Thanks, Todd, for minding the baby.
Recently, a tape from the 1980s surfaced of the late Steve Jobs discussing—in amazingly prescient detail—the future of computers. At a time when few people even had a home computer, Jobs was already talking about cloud computing, hand-held delivery devices, and the i-pod prototype. As Jon Stewart of the Daily Show observed after Jobs's death, it’s like we had a visit from an extraterrestrial who left before he could explain how everything is supposed to work.
This is exactly the position of humans in ROADSIDE PICNIC (first published in the Soviet Union in 1971, and anthologized in the west in 1977): It has been a number of years since extraterrestrials visited the Earth, an event referred to as the “visitation.” They landed simultaneously in six places, stayed for a couple of days (as one scientist puts it, almost as if they had a roadside picnic), and then left—never to return, but leaving behind an assortment of debris and areas of uninhabitable land called “forbidden zones.” (As a side note, it’s indicative of how effective anti-littering campaigns have been in the last 40 years that we probably now find it hard to imagine leaving a picnic site without picking up our trash—so the “roadside picnic” analogy, with debris strewn far and wide, isn’t immediately recognizable to us.)
Scientists (and black-market scavengers called “stalkers”) periodically visit these forbidden zones to retrieve the material left behind. No one is really sure how the aliens used these items, but many are bent to human purposes, such as sparkling bracelets that ease pain and disc-like batteries that replace fossil fuel in cars. However, there is also great danger in the zones—mine explosions, sudden violent winds, searing heat, gravity-defying earth shifts, and a deadly quicksand-like “slime”—so that most countries have completely shut down access to them. The only zone that is relatively accessible is in the city of Harmont, which is where ROADSIDE PICNIC takes place.
The book is essentially a series of inter-connected vignettes, most of them featuring a stalker named Red Schuhart, that take place over a number of years following the visitation. Red’s steely nerves and extrasensory awareness of danger have made it possible for him to make successful excursions into the zone. He is considered one of the best stalkers and is even occasionally employed in a semi-official capacity by the government to retrieve items for scientific study—although there is far more money to be made selling the items illegally on the black market. But Red’s luck starts to run out when a scientist dies after he returns with Red from an official visit to the zone. Later, during an illegal foray into the zone, Red’s partner, a stalker named Burbridge, sinks into the slime. Red could have left Burbridge to die, but instead helps him get out. (It is honorable acts such as his rescue of Burbridge that set Red apart from other stalkers and make us like and admire him despite his dangerous and criminal activities in the forbidden zone.) As a result, Burbridge survives but loses his legs, and Red ends up in prison—requesting that his share of contraband profit go to support his pregnant girlfriend, Guta.
When Red is released from prison several years later, the city of Harmont is in visible decline. Despite constant vigilance, the government can’t stop a criminal syndicate (under the direction of the legless Burbridge) from making frequent excursions into the zone, flooding the market with artifacts, many of which cause harm or are used in a dangerous way by the shadowy underworld figures who buy them. In addition, the dead of Harmont are rising from their graves and wandering back to their homes. This phenomenon is not presented in a spooky, zombie apocalypse way, but in a matter-of-fact tone that makes it easy to accept that Red’s dead father is now living in the apartment with Red, Guta, and their daughter. The daughter, never called any name but “Monkey” because her body is entirely covered with hair, is suffering from such severe genetic mutations that doctors determine she is not actually human. These mutations are undoubtedly the result of Red’s visits to the zone, but he repeatedly returns there, unable to resist the lure of both the money and the adrenaline rush that the visits provide.
Eventually, Burbridge persuades Red to venture once more into the zone, along with Burbridge’s rather naive and idealistic son, to retrieve the Golden Sphere, an almost mythic item that supposedly grants wishes. Red knows that either he or Burbridge’s son must die in order for the survivor to reach the Sphere—although whether Burbridge or his son realizes this is left somewhat ambiguous. The last few pages of the book are unbearably tense as the men approach the Sphere while attempting to dodge horrific phenomena, such as skin-blistering heat and a booby-trap known, for reasons that soon become sickeningly obvious, as “the meat grinder.” The ending can be seen as hopeful, cynical, nihilistic, or all three, depending on your perspective and how you interpret the final paragraph.
If you plan to read ROADSIDE PICNIC, I strongly recommend the 2012 edition, which includes an informative introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin and a long afterword by Boris Strugatsky in which he details the fight the brothers had with the Soviet censorship apparatus. It took years of tweaking and constant demands for minor word and text alterations before authorities finally approved the book for publication in 1971; it would be another 20 years before the book appeared as the brothers originally wrote it. Boris Strugatsky’s recent death (Arcady died in 1991) makes his afterword even more poignant. Strugatsky writes that for decades he kept the hundreds of letters and memos that went back and forth between the brothers and the censors. He had intended to eventually publish a book documenting the nonsensical, Kafkaesque changes that the bureaucrats required to deem ROADSIDE PICNIC acceptable. But by the mid-1990s, Strugatsky realized that it was unlikely that anyone would still be interested in the petty squabbles and in-fighting of the now-defunct Soviet bureaucracy and gave up the idea of developing the book. So ROADSIDE PICNIC stands alone—a testament to the writers’ stubborn refusal to surrender in the face of almost overwhelming government opposition to a simple idea, encapsulated in a rather ironic way by the book’s final wish: Happiness for everybody, free, and no one will go away unsatisfied!
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