May 25 2012 5:00pm

Picking Up After Intergalactic Daytrippers: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Picking Up After Intergalactic Daytrippers: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris StrugatskyMost stories of alien-human first contact are founded on the underlying assumption that aliens will actually find the human race interesting enough to engage with. In the worst case (very popular in the largely moribund, overblown genre that is American SF “blockbuster” action film these days), that engagement is military in nature — the aliens in these scenarios having apparently decided that blowing us up is worth expending materiel on before they get on with the rest of their nefarious plans for Earth. In the best case, the aliens are friendly and free communication results in good for everyone, thanks to “courageous and dedicated spacemen,” as Ursula K. Le Guin says in her introduction to the new edition of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic.

This assumption is automatically paired with another: that the aliens can communicate at all with humans in a mutually comprehensible fashion. But what if, as Stanislaw Lem imagines in his masterpiece Solaris, the alien beings (or being) is so far removed from human experience as to render any attempts at communication meaningless? Or what if the aliens simply come and go, without even so much as noticing us?

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Such is the scenario in the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic. Several years have passed since “The Visit,” when aliens (deduced from certain calculations as having originated somewhere in the region of Deneb) landed briefly on six sites across the Earth, and just as quickly moved on again. The visitation sites, or “zones,” are strange, blasted landscapes, filled with dangerous, invisible traps — “graviconcentrates” or “bug traps” that crush the unwary, and “grinders” that wring out their hapless victims like a wet rag — and with peculiar artifacts and treasures that are worth a lot of money to the right buyer. But the towns near the zones have become blighted — corpses reanimate from time to time, and the children of those who spend much time in the zones suffer terrible mutations.

While many would like to attribute a purpose to the aliens whose visit created the zones, at least one scientist doesn’t see it that way. He posits that the aliens are akin to a group of daytrippers who, after stopping for a picnic, have left a pile of refuse by the side of the road: “an oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about.” Humans, he argues, have no more comprehension of the alien detritus than a bird or a rabbit would of an empty food tin. 

When we first meet our main anti-hero Red Schuhart, he’s a laboratory assistant at the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures in Harmont, a town that seems to be somewhere in an industrial area of North America, and which is right next to a zone. The IIEC has been established to study the zones, and as a sideline to his day job with them, Red is a “stalker,” a man who has learned how to navigate the zone and bring back its treasures for sale on the black market. 

To be a stalker is to be a criminal; it seems at first as if Red might be able to work legitimately with the IIEC, but after a trip into the zone with his scientist friend Kirill goes bad, Red soon finds himself in the classic position of the career criminal who is always hoping for the big score, the rich strike that will allow him quit and to take care of his wife Guta and his mutant daughter known as the Monkey. There is a legend amongst the stalkers of a “Golden Sphere,” an artifact within the zone that will grant any wish — and one day, whether Red wants to or not, he’s going to have to go looking for it. And the wish he brings to it may even surprise him.

The Strugatskys’ novel had a contorted and convoluted publishing history in the Soviet era, described in detail by Boris Strugatsky in his afterword. The authors struggled less with government censorship in the traditional sense as with an institutional objection to “coarse” language, anything deemed to reflect “crude, observable, and brutal reality.” The resulting text was, to say the least, deeply unsatisfying; this new edition, translated by Olena Bormashenko is fully restored to the authors’ original text. I’ve read one other translation, by Antonina W. Bouis, and while I admit the original Russian is beyond me, the new translation seems to convey the original’s spirit more accurately. The language is more original, the phrasings and word choices less awkward.

Roadside Picnic is famous not only in its own right, of course, but also as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. It’s one one of those polarizing movies — either you fall asleep out of sheer boredom half an hour in, or you’re mesmerized for the entire 163 minutes, start to finish, and find yourself obsessed with its bad-dream imagery and Slavic existentialism for ages afterward. It’s an iconic film and cannot help but loom large over the novel that inspired it — so much so that the cover of Roadside Picnic is one of the unforgettable images from the film — its three main characters standing in a room lit with a cold white light and filled with humps of white sand.

