Stalking Roadside Picnic

Over the holidays, I spent some time indulging in a periodic hobby of mine–science fiction literature. After poking around, I discovered that Orion Books in the UK has been printing a series entitled SF Masterworks for a number of years (with decreasing frequency), putting out major works by authors from Bester to Stapledon to Wells that have been long out-of-print in the UK (and in many cases the US). What grabbed my attention was one of their last additions, Roadside Picnic, the 1972 novel by the Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky that inspired Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting and visually influential film. Arkady was an editor who studied English and Japanese, and Boris was a computer mathematician; they began writing science fiction together in the late-’50s.

The SF Masterworks’ Roadside Picnic is a paperback edition with an evocative cover–the entire series boasts striking art–but it’s cheaply printed without extras, which keeps it affordable. Back in the ’70s, Macmillan in the US published a “Best of Soviet Science Fiction” series that included novels by the Strugatskys (along with Bulychev, Bilenkin, Savchenko, and others) with introductions by Theodore Sturgeon. Strangely uncredited, the SF Masterworks’ Roadside Picnic reprints Antonina W. Bois’ gripping 1977 English translation, of which Sturgeon wrote: “Russian I do not know; fiction I do; and I must honor anyone who can so deftly pass emotion, character dimension, even conversational idiom, through so formidable a barrier.” (Bilingual readers can judge for themselves by comparing the Russian and English translations, here.)

Six Zones on Earth contain bizarre and dangerous extraterrestrial artifacts that first appeared twenty years earlier in a line around the planet as it rotated; the authorities have evacuated and militarized these Zones, which are carefully explored by officials during the day and infiltrated illegally by “stalkers” at night, their treasures smuggled out and sold to the highest bidder. A mercenary-like stalker named Redrick periodically sneaks into a Zone that’s located in a backwater town in Canada, where he has to balance the idealism of a researcher friend with the dangers of the Zone, his cynical dealings with shady characters on both sides of the law, and his need to care for his wife and daughter, an ever-mutating girl mysteriously affected by his Zone incursions. Red is a hard-drinking, violent, and dispassionate stalker, but deep within him stirs intimations of love, idealism and commitment, and the Strugatskys are adept at suggesting this inner turmoil.

I was impressed with the book’s descriptive sense of atmosphere, vivid characterizations, and surprisingly tough, hardboiled tone. That’s not to say that it’s a detective story; most of its alien mysteries remain unexplained while the authors explore human psychology. (The title itself suggests aliens visiting Earth might not even notice humanity, much less attempt to communicate with us, merely littering the landscape with incomprehensible debris.) The Strugatskys’ prose is muscular and direct, with a cutthroat sense of urgency and an offhanded poetry that suggests a complex world just beyond the grasp of their characters:

“He braked immediately. Good reflexes, I was proud of him. I took Tender by the shoulder, turned him toward me, and smacked him in the visor. He cracked his nose, poor guy, against the glass, closed his eyes, and shut up. And as soon as he was quiet, I heard it. Trrr, trrr, trrr. . . . Kirill looked over at me, jaws clenched, teeth bared. I motioned for him to be still. God, please be still, don’t move a muscle. But he also heard the crackle, and like all greenhorns, he had the urge to do something immediately, anything. “Reverse?” he whispered. I shook my head desperately and waved my fist right under his visor–cut it out. Honest to God, with these greenhorns you never know which way to look, at the field or at them. And then I forgot about everything. Over the pile of old refuse, over broken glass and rags, crawled a shimmering, a trembling, sort of like hot air at noon over a tin roof. It crossed over the hillock and moved on and on toward us, right next to the pylon; it hovered for a second over the road–or did I just imagine it?–and slithered into the field, behind the bushes and the rotten fences, back there toward the automobile graveyard.”

The novel also has a fascinating structure comprised of a prologue and four chapters presenting distinct moments in an eight year period with large gaps of time in between. The first chapter is narrated by Red, the subsequent chapters are not, and one focuses entirely on a secondary character, creating a kind of teasing, impressionistic summary of events the reader must connect and interpret. Such opacity has prompted Western critics to assume the authors are being politically cagey, but the Strugatskys ultimately seem less interested in allegory than in capturing a general sense of how it feels to work under the radar in a police state. If anything, they seem acutely aware of the dangers of free market entrepreneurialism, with powerful technology seeping unregulated into the hands of high-paying opportunists. The Strugatskys may have possessed a keen sense of irony and Slavic pessimism, but they weren’t notable dissidents.

Despite my love for Tarkovsky’s film, I never tracked down the Strugatskys’ book until now, partly due to the filmmaker’s dismissive comments about how different his movie is from the book: “the script for Stalker has nothing in common with the novel,” he told Tonino Guerra in 1979, “except for the two words, ‘Stalker’ and ‘Zone.'” Yet anyone familiar with the movie will immediately recognize numerous overlaps even in my brief summary above. It’