On Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

roadside picnic strugatskyRed Schuhart is a stalker, one of those strange misfits who are compelled, in spite of the extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artefacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his mutant daughter has been determined by the Zone. And it is for her that he makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile territory.

Roadside Picnic, Gollanz (SF Masterworks) 2007.

First published in 1972, Roadside Picnic was heavily edited by Soviet censors who were concerned not with the novel’s ideology but with its bleakness and the coarse immorality of the characters. Boris Strugatsky told the censors:

the novel contained nothing criminal; it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous in that sense. And the fact that the world depicted in it was coarse, cruel, and hopeless, well, that was how it had to be—it was the world of “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology.” (The Politics of Roadside Picnic, by Michael Andre-Driussi)

Roadside Picnic is a powerful and disturbing sociological and philosophical exploration of how technologically advanced artefacts left on Earth by alien visitors impact us. The aliens themselves never directly appear; all we know of them is based on the artefacts or “trash” they have left behind, littered across six Zones. These artefacts are so truly “other” that any real understanding of the beings that left them behind is impossible. Unable to fully comprehend or relate to the objects within the Zone, we seem primitive, pre-technological:

We’ve unearthed many miracles. In a few cases, we’ve even learned how to use these miracles for our own needs. A monkey pushes a red button and gets a banana, pushes a white button and gets an orange, but it doesn’t know how to get bananas and oranges without the buttons. And it doesn’t understand the relationship the buttons have to the fruit.

Red–our hard-drinking, hard-living, rough-talking protagonist–guides the story to its almost inevitably ambiguous ending. He lives in a town bordering the Zone:  “Life is tough in the city. There’s military control. Few amenities. The Zone right next to you–it’s like sitting on a volcano.” The tough realities of life here make Red increasingly desperate.  He loses friends and fellow stalkers to the Zone, and his own daughter is a mutant, barely human, almost certainly because of his forays into the contaminated areas. Losing faith in himself, he places his hope and seeks redemption in the mysterious power of the artefact known as the Golden Ball or Wish Machine. He makes one last trip into the Zone to find the Golden Ball, and his prayer to the artefact– “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED” – is the last line of the book, left unanswered.

Even though the final vision emphasises human reliance on miracles as a way to salvation, Roadside Picnic is also book that explores human knowledge, its limits, and the ways in which we frame our understanding of the world. Does man have an “indefinable need for knowledge”?

There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas plus so-called intuition and so-called common sense.

Roadside picnic illustration by Diggiahl on deviantART http://deggiahl.deviantart.com/

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