Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 8 September 2017
Classic SciFi 10: Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic 1977
Vladimir Putin is sometimes treated as a bit of a joke in the West. This is a dangerous delusion, Putin has resurrected the oligarchy of the old Soviet Union. The uncontrolled Mafia and free market millionaires are gone. The Kremlin wants its cut of everything. If one resists, ruin or death may follow. If you cease to be useful or know too much, you can end up face-down in your own swimming pool.
The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in the UK in 2006 with polonium-210 seemed extreme, but it sent a powerful message to other Russians.
Denise and I have recently read two books on the new Russia and would recommend them to you.
Everything is True and Nothing is Impossible by Peter Pomerantsev 2014 covers the changes in Russia from the early 2000s to 2010. Pomerantsev, a UK born journalist of Russian descent, worked in Russia for around eight years making documentaries for Russian television, beginning in the midst of an oil boom. In the process, he covered much of the weird and wonderful in Russia at the time. The portrait is amazing and idiosyncratic. It documents the rise of Putin’s Russia and the strange consequences in Russian Society. It is amusing but also chilling and rather frightening. Returning to the UK in 2010, Pomerantsev discovered that many of the beneficiaries of the Russian system had moved to Britain and were continuing life in the UK, as if in Russia — an internationalising of the wealth and the excess, but still firmly controlled by Putin’s Russian oligarchy.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller 2011 is a novel in microcosm of the things revealed in Everything is True and Nothing is Impossible. It is a fictional first person confession by Nick to the woman he is going to marry about his time in Russia. Nick is a young banker in the cowboy environment of oil boom Moscow. A snowdrop is Moscow slang for a corpse that lies buried in winter to be revealed in the spring thaw. There are two plots: one is his job as a banker where huge amounts of money are loaned on projects without much due diligence; the other is a love story leading to a minor crime.
The novel is well-written and engrossing. It is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the tense portrayal of the minor crime that slowly grows more sinister and awful, as its total lack of any moral compass is revealed.
These books are a great introduction to a new reading of Roadside Picnic. In this context, in addition to being classic science fiction, Roadside Picnic provides an educative insight into the old Soviet Union during the cold war. Much has changed in Russia but the old mores seem to have been resurrected by Putin. Although we live in a world of accelerating pace of change, mores resist change and culture barely changes at all over decades.
Roadside Picnic is one of the most remarkable science fiction books ever written. It is a classic in every sense. The main character, Red Schuhart, is difficult but his psychology and motivations are opened to us. Schuhart is a stalker whose skills and courage make us admire him. Hence he is a sympathetic character, but he is also equivocal, because his moral choices are complex.
The alien visitation and its consequences are vividly described though difficult for us to accept.
Roadside Picnic (Russian: Пикник на обочине..) is a short science fiction novel written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971. By 1998, 38 editions of the novel were published in 20 countries. The novel was first translated into English by Antonina W. Bouis. The preface to the first American edition … (MacMillan.. , New York, 1977) was written by Theodore Sturgeon. The film Stalker 1979, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is loosely based on the novel, with a screenplay written by the Strugatsky brothers. (Wikipedia)
The film Stalker was very popular as an arthouse movie, many consider it a work of genius. Despite, the screenplay by the Strugatskys, the film is not like the book, being much more metaphysical and mystical with a different storyline.
Roadside Picnic won four awards shortly after its publication in English and also won a Swedish award.
The story was written by the Strugatsky brothers in 1971. …It was first published in the Avrova literary magazine in 1972, issues 7–10. …It was also printed in the newspaper Youth of Estonia in 1977–1978.
…Roadside Picnic was refused publication in book form in the Soviet Union for eight years due to government censorship and numerous delays. The heavily censored versions published between 1980 and 1990 significantly departed from the original version written by the authors. The Russian-language versions endorsed by the Strugatsky brothers as the original were published in the 1990s. (Wikipedia)
There was probably an impression in the West that Arkady and Boris were dissidents, which may have stimulated the novella’s early success in America. The brothers were not dissidents but the book is certainly anti-authoritarian, which is probably the root cause of the censorship (see below).
The book is amazingly complex for being very short (159 pages in paperback). The viewpoint character Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart is well-rounded, the other characters tend to be flat or static but are not especially wooden — a frequent fault in short science fiction, especially up to the early 1970s. The morally suspect old stalker Burbridge is almost Dickensian in his vividness, despite being only lightly sketched, and others are also surprisingly poignant, moving or sinister in quick depictions.