But Roadside Picnic is a rather different animal from Stalker. Tarkovsky only hinted at the zone’s dangers and wonders through suggestion, the reactions of his actors, and meticulous, vivid cinematography. We see the Stalker throwing metal nuts down a path to determine the safest way, just was Red does in Roadside Picnic, but Tarkovsky never quite spells out what he’s looking for or trying to avoid. We just know from his expression and the way he talks to the Writer and the Scientist that it must be very bad indeed. The science fiction is more explicit in Roadside Picnic — the nuts, it turns out, reveal the locations of the “bug traps” — though the sense of dread is no less.

Still, even though Stalker and Roadside Picnic go about their stories in different ways — the former an epic tone-poem of human desire and strife, the latter something more like a heist novel — they both circle around a powerful metaphysical longing, a yearning to make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos. The Room of Stalker and the Golden Sphere of Roadside Picnic offer a kind of hope, a vain one perhaps, that Red Schuhart’s final, desperate plea might one day be answered — and suggest that this hope is what continues to propel the human race forward, against the universe’s indifference:

Look into my soul, I know — everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want — because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his — HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX, and falls into the “obsessed” camp re: Stalker. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

Steve Taylor
1. teapot7
Stalker also had the unusual privilege of being made into a first person shooter video game.

Take that, Solaris!
2. BumbleBob
I read a translation that was passable a few years ago, but I enjoyed the book immensely in spite of the poor translation. I can't wait to pick it up again and read a translation more worthy of the original. The Strugatsky's have the fantastic skill of creating works that are original and new even decades after they were first written. I'm anxious to see if more of their works are re-released as they can be very difficult to find in the US.
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
I'm one of those who loved the Tarkovsky film, though to be honest I'm not sure that I understood more than half of it. (This is how I feel about most Tarkovsky films.) I'm intrigued by the book as well, and anything that got a foreword from LeGuin has got to be good. I'll tr to pick this up the next time I'm looking for some reading.

teapot7@1: I had mercifully forgotten that. Thanks for reminding me.
Karin L Kross
4. KarinKross
I tried really hard to work in a reference to this excellent blogpost about the FPS video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but somehow never quite pulled it off:
Well worth a look. I've never played the game myself, but I was really interested in what the NY Books writer had to say about it.

Also, I really wanted to say something about the new translation of Solaris and the audiobook that is so beautifully read by Alessandro Juliani, but that spawned a tangent of sufficient size that it probably merits its own article.
6. Lev Abalkin
Speaking of "Soviet censorship", the Strugatsky Brothers did run into a bit of severe criticism over The Snail on the Slope, by someone who did read it accurately as a satire; but as others enjoyed it immensely and it was quite oblique, they were defended. Look at the publication date, and you'll conclude that Pepper is transparent; ditto Hausbotcher, Alevtina and the Director, likewise Kandid, Ears, and the like.

Like the rest of the oeuvre, they don't translate well to the big screen. Though a mix of US gung-ho action and Russian existentialism would make a brilliantly funny SF movie - can you imagine, Spaceship Troopers meets E.T.? Independence Day meets Solaris, either one?

But look at the people they've influenced! Some of Greg Egan's best fiction wouldn't be what it is without the Strugatsky Brothers making it possible - I think of Quarantine, for example ...
p l
7. p-l
There's an interesting little subgenre of science fiction that I call "Zone stories" that's just waiting to be written about critically. I'm thinking of Roadside Picnic, Rogue Moon, M. John Harrison's Nova Swing, and perhaps a few others. Perhaps this year's Nebula-winner, The Man who Bridged the Mists, would overlap a bit with this category, too?

These stories invariably center on a place where the normal laws of reality don't seem to apply, and they feature a "guide" character who enters the zone repeatedly, motivated by some combination of greed, despair, and some quasi-spiritual desire to test the limits of his endurance.

Does anyone know of more examples of this plot type? Is there any chance we could get Karin or Jo Walton to write a post about it?
8. Eugene R.
p-l (@7): I think that a lot of sf dealing with hyperspace often falls into this sub-category of the journey through a dangerous non-reality with guides. Cordwainer Smith's Space2/Space3, with its Habermen/Scanners and Cats vs. Dragons, comes to mind, as does Gwyneth Jones's Buonarotti Transit device (which involves dreams or consensual hallucination for a crew that remains conscious). And maybe we go right back to Dante's Divine Comedy for the template of a guided journey through a realm with its own rules of reality?

And for those of us who do not wish the pleasures of a first-person shooter but crave some deeper interaction, there is STALKER: the SciFi Roleplaying Game by Ville Vuorela, published and translated from the Finnish by Burger Games.
9. Petar Belic
The translation of Roadside Picnic I read a few years ago, was a little turgid.

