Roadside Picnic by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky (1972) (read in 2016)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the book on which director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. The world of the book has six Zones on it, areas tainted by the touch of alien contact. These areas have artifacts with fantastic properties but unknown use. The use to which humanity can put them may be incidental to their original purpose. For all intents and purposes, humanity has no chance of understanding what happened when the aliens visited—the gulf is far too great. The aliens are much too advanced for humanity to even begin to empathize or understand them.
We follow the story of Red Schuhart, a gifted stalker—someone who enters the Zones to pilfer artifacts—over several years, as he is hired and fired by a research company, as he goes to jail and is released to stalk again, as he tries to provide for his family, as he is trapped for his whole life in the whorl around the Zone in his town. The plot is different than the movie, though Red’s final mission into the zone roughly matches up with the movie’s plot: in the book, he seeks a wish-granting “golden sphere” whereas in the movie, it’s a room.
I love the Strugatsky brothers’ style. It’s very much cynical, with great characters, very much on a par with 60s and 70s-era science fiction in the the United States. This is a fantastic story and pairs extremely well with the film.
From the foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin:
“The Strugatsky brothers were not blatant, and never (to my limited knowledge) directly critical of their government’s policies. 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. They wrote as free men write.”
“And those toads hate you, they get no pleasure from arresting you, the bastards are scared to death that you might be contagious—they just want to shoot you down . . . And they are holding all the cards: go ahead and prove later that they killed you illegally.”
“He was simply waiting for a phone call while his visitor, Dr. Pillman, was lazily reprimanding him. Or imagining that he was reprimanding him. Or trying to convince himself that he was reprimanding him.”
“I like being praised. Especially by General Lemchen, in spite of himself. It’s funny, I wonder why we like being praised. There’s no money in it. Fame? How famous could we get? He became famous: now he’s known to three. Maybe four, if you count Bayliss. Aren’t humans absurd? I suppose we like praise for its own sake. The way children like ice cream. It’s an inferiority complex, that’s what it is. Praise assuages our insecurities. And ridiculously so. How could I rise in my own opinion?”
“Listen, Valentine,” said Noonan, cutting a piece of meat and dipping it in the sauce. “How do you think it’s all going to end?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Visit. Zones, stalkers, military-industrial complexes—the whole stinking mess. How could it all end?”
For a long time, Valentine stared at him through his opaque black lenses. Then he lit up a cigarette and said, “For whom? Be more specific.”
“Well, say, for humanity as a whole.”
“That depends on our luck,” said Valentine. “We now know that for humanity as a whole, the Visit has largely passed without a trace. For humanity everything passes without a trace. Of course, it’s possible that by randomly pulling chestnuts out of this fire, we’ll eventually stumble on something that will make life on Earth completely unbearable. That would be bad luck. But you have to admit, that’s a danger humanity has always faced.” He waved away the cigarette smoke and smiled wryly. “You see, I’ve long since become unused to discussing humanity as a whole. Humanity as a whole is too stable a system, nothing upsets it.” (Emphasis added.)
"But I have to warn you, Richard, that your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption—that an alien race would be psychologically human.”
“Why flawed?” asked Noonan.
“Because biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals, I note.”
“Just a second,” said Noonan. “That’s totally different. We’re talking about the psychology of intelligent beings.”
“True. And that would be just fine, if we knew what intelligence was.”
“And we don’t?” asked Noonan in surprise.
“Believe it or not, we don’t. We usually proceed from a trivial definition: 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 his 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 acts.” (Emphasis added.)
"Well, how about the idea that humans, unlike animals, have an overpowering need for knowledge? I’ve read that somewhere.”
“So have I,” said Valentine. “But the issue is that man, at least the average man, can easily overcome this need. In my opinion, the need doesn’t exist at all. There’s a need to understand, but that doesn’t require knowledge. The God hypothesis, for example, allows you to have an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything while knowing absolutely nothing . . . Give a man a highly simplified model of the world and interpret every event on the basis of this simple model. This approach requires no knowledge. A few rote formulas, plus some so-called intuition, some so-called practical acumen, and some so-called common sense.” (Emphasis added.)
This next citation is the story behind the theory of the alien visit from which the book takes its title: that the aliens are so far beyond humanity, so ineffable, that, where humanity tries to attribute cosmic significance to the Zones, they are really just the prosaic effluvia of a unremarkable event in the lives of the aliens that left them.
“Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras . . . A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about . . . Scattered rags, burntout bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp . . . and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow . . .””
There are other theories, more generous to mankind, but not likely to be more true.
"So-called serious xenologists try to justify interpretations that are much more respectable and flattering to human vanity. For example, that the Visit hasn’t happened yet, that the real Visit is yet to come. Some higher intelligence came to Earth and left us containers with samples of their material culture. They expect us to study these samples and make a technological leap, enabling us to send back a signal indicating we’re truly ready for contact. How’s that?”
“That’s much better,” said Noonan. “I see that even among the scientists there are decent men.”
“Or here’s another one. The Visit did take place, but it is by no means over. We’re actually in contact as we speak, we just don’t know it. The aliens are holed up in the Zones and are carefully studying us, simultaneously preparing us for the ‘time of cruel miracles.’”
Valentine continues to describe what the Zones might mean, what it means for a civilization to be so much more advanced than ours.
“A lab monkey presses a red button and gets a banana, presses a white button and gets an orange, but has no idea how to obtain bananas or oranges without buttons. Nor does it understand the relationship between buttons and oranges and bananas. Take, say, the spacells. We’ve learned to apply them. We’ve even discovered conditions under which they multiply by division. But we have yet to create a single spacell, have no idea how they work, and, as far as I can tell, won’t figure it out anytime soon.”
But humanity, even in its benighted blindness, can try to make something out of this contact. Perhaps humanity won’t grasp even a tiny percentage of the glory, the science, the knowledge immanent to the devices in the Zones, but that tiny percentage may still offer insight, they may show the way to a path where we might, at some point in the far future, be able to learn how to glean more from the Zones.
““In short, the objects in this group are currently completely useless for human purposes, yet from a purely scientific point of view they have fundamental significance. These are miraculously received answers to questions we don’t yet know how to pose. The aforementioned Sir Isaac mightn’t have made sense of the microwave emitter, but he would have at any rate realized that such a thing was possible, and that would have had a very strong effect on his scientific worldview. I won’t get into details, but the existence of such objects as the magnetic traps, the K-twenty-three, and the white ring instantly disproved a number of recently thriving theories and gave rise to some entirely new ideas. (Emphasis added.)”
The more you know, the greater the burden of knowing what you don’t know. Long story short: ignorance is bliss. It always has been and always will be.
“Scared, the eggheads. And maybe that’s how it should be. They should be even more scared than the rest of us ordinary folks put together. Because we merely don’t understand a thing, but they at least understand how much they don’t understand. They gaze into this bottomless pit and know that they will inevitably have to climb down—their hearts are racing, but they’ll have to do it—except they don’t know how or what awaits them at the bottom or, most important, whether they’ll be able to get back out. Meanwhile, we sinners look the other way, so to speak . . . Listen, maybe that’s how it should be? Let things take their course, and we’ll muddle through somehow. He was right about that: mankind’s most impressive achievement is that it has survived and intends to continue doing so. Still, I hope you go to hell, he told the aliens. You couldn’t have had your picnic somewhere else. On the moon, say. Or on Mars. You are just callous assholes like the rest of them, even if you have learned to curl up space. Had to have a picnic here, you see. A picnic. (Emphasis added.)”
An insight into the pro-growth world, suffered in the Soviet Union as it was in the rest of the West.
“Sometimes I ask myself, Why the hell are we always in such a whirl? For the money? But why in the world do we need money, if all we ever do is keep working?”
And then there were just some very weird things that happened in the cities in and around the Zones: Schuhart’s daughter was born, covered in hair. She is called Monkey. Her grandfather had died, but the Zone brought him back as a shuffling zombie. Sometimes the strangeness of it gets to be too much, even for hard-bitten and cynical residents like Noonan and Red. The emphasized section is a prescient and succinct description of how we continue to deal with far-removed tragedy to this day.
“[…] the Monkey silently appeared by the table next to the old man and stood there for a while, putting her furry little paws on the table. Suddenly, in a completely childlike manner, she leaned against the corpse and put her head on his shoulder. And Noonan, continuing to chatter, looked at these two monstrous offspring of the Zone and thought, My Lord, what else do we need? What else has to be done to us, so it finally gets through? Is this really not enough? He knew that it wasn’t enough. He knew that billions and billions didn’t know a thing and didn’t want to know and, even if they did find out, would act horrified for ten minutes and immediately forget all about it. I’ll get wasted, he thought savagely. Screw Burbridge, screw Lemchen . . . Screw this star-crossed family. I’m getting wasted. (Emphasis added.)”