Theodore Sturgeon in his 1977 Introduction said:
Add the Strugatskys’ deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness, and you have a truly superb tale, ending most poignantly…
Sturgeon also said: Good science fiction is also good fiction. The statement is particularly apt for Roadside Picnic. Yet, it is the magnificent idea and the story that have kept Roadside Picnic on the best classic science fiction lists, ever since it was published in English.
Ursula Le Guin also wrote a Foreword to a new version of Roadside Picnic (Rediscovered Classics) in 2012.
The Unusual Idea of Roadside Picnic
Science fiction has always had a problem depicting aliens… and alien environments. If you look closely you can usually always relate them back to something familiar. Insects and fossils are often used, for example, as inspirations.
Movies have been somewhat better than books, because the visuals in such movies as Ridley Scott’s Alien series are in-your-face and suspend your disbelief, by the sheer impact of their presence.
Frank Herbert’s magnificent environments in Dune were inspired by arab culture and the nomadic people’s of the Sahara. David Brin in his Uplift novels and Sheri S Tepper in some of hers create good aliens; but, they are derivative of the familiar. Brin also describes the personalities and behaviour of uplifted dolphins, but they too are humanoid in personality, despite Brin’s attempts to make them different.
Arkady and Boris are writing about aliens who are as unknowable as some versions of God. They have also challenged our belief in ourselves, because their aliens are wholly indifferent to humans and to our planet. We are the ants or bugs at a roadside picnic.
In Roadside Picnic the aliens arrive on Earth at six visitation zones simultaneously. Neither the aliens themselves, nor their arrival or departure were witnessed, by the human inhabitants of the few square kilometres of each zone.
After the visitation the zones exhibit strange and dangerous phenomena not understood by humans, and they contain artifacts with inexplicable, seemingly supernatural properties. Some of the inhabitants are also changed in frightening and inexplicable ways. There are plague-like conditions with some killed. Much later it is discovered that people emigrating from the zones can cause inexplicable impacts on those around them.
The title of the book Roadside Picnic is the same in Russian as it is in English. In the middle of the book the physicist Valentine Pilman says of the visitation, imagine:
A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.
The Plot and Structure of Roadside Picnic
The novel is set in post-visitation Earth. Each of the six zones is controlled by governments and the UN, who keep tight control over them to prevent the leakage of artifacts and other dangerous things, fearful of unforeseen consequences.
The novel occurs during a period of eight years, after the visitation in a specific zone, in the fictitious town of Harmont, Canada. Red Schuhart is a stalker. A subculture of stalkers (thieves) goes into the zones to steal artifacts for money. To survive a stalker must develop an uncanny almost mystical expertise, which makes them legendary within parts of the community.
The prologue is in the form of a radio interview with Harmont physicist Valentine Pilman. Pilman won a Nobel Prize for the Pilman Radient, which showed that the visitations were in a straight line on the globe (similar in concept perhaps to the hot spot in the Pacific, which the tectonic plate passed across to form the chain of volcanic islands down from the Aleutians to Hawaii) — extrapolation of the visitation line leads back to Deneb, the alpha star in Cygnus. The interview establishes the visitation and the zones.
Red Schuhart age 23 is introduced as a lab assistant at the Institute, which is where scientists work to discover the zone, painfully slowly. Schuhart is also a stalker. Schuhart decides to help his boss the Russian Kirill, whom he admires. Kirill is becoming stuck and depressed by his study of empties.
An official expedition is organised into the Zone to retrieve a ‘full empty’ from the garage. The description of this visit to the Zone is one of the most frightening parts of the book. The hazards are described brilliantly. Unfortunately, Schuhart is more used to being a stalker and of looking out for himself. He is too late to warn Kirrill, who brushes against a silver-seeming spider’s web, in retrieving the artifact. Nevertheless, everything is OK initially, but Kirill dies of a heart attack in the showers, after decontamination. Schuhart is depressed and tries to drown his sorrows at a nearby bar, the Borscht.
In comparison to stalkers, the scientists and the Institute set-up to study each zone under the aegis of the UN have barely penetrated the zone and are ignorant of most of the artifacts and effects found there.
