What if they didn’t care?

Posted in Reviews at 13:00 by RjZ

What if they didn’t care is the question Arkady and Boris Strugatsky ask in their short, then Soviet, science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Here is a world responding to the after-effects of an alien visitation where the aliens haven’t even bothered to say hello. It seems they’ve left behind plenty of inscrutable evidence of their time here including a dizzying array of artifacts and lasting effects, which, like their visit, seem indifferent to humans. As many of the items found have a positive effect on their human discoverers as are dangerous to them. Their landing sites are to us, how squirrels and grasshoppers experience a roadside picnic by humans. Our trash and trampling of the ground leave effects, some positive, some tragic, and all without any apparent rhyme or reason to the bewildered little beings.

The novel is detached, told primarily from the point of view of small-time players who raid the mysterious visitation zones to profit from valuable artifacts. It’s clear that the visitation has change the world, but the story shows just how little it has changed in the people who live here. As humans struggle to understand just what a visitation from an alien power means, why they came, what they did here, and what these technologies mean to us; the majority of us just want to live our lives and maybe even make enough money to take care of ourselves and our families. The big story is in the little details and the meanness of people whose characters have changed in inverse proportion to the impact of the visitation.

The story telling is as cryptic as the zones themselves. It’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly what it going on with the characters, their interactions or motivations, but the result is a spacious story with room for our own imaginations that is rare for American science fiction. The brother’s Strugatsky are incredibly inventive; describing a dizzying array of otherworldly phenomena (check out Wikipedia’s list of artifacts|spoiler alert), without ever resorting to so much exposition. Where most sci-fi writers revel in descriptions of their creations, Roadside Picnic treats the reader much like the aliens have in the story. They have left clues behind for us to figure out, but moved on whether we understand them or not.

You’d think that not caring about the readers would be a good reason to dislike the book. I discovered Roadside Picnic after learning that it was the foundation for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Tarkovksy is far more interested in his art, his mise en scene, than either the audience or his very loose interpretation of the book. The viewer barely has any idea that there even was an alien visitation in his version of the story. Yet, in both versions, success comes from resisting the urge to describe every detai, instead, creating a space and leaving room for our minds to philosophize, solve puzzles, and fill in the gaps of why and how, just as the characters in the story have been forced to do. Read the story and see what you fill it with.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s book Roadside Picnic is available online to read in pdf form. Grab a copy and then you can tell me my review is way off.

1 Comment »

  1. Aaron Hull said,

    March 11, 2012 at 7:02

    Thanks for linking this…some really classy scifi.

    I didn’t have quite the same impression of the tone of the book. (perhaps the film reflects that more) And though they didn’t spell things out, they did do a clever bit of exposition in explaining the titular philosophy without making it dreadfully obvious like a Dan Brown. Based on your article I was expected detachment along the lines of Vonnegut. But I didn’t see anything quite like that in the prose. And it was far more straightforward than some of Murakami’s great novels like WInd-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore.

    But again, those differences aside there is no denying that this is a very interesting read. Thanks for the heads up.

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