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.”