideals and became a hero to many of them. He lived life with a Byronic disregard for propriety — pulling an old general’s nose, kissing another man’s wife in public — and his confession (in a chapter that was suppressed in Dostoevsky’s time, as it was considered too shocking to print) points to a life of utter anomie: he seduced a girl whose age he can’t even be bothered to get right (first it’s fourteen, then it’s ten), and watched on as she sunk into despair and took her own life.

What is Dostoevsky saying about these two generations of would-be radicals? As far as Stepan goes, having lived through the events of the novel (including coming to the realisation that his patroness looks after him not because she respects him but because she sees it as an often burdensome duty), he decides to set out on his own in the world. Immediately, it’s clear this supposed radical intellectual is a hothouse flower, incapable of living outside the bounds of his coddled wealth. He’s soon confused, lost, catches fever and dies. That, then, is the first generation of these radicals: all mouth and no trousers, only lasting as long as it does because it has never tried to bring its ideas into contact with reality.

The second generation, however, did try to live by those ideals. What happens to them? If the soul of that generation is Nikolai Stavrogin, then the second, younger generation is already played out. By the time Nikolai comes into the novel, he’s exhausted emotionally, morally, and spiritually. What influence and impact he had was all in the past. Nothing remains for him but a rather offhand suicide after ruining one more woman’s life.

A selection from the “just put the title into image search” school of book cover design…

It might all sound a bit depressing, but the thing that made Devils so readable for me — and it really was a book I read in long chunks, and was eager to come back to — was just how wild, weird and funny Dostoevsky’s world is. To him, it seems, there’s no need for a generation of nihilists to disrupt the social order, because life, and people, are constantly doing that anyway. Everything, for Dostoevsky, is rooted in a fundamental irrationality, and is riddled through with paradox. I was thinking it would be easy to parody his way of introducing a character by presenting them as a bundle of contradictory statements, but then I found this — of Nikolai Stavrogin — and it did it all for me:

“…at first glance he seemed somewhat round-shouldered and awkward, but, in fact, he wasn’t round-shouldered at all, and was actually rather relaxed. He appeared to be an eccentric, but later everyone found his manners perfectly acceptable, his conversation always to the point.

“No one could say he was unattractive, yet no one liked his face… His expression was almost that of a sick man, but this was only superficial. He had a deep wrinkle near each cheekbone which gave him the look of someone convalescing after a serious illness. However, he was in perfect health, and had never been ill.

“He walked and moved about very hurriedly, yet was in no particular rush to get anywhere…”

Dostoevsky’s world is a Wildean paradox, but delivered with a desperate, wild-eyed stare and deep, passionate belief rather than an aesthete’s insouciance:

“My friend, the real truth always strikes one as improbable, don’t you know that? In order to make truth seem more probable, one must always mix it with some falsehood.”

Or this, from Peter:

“There’s nothing more cunning than to be oneself, because no one ever believes you.”

Or, from Kirillov the arch-Existentialist:

“Man is unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy; that’s the only reason.”

The best chapter in the novel has to be the meeting that occurs at about the halfway point, where a group of radical thinkers and students get together to discuss how society must be reformed. Things fall apart from the start, with no one understanding the voting process by which to decide who gets to speak. Then one man, Shigalyov, stands up and says he will deliver a series of lectures (twelve in all) outlining his solution to all social problems. It is, he insists, the only solution. However:

“I must declare in advance that my system is not yet complete… I became lost in my own data and my conclusion contradicts the original premiss from which I started. Beginning with the idea of unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. I must add, however, there can be no other solution to the social problem except mine.”

One sentence in Devils stood out to me as, potentially, a summary of the entire book, and perhaps of Dostoevsky’s worldview as a whole:

“General commotion ensued; then suddenly an extraordinary event occurred that no one could have anticipated.”

It’s easy to see why, at the start of the 20th century, British culture developed “Russianitis” — a craze for Russian novels. Dostoevsky in particular has a wildness, darkness, and deadly seriousness completely lacking from anything in 19th century British fiction. The closest the Victorians came, perhaps, was Lewis Carroll — but, for Dostoevsky, there is no distinction between Wonderland and the real world: the madness, nonsense, and anarchy is all here, now, and it’s by no means written for children.