Reviews of Roadside Picnic (1972) and related work

Roadside Picnic (1972)

Arkady Strugatsky (writer), Boris Strugatsky (writer).

Read in 2020.

Read in Olena Bormashenko’s translation to English, of the decensored Russian text, in the SF Masterworks edition.

A secondary-world soft-SF novel, elaborating on the core ideas of Solaris (1961). It is a further step away from H. P. Lovecraft and the brothers’ “Wanderers and Travellers” (1963) in that the aliens themselves make no appearance. Instead, the dysteleological symbolism stems from incomprehensible pieces of discarded technology, abused by ignorant people. Even the personal changes to the children of “stalkers”—both phenotype and genotype—are apparently dysteleological. Ionizing radiation is ruled out but the effects more closely resemble such random genetic damage than the intimate alien influence of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1936).

In his 2012 afterword, Boris Strugatsky clarified the origin of the term “stalker” as it was coined in this book. A ˈstɑl.kər, i.e. the old English word “stalker”, secretly tracks people or other animals, whereas a ˈstaɫkʲɪr (i.e. the authors’ Russian neologism, “сталкер”) enters mysterious sites to loot them or guide others. Both words are spelled the same way in English. The latter is derived from the former. The difference in pronunciation is ultimately due to a naïve misreading of Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899), about adventurous youths. The brothers Strugatsky failed to account for the unintuitive spelling of English. As a result, the Russian neologism is routinely understood by readers in English to be a form of the English word on which it’s based, in much the same way as the English word itself was misunderstood by the authors to create the neologism.

Set in an advanced Anglo economy similar to Canada or the USA, the style of the novel is quite close to grubby yet scientifically literate 1970s New-Wave North American SF, including a visible heritage from influential film noir tropes and other casual existentialism with a Soviet black-market flavour. The novel’s concluding scene, which includes disorientation and a form of murder in harsh sunlight, reminded me of the first part of The Stranger (1942). The introduction of Dina Burbridge is stereotypical male-gaze stuff, exactly as it would have been written by Philip K. Dick at the time. There are more interesting traits of free indirect style (erlebte Rede).

The premises are larger than they should have been, and more closely connected to anthropocentric mythologies. In particular, the resurrection of the dead is out of place and contradicts the symbolism. The same is true of the “golden” sphere, a standard SF id machine that puts cosmic weight on human thought, but the authors rescue the latter, both by not ultimately confirming its efficacy and by connecting it to the Soviet context of the production. In the final scene, both Arthur and Redrick make wishes that closely parallel utopian communist propaganda. The Soviet bureaucracy took 8 years to approve the publication of the novel in one volume, after its original publication in a literary journal. This is the length of the novel’s own plot which—brilliantly—follows Redrick’s gradual disillusionment leading to that final scene. To their credit, the authors do not make metafiction out of this coincidence, but a reading of the novel as social criticism is readily available.

References here: Hard to Be a God (2013).

fiction text

Stalker (1979)

Konstantin Lopushansky (assistant director), Andrei Tarkovsky (director).

Some twenty years ago, a meteor was thought to crash in a small, unnamed country. However, no meteorite was ever found. The site of the supposed impact began to exhibit absurd breakdowns of natural laws. The government sent troops. Their tanks are overgrown and rusted. Supposedly, at the heart of the site, your most profound desire is fulfilled. Fearing the consequences of hostile wishes, the government had the entire area cordoned off. Even so, desperate individuals still hire the services of equally desperate guides to break through the perimeter and enter the vibrant Zone. A writer and a scientist are next in line.

Philosophical SF, popularizing the Strugatskys’ neologism as if it were English. Aristotelian unity and a real 1957 accident at a Soviet nuclear reactor is supposed to have influenced this adaptation, which is loose but significantly improved in elegance, covering mainly Redrick’s last journey into the Zone to reach the sphere, replaced here by a room, and provide for his mutant child.

The film, though long, is composed mainly of retakes on a decreased budget because the original footage was destroyed, a fact about which there are many legends: Failure in development of experimental Kodak celluloid, an unspecified laborary fire, or Soviet censor sabotage.

References here: HyperNormalisation (2016).

fiction moving picture