This next section contains another cry out against the rat race, coming from the Soviet Union rather than the rest of the West. The Strugatsky’s evince—seemingly without trying—a commonality among people trapped in a larger web, common to humanity in the 20th century, independent of proclaimed political ethos, capitalism or communism.
“Some strange and very new sensation was slowly filling him. He realized that this sensation wasn’t actually new, that it had long been hiding somewhere inside him, but he only now became aware of it, and everything fell into place. And an idea, which had previously seemed like nonsense, like the insane ravings of a senile old man, turned out to be his sole hope and his sole meaning of life. It was only now that he’d understood—the one thing that he still had left, the one thing that had kept him afloat in recent months, was the hope for a miracle. He, the idiot, the dummy, had been spurning this hope, trampling on it, mocking it, drinking it away—because that’s what he was used to and because his whole life, ever since his childhood, he had never relied on anyone but himself. And ever since his childhood, this self-reliance had always been measured by the amount of money he managed to wrench, wrestle, and wring out of the surrounding indifferent chaos. That’s how it had always been, and that’s how it would have continued, if he hadn’t found himself in a hole from which no amount of money could rescue him, in which self-reliance was utterly pointless. And now this hope—no longer the hope but the certainty of a miracle—was filling him to the brim, and he was already amazed that he’d managed to live in such a bleak, cheerless gloom. (Emphasis added.)”
There are several passages where a few words suffice to bring a scene to life—it’s easy to understand why Tarkovsky thought this book was such a good fit for his film-craft.
“The floor of the valley was covered in a puke-green liquid, glistening greasily in the sun. A light steam was wafting off its surface, becoming thicker between the hills, and they already couldn’t see a thing thirty feet in front of them. And it reeked. God only knew what was rotting in that medley, but to Redrick it seemed that a hundred thousand smashed rotten eggs, poured over a hundred thousand spoiled fish heads and dead cats, couldn’t have reeked the way it reeked here.”
“With that he abruptly went quiet, as if a huge hand had forcefully shoved a gag into his mouth. And Redrick saw the transparent emptiness lurking in the shadow of the excavator bucket grab him, jerk him up into the air, and slowly, with an effort, twist him, the way a housewife wrings out the laundry. Redrick had the time to notice one of the dusty shoes fly off a twitching foot and soar high above the quarry.”
This next section is from the afterword by the author, in which he very eloquently discusses how ephemeral are the windmills against which we tilt. When you’re down in the trenches, in the day-to-day, everything seems so important. Temporal distance has a way of fading out the unimportant and bringing other things into sharp focus. Hopefully the right things, the things that were such an intrinsic part of your day-to-day that perhaps you didn’t even think to tilt against them at the time, distracted as you were by minutiae, but which you now realize would have been the proper targets of your ire and energy.
“I was looking forward to using this afterword to tell the story of publishing the Picnic: naming once-hated names; jeering to my heart’s content at the cowards, idiots, informers, and scoundrels; astounding the reader with the absurdity, idiocy, and meanness of the world we’re all from; being ironic and instructive, deliberately objective and ruthless, benevolent and caustic all at once.
“And now I’m sitting here, looking at these folders, and realizing that I’m hopelessly late and that no one needs me—not my irony, not my generosity, and not my burnt[-]out hatred. They have ceased to exist, those once-powerful organizations with almost unlimited right to allow and to hinder; they have ceased to exist and are forgotten to such an extent that it would be tedious and dull to explain to the present-day reader who is who, why it didn’t make sense to complain to the Department of Culture of the CC, why the only thing to do was to complain to the Department of Print and Propaganda, and who were Albert Andreevich Beliaev, Pyotr Nilovich Demichev, and Mikhail Vasilyevich Zimyanin—and these were the tigers and elephants of the Soviet ideological fauna, rulers of destinies, deciders of fates! Who remembers them today, and who cares about those of them who are still among the living? So then why bother with the small fry—the shrill crowd of petty bureaucrats of ideology, the countless ideological demons, who caused untold and immeasurable harm and whose vileness and meanness require (as they liked to write in the nineteenth century) a mightier, sharper, and more experienced pen than my own? I don’t even want to mention them here—let them be swallowed up by the past, like evil spirits, and disappear . . .”