Sections 2 & 4
Sections 2 and 4 are also about Schuhart age 28 and 31. We follow him in the zone two more times. We also learn much more about the zones, their control, selling artifacts and the impact of the visitation on humanity. The two other visits to the zone are also frightening and the last provides the denouement of the plot.
But, nothing is quite as scary or as chilling as that first visit. Section 1 is perhaps the best part of the book. The last section describes a much tougher and ethically challenging task, providing the poignant and unresolved ending.
Section 3 is an interlude, which follows Richard Noonan, a zone businessman who is associated with the institute. A detailed conversation between Noonan and the physicist Pilman at the Borscht provides a more in-depth philosophy about the visitation and the zones.
Artifacts in Roadside Picnic
The artifacts within the zone are classified into five types (after Valentine Pilman & Wikipedia):
- Beneficial objects: the ‘So Sos’ or batteries and ‘Bracelets’. The eternal batteries multiplied (like cell division) and could be used to power almost anything, for example, cars. But, the scientists have no idea if they are using the devices to their proper purpose.
- Objects of unknown function or purpose: the ‘Black Sprays’ and ‘Needles’.
- Bizarre objects and effects within the zone: ‘Witch’s Jelly’, ‘Cotton’, ‘Mosquito Mange’ or gravito-concentrates (areas of anomalous gravity that crush things).
- Unique objects only known to stalkers or by legend that are probably best left undisturbed: the ‘Jolly Ghost’ and the ‘Golden Sphere’.
- Effects on people present in the zones during the visitation: The blindness (apparently caused by a loud noise) and the plagues. The weirdest are anomalous effects caused by those who survived the visitation and later emigrated. An example is given of a barber who emigrated to a far-off city. 90% of his customers died mysteriously within a year. Emigration from the zones is banned in the last section and time period of the book.
Descriptions of the alien technology
… they’re heavy little bastards… fifteen pounds each. The empties are just two copper disks the size of a saucer, about a quarter inch thick, with a space of a foot and a half between them. They can’t be separated or compressed, but there is just empty space. You can stick your hand in them or even your head.
Schuhart suggests to Kirill that he needs to see a full empty. It’s got some sort of blue stuff inside.
Mosquito Mange, called gravito-concentrates by the scientists, are areas of anomalous gravity and incredibly dangerous because, as with many other things in the zone, they can’t be seen. Other more dangerous things move.
Redrick saw the helicopter. It had fallen, apparently, into the middle of a mosquito mange spot, and its fuselage had been squashed into a metal pancake. Its tail had remained intact, only slightly bent, and it stuck out over the glade like a black hook. The stabilizer was also whole, and it squeaked distinctly, turning in the light breeze.
On the first visit into the zone, Redrick throws metal nuts and bolts, when he is unsure of what lies ahead. He finds one mosquito mange spot:
It was so small that it looked like a cat turd.
Witches’ jelly gathers in low points and glows at night like alcohol burning with blue tongues.
Burbridge loses his legs to witches’ jelly.
Schuhart reluctantly collects some in a ceramic vessel. He is not going to give it to the middlemen, worrying at the use. But, when he is going to jail, he relents to fund his family while he is away. We find out later that the witches’ jelly went to a small research company. Noonan’s description of the accident is chillingly similar to what happened at Chernobyl in 1986.
The plague quarter is a place where the blindness, illness and other things happened: Almost everyone who lived in the neighbourhood was hit…
The cotton, magnetic traps, the meat grinder and many other things and effects are also mentioned.
Philosophising in Roadside Picnic
As well as the description of the roadside picnic, the physicist Valentine Pilman provides several other examples of laconic wisdom. Three are:
For me the Visitation is a primarily unique event that allows us to skip several steps in the process of cognition. Like a trip into the future of technology. Like a quantum generator ending up in Isaac Newton’s laboratory.
Xenology: an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. It’s based on the false premise that human psychology is applicable to extra-terrestrial beings.
I won’t go into detail, but the existence of such objects as the magnetic traps, the K-23 and the white ring has invalidated most of our recently developed theories and has brought forth completely new ideas.
Censorship in the old Soviet Union
Why did the Soviets Censor Roadside Picnic and forbid its publication as a book?
