Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
20 March 2007
In 1977, when George Lucas was taking the pulpy spectacular roots of US SF and making Star Wars, Andrei Tarkovsky was taking one of the landmarks of Soviet-era science fiction and producing a characteristically cerebral and symbolic art-house film. The year that Stalker was released marked the first appearance of the original book, Piknik na obochine, in English. Reading it now, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's novel (translated by Antonina W. Bouis, who is not credited in this Gollancz Masterworks edition) is just as cerebral and symbolic as its cinematic counterpart, and as powerful and fresh as the day it was first published.
Roadside Picnic spans eight years in the life of Redrick "Red" Schuart. Red is an uneducated man prone to drinking, womanising, and fighting; he is also a Stalker. Aged only twenty-three when the book begins, Red is already an expert in the dangers and possibilities of The Zone. The Zone is one of several areas characterised by the remains of a brief alien visitation. Now gone, the aliens left in their wake both advanced items of technology and areas where the laws of physics no longer apply, or where strange substances and forms instantly kill or disable any human that comes into contact with them. Unsurprisingly, the humans have set up an institute that delves into the Zone in order to extract technology. Equally unsurprisingly, the Zone also attracts illegal Stalkers who venture into the Zone without the technological safeguards offered by the institute but for whom the potential rewards on the black market are far greater. As the book progresses we follow Red as he first gets lured into the world of illegal Stalking and then, after a period in prison, as he prepares to venture deep into the Zone in search of a golden ball that is said to grant wishes.
While some critics have been quick to project their own views about the Soviet Union onto this book and read it as a criticism of bureaucracy and planned economies, Roadside Picnic is in fact not immediately identifiable as a book produced under a communist government. Even the names of the characters are invariably difficult to pin down to one particular culture or even social class despite having a contemporary setting. The book could well be set in Russia but it could just as easily be set in Europe or America: Harmont is a town that has grown up around the Zone and has a much closer relationship with the Zone than it does with the outside world. The Strugatskys also tend to give their Stalkers nicknames such as "Porcupine," "Buzzard," or "Professor," further distancing them from the real world, where people have normal names, as well as cementing their relationship with the Zone, whose wonders also have quirky nicknames such as "mosquito mange" and "witches' jelly." The Strugatskys' fictional town is not meant as an indictment of Soviet towns and living; rather, it is a town where everything and everyone is defined by its relationship to the Zone.
Red has his entire life determined by the Zone. As the book begins, he is defined by his superior knowledge of the Zone's dangers; later he acquires a wife and a daughter as a result of the affairs that he has whilst living the extravagant lifestyle of a Stalker. Red's relationship with his family is not just literally determined by his journeys into the Zone (as that is how he feeds his family and how he gets separated from them when caught by the police) but also symbolically, in the shape of Monkey. Like her father and the Stalkers, Monkey is known by her nickname, but rather than earning that name by venturing into the Zone, Monkey gets her name by being, much like the Stalkers, a creature of the Zone: a mutant covered in downy golden fur. As Monkey gets older, she changes from being an outgoing and affectionate little girl into an almost autistic ghostly presence that ambles round Red's house, barely acknowledging her parents' presence or their attempts at communication. The growing influence that the Zone has on her psyche is a mirror of the psyche of her father who, now in his early thirties, prepares to venture into the Zone in search of the golden ball.
Each of these different ways in which the citizens of Harmont "point" towards the Zone suggest that the Zone is in fact symbolic of something else; it is not particularly surprising or interesting for a community surrounding something as weird as the Zone to be defined by it. But in order to understand Roadside Picnic, we need to understand both what the Zone means to the fictitious characters involved in the narrative and what it means to the Strugatsky brothers as a part of their conceptual meta-narrative.
