Reviews of Roadside Picnic (1972) and related work

Roadside Picnic (1972Text)

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: Sphere (1987), Hard to Be a God (2013).

text fiction

Stalker (1979Moving picture, 162 minutes)

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

Some twenty years ago, a meteor was thought to crash in an unnamed country. However, no meteorite was ever found. The site of the supposed impact began to exhibit absurd breakdowns of natural laws, though none of these are visible. The government sent troops. Their tanks are overgrown and rusted.

Supposedly, in a room at the heart of the site, your most profound desire is fulfilled. The government had the entire area cordoned off, but 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.

Mysticist SF, popularizing the Strugatskys’ neologism as if it were English. The film 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. This does nothing to limit Tarkovsky’s revelling in long takes, some of which are extremely beautiful. The sound design is also crazily good: Electronic modulation of the soundtrack stands in for visual special effects and the incidental industrial noises are mashed up with boisterous classical music.

Aristotelian unity and a real 1957 accident at a Soviet nuclear reactor are supposed to have influenced this adaptation, which is loose. It’s significantly improved in elegance, covering mainly Redrick’s last journey into the Zone to reach the sphere, replaced here by a room. However, it is greatly altered in its themes. The novel’s Redrick wants to provide for his mutant child and ultimately tries to use the sphere in a sequence commonly interpreted as commentary on the failure of communism. The film’s anonymous stalker is instead addicted to the Zone, wants to move into it with his wife and child, and never tries to use the room, which symbolizes something very different.

It seems as if the Zone, for Tarkovsky, came to represent certain Christian concepts of Eden and the transcendent power of the gods. His Zone is capricious and punitive like Yahweh. The absence of visual effects corresponds to the invisibility and unprovable nature of the gods, while the variable use of colour corresponds to their inscrutable “grace” and “spirit”. Quoting Luke 24 and Revelation 6 without naming Jesus, Tarkovsky thus argues at length for humility and monastic introspection.

Only one’s innermost desire will, supposedly, come true in the inner sanctum. This premise encourages believers to police and criticize themselves, rather than questioning the supernatural. Tarkovsky’s nameless version of Redrick therefore takes the role of a priest leading two cynics, pushing them to appreciate the grandeur of it all and purge themselves of sin. The absent figure of Porcupine, the stalker’s former mentor and cautionary example, is a Judas figure who received only money and a gruesome death, without realizing that money (i.e. crass gain, like a spectacle of special effects, or any observable miracle) is what he truly wished for.

This sort of Christian allegory is common in amateur science fiction. With Lopushansky’s aid, Tarkovsky does it as well as it can be done, and combines it with the concluding transcendence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It happens at the expense of the Strugatskys’ more intelligent ideas, but it is still absorbing.

References here: “The Power of the Single Shot” (1993), HyperNormalisation (2016).

moving picture adaptation fiction