Michael AndreDriussi in The politics of Roadside Picnic, a 2012 essay, says based on Boris Strugatky’s afterword in the 2012 edition:
If I understand it correctly, the censors were not concerned with the ideology, since the novel’s ideology followed Soviet orthodoxy.
Strugatsky told them repeatedly:
…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.”
It was precisely the graphic coarseness, vulgarity, and immoral behavior in the novel that was the problem for the censors.
He goes on to say that what was acceptable in a literary magazine was unacceptable in young adult fiction. (The anomaly of the Estonian youth magazine publication was probably just that. The censors missed it.)
I agree with AndreDriussi, but I also think that the key to the censorship is the book’s anti-authoritarian nature, and the ways in which some Harmonites subvert authority.
A good example that demonstrates this is the following passage where Red is stopped by Captain Quarterblad. An old friend (ironic). The first describes the ‘blue helmets’, the underlings accompanying the captain:
You couldn’t see their eyes just the jaws working under their helmets. Where in Canada do they find these guys? Have they been sent out here to breed?
To bring the unpleasant conversation to a close, I showed Captain Quarterblad my papers. He took my book and examined it page by page, sniffing and smelling every stamp and seal on it.
This is supposed to be the decadent West, but I suspect even to the Soviets, it might have seemed a little close to home.
The Russian Cultural Milieu
My feeling reading the book was that everything was embedded in Russian culture and had nothing of Canada or the West about it. Unlike Stalker 1979, the film that captures a similar atmosphere of Russianness is Leviathan 2014 by Andrey Zvyagintsev. (Also an arthouse movie.)
I consulted Goodreads as usual but was disappointed in the reviews, except for one by Nataliya, which captures the very essence of Roadside Picnic’s Russianness to my mind:
When people talk about the “special” feel of Russian literature, I tend to shrug it away as yet another point of confusion “Westerners” have with anything Slavic.
But when I tried to explain the feeling this book evoked in me to a few “Westerners” I startlingly realized that “it just *feels* so essentially Russian” may indeed be a valid description that encompasses the soul-searching ambiguity, the pursuit of deeper truths shrouded in light sadness, the frustrating but yet revealing lack of answers to the clear divide between right and wrong, and the heart shattering “scream of soul”.
I agree with Nataliya!
You just need to read this book! I hope I have tantalised you enough to seek it out.
My friend James Wallace Harris’s List of Classic Science Fiction by Rank places Roadside Picnic at equal #90 with four other books, based on its appearance on 13 of 37 lists. By decade it rises from publication in English to a peak in the 2000s and may begin to fall slightly in the 2010s.
My view is that it is better than this and deserves to be ranked as one of the great classic science fiction novels of all time. However, two of my previous selections Rork! and Dark Universe don’t rank at all.
This doesn’t disturb me. Many wonderful books from all genres just fall off the radar and hopefully I am putting some great science fiction back on.
A wonderful resource for neglected books in general (not particularly for science fiction) is the Neglected Books Page.
Key Words: Vladimir Putin, Soviet Union, Russia, Alexander Litvinenko, Everything is True and Nothing is Impossible, Peter Pomerantsev, Snowdrops, A.D. Miller, Roadside Picnic, Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Stalker 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky, Avrova literary magazine, Soviet censorship, Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart, Burbridge, Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula Le Guin, AndreDriussi, The politics of Roadside Picnic, Mosquito Mange, Witches’ Jelly, Leviathan 2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Nataliya Goodreads
A review of Everything is True and Nothing is Impossible by Peter Pomerantsev 2014 is given in The Guardian 4 February, 2015.
Ursula Le Guin provides an interesting review of Roadside Picnic in July, 1977
Ursula Le Guin Foreword to the 2012 edition of Roadside Picnic (go to Amazon and look inside the book)
I found the 1977 review more compelling than her 2012 Introduction.
Michael AndreDriussi Essay
Michael AndreDriussi The politics of Roadside Picnic, Essay, 2012
Stalker Film 1979
Stalker Film Wikipedia
Stalker Film IMDB
The user reviews on IMDB tend to be excessively favourable.
Leviathan Film 2014
Leviathan Film Wikipedia
Leviathan Film IMDB
Goodreads Nataliya Review of Roadside Picnic
Used to read a lot of science fiction, but ‘Roadside Picnic’ is new to me. Thanks for the introduction.