Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from the dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural act.”

“Yes, that’s us!”

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There is a 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky loosely based on The Roadside Picnic. The screenplay is by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I’m, of course, going to have to watch it.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is a stalker. He is one of the few people crazy enough to go into “The Zone”. Thirty years ago Aliens visited the Earth. They landed at six different locations. Hung out for a while and took off.

They ignored us.

What The Frill?

Here we are the most intelligent species to ever evolve on this planet (debatable) and the big moment occurs when another, obviously intelligent species comes to visit, and they act like the snooty prom queen and king at the big dance.

You’d think we were mere bugs. Not even worthy of a good probing or dissection.

In these zones they left behind trash, as if, as one scientist put it, they had just stopped off for a roadside picnic. They also left behind traps. Things unexplainable. Things that science even has trouble labeling. One example is what Red calls a bug trap, but the “eggheads” call it something else.

”His face has become completely calm, you can see he’s figured everything out. They are all like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name. Until he comes up with one, you feel really sorry for him, he looks so lost. But when he find a label like ‘graviconcentrate,’ he thinks he’s figured it all out and perks right up.”

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Stalkers are people who go into The Zone and retrieve objects. They then sell them on the black market for cash. They need a big payoff because every time they go into The Zone they are risking life or limb (there is this slime that melts the bones and eventually turns everything it touches into more slime). Most of the original stalkers are dead. Their corpses litter the landscape of The Zone providing guideposts for…don’t go there.

The Zone does something to them. Their kids are mutants. Red’s child becomes less and less human as she grows and becomes something unknown, unknowable. People from this area can’t emigrate because odd disasters start happening in the places they move to. The Zone owns them. Still, Red should just settle down and get a real job, a safe job.

”But how do I stop being a stalker when I have a family to feed? Get a job? And I don’t want to work for you, your work makes me want to puke, you understand? If a man has a job, then he’s always working for someone else, he’s a slave, nothing more--and I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, my own man, so that I don’t have to give a damn about anyone else, about their gloom and their boredom…”

Besides being dangerous, working as a stalker is also illegal. He soon finds himself on one last mission for a golden sphere that he has to find before The State robots get there first. It is about more than just the money. It is about outwitting everyone maybe even himself.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russian science-fiction writers who managed to publish most of what they wrote even under the heavy censoring hand of the Soviet Union. Ursula K. Le Guin in the forward explains it well. ”What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology--something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing. There wrote as free men write.” They did struggle to get Roadside Picnic published.

In the afterword Arkady has a list of all the letters and petitions that were exchanged between various Russian committees trying to get approval. ”Eight years. Fourteen letters to the ‘big’ and ‘little’ Central Committees. Two hundred degrading corrections of the text. An incalculable amount of nervous energy wasted on trivialities...Yes, the authors prevailed; there’s no arguing with that.

But it was a Pyrrhic Victory.”

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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The book was published in Russian in 1972 and translated into English in 1977. This edition, that I read, is a new translation with all the original text, as the authors intended, reinstated. There is a 1979 movie as I mentioned above. The book also inspired a video game called. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

I absolutely love this concept. Hollywood has spent so much time making us worry about Aliens coming to Earth to enslave us, to steal our natural resources, to take over the planet, to use us as incubators for their spawn etc. We are completely unprepared to be ignored. We really don’t like being ignored.

The book can be read on many levels. It is an enjoyable fast paced read on the most basic level. For those that like to apply philosophy, politics, and psychology to their reading there is plenty of hooks to keep you pondering the true meaning of different situations. It is a book, that without a doubt, will give the reader more with each new read. This is one of those terrific finds that I may have never read without the guidance of friends on GR. Our compiled knowledge is oh so much greater than when we read alone.

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