The story itself is quite interesting, but the execution, which often substitutes action for rambling internal existential monologues (from what I can remember) is often unexciting and at times I had to force myself to keep reading. I'm not sure if this is an artefact from censors and translators, or whether this is the Strugatsky brother's responsiblity.

It's also very clear in the writing structure and style when one brother stops writing and the other starts. Im sure they reviewed and edited each other's work but there are clear voices at work here. I think the whole thing would have been much more cohesive if they had kept to a single voice.

Having said this, it's still well worth a read.

I have not seen the movie STALKER, but I have played the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. from GSC Gameworld.

It's a difficult game for western players to find accessible, mainly due to its depressive and bleak tone and very realistic game mechanics where the world is out to get you and the zone itself will destroy if you're not careful.

In fact the last part of the Roadside Picnic - which describes in detail a venture into the Zone - form the whole basis of the gameplay, and they work together amazingly well.

Although I can't recommend it to everyone, if you're after a nice antidote to the on-rails experience of the Call of Duty series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., especially the last game published (there have been 3) is highly recommended.

Unfortunately GSC Gameworld collapsed recently and its unlikely we will see a sequel to the game.

In the meantime, I think it's worth picking up this new translation of the book. I know I certainly will, if just to see some of the problems in the writing I mention still come through.
10. Petar Belic
One thing for the review. The quote you mention, which is central to the later part of the novel:


- was written differently in the translation I read, which changed the meaning. I can't remember exactly but it was something like:


Was the reviewer paraphrasing, or is this the 'new' translation?
11. square_25
Petar Belic:

@9: I don't think the Strugatsky brothers wrote different sections of the book and then combined them. From all I've heard, they wrote things together, sentence by sentence. So any inconsistencies in voice are either intentional or an artifact of the translation...

@10: That is indeed the difference in the phrasing between the translations. The exact Russian phrase is (as usual) impossible to translate exactly, which leads to such discrepancies...
Joe Romano
12. Drunes
...either you fall asleep out of sheer boredom half an hour in, or you’re mesmerized for the entire 163 minutes...

Karin: That sums up Stalker better than anything else I've ever read about it. Oh, I'm one of the mesmerized.
13. Nick Meisher

You wrote in the 1st comment tht 'Stalker also had the unusual privilege of being made into a ... video game' .

The 'privilege' was indeed unusual since most adaptations of video games pay the original creators for the privilege of using their work. The creators of the Stalker video game plagiarized (stole) the idea while paying nothing.

The video game creators instead borrowed the entire rich world of Roadside Picnic and Stalker the movie, without paying a dime by changing Alien Visitation to ... I think an accident at The Nuclear Plagiarism Plant?

Reminds me when the writers of the movie The Game starring Sean Penn and Michael Douglas gave the same kinds of honors to The Magus by John Fowles, by plagiarizing not only portions of the plot but even the name of the main character – the screenplay writers said it was a coincidence.

Next time you see a huge corporation make millions off stealing and plagiarizing the creators work, call it theft, don’t say the victims were privileged by being robbed.


Loved the review. One of the best for this great book that I could find online in English.
14. Nick Meisher
@Petar Belic

The translations are both a little off since the original Rusian says "??????? ??? ????, ?????, ? ????? ????? ?? ????? ?????????!"

Think of a seller at an open market screaming 'Get your Fresh Fish. 2$! Get em while they are Fresh!' ...

Arthur was screaming his wish in the same style:

"Happiness for everybody! ... Free! ... As much as you want! .. . Everybody come here! . . . There's enough for everybody! Nobody will leave unsatisfied! ... Free! ... Happiness! ... Free!"

Redrick though, said his wish as though addressing a bartender. 'Happiness for Everybody. Free. (And Make sure nobody leaves till they had their fill.)'

which translates directly better as ' "A Gift of Happiness for Everyone, So No One Leaves Offended"
15. Landon Pyle
Played the games first, then later found out about the movie, and then finally discovered the book.

Loved the Games. Favorite of all times and I condiserd myself a pretty hardcore gamer.

I thought the movie was interesting though it didn't capture my imagination the way the game had. I couldn't get past the feeling that these were guys playing pretend in the woods.

Loved the book. It had the same sort of transportative magic the game had.

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