The Zone is not a unique concept in SF. Indeed, as far back as 1960, Algys Budry's Rogue Moon was also an unreal place full of great rewards and deadly traps. We can also point to Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1976) (which is now, like Roadside Picnic, available as a part of the Gollancz SF Masterworks collection). While there are differences between the takes on the idea (Pohl's universe, for example, is far more comprehensible than that of the Strugatskys), all of them visit the idea of a Heterotopian Other-space completely at odds with the safety of the normal human world and only ventured into by those seeking psychological or material benefits that would not otherwise be accessible to them. In fact, the trope even appears in fantasy with the concept of the "dungeon" so popular in fantasy roleplaying games. The idea is an old one: all that changes is the aspect or the kind of Otherness that the writers want to accentuate. However, in many ways the Zone remains the clearest and most influential conception of the dangerous but rewarding Other-space. Last year's Nova Swing by M. John Harrison features an homage to the Zone in the shape of the Site, a place where the laws of logic and even sanity break down. Even in the real world, the concept exists: people who venture into the aptly named 1,400 square mile Zone of Alienation surrounding Chernobyl refer to themselves as Stalkers (there has even been a PC game named after them).
Unfortunately for us, Roadside Picnic boasts an ending almost as obtuse as that of Cormac McCarthy's trout-related ending for his post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006). This is perhaps fitting, as I think both books cover similar ground. Where The Road ends with the sentence "In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery," Roadside Picnic ends with Red, face to face with the golden ball and utterly at a loss as to what to wish for:
"I am an animal, you see that. I don't have the words, they didn't teach me the words. I don't know how to think, the bastards didn't let me learn how to think. But if you really are... all-powerful... all-knowing... then you figure it out! Look into my heart. I know that everything you need is in there. It has to be. I never sold my soul to anyone! Damn it all, I can't think of anything, except those words of his... 'HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED!'" (p.145)
If the golden ball represents a potential heart's desire then I would argue that the Zone as a whole can be taken as symbolising hope, aspiration, and the realm of possibilities and probabilities. Red is a character who, disillusioned with the ordered, overly precautious, and under-rewarding UN-governed means of exploring the Zone strikes out on his own. He wants to be in the Zone because in the Zone everything is possible. This is why he is distant from his family, and why the entire town of Harmont is oriented towards the Zone and away from the rest of the world: all are creatures of the Zone, and all would rather live in hope and aspiration than in the real world, the world of actualities and certainties, where even danger is sanitised and limited and controlled. With such a mindset it is perhaps unavoidable that Red should see his "normal" family life as somehow unreal and temporary. Because the Zone has such potential to change lives for the better and for the worse, the home life of Stalkers is only as good as the product of the last venture into the Zone. If takings are good then the life enjoyed by the family instantly becomes "the bad old times" of poverty, but should a Stalker return injured then they were the good days. So despite being all about potentials and possibilities, the Zone is ultimately the only true measure of a Stalker's life. The possible becomes the real and the real becomes the potential.
When Red comes face to face with the ultimate font of possibilities, an object in the Zone that will grant him his heart's desire, he is unable to articulate or even think what it is he even wants and this is what makes Red's tale a tragedy. Red's life is entirely one of possibility, never of actuality, but when confronted with an object that could make all of his desired possibilities actual, he finds himself completely frozen, unable to choose a possibility he would like to actualise. Red is frozen not just because he has lived his life in hope and hunger for something else but because that hunger, and the knowledge that things can change, utterly define his existence. To pick a possibility and live with it is to be expelled from the land of perpetual becoming that the Stalkers inhabit, and that is not living at all.
In Stalker, Red and the men he accompanies struggle with the possibility of whether or not to enter the room where their hearts' desires will be granted. Like Red in the book, they would rather define themselves through hope for some undefined better thing than receive that wish and forever lose their identities. The relationship between hope and identity also encapsulates the ideas put forward by McCarthy in The Road. It is telling that just as The Road ends with talk of spirituality and "the breath of God," Roadside Picnic ends with Red addressing the ball as though he were talking to God. In fact, one of the differences between Roadside Picnic and Stalker is the inclusion of talk of explicit spirituality at the end of the latter.
Roadside Picnic is less than one hundred and fifty pages and is as tight as a drum. Nary a word or an idea is out of place or surplus to the book's Spartan yet stringent demands. Its playful use of nicknames gives the text an up-beat and slightly mischievous feel, but in a way this is part of a deliberate deception. Of course the characters are up-beat, since they might well stumble into their hearts' desires, but the horrific mortality rate of Stalkers (by the end of the book all the old Stalkers have died off, with remote-controlled robots doing all the exploration) reveals the true message of the book: hope is a wonderful thing, but it can also destroy and end those lives that it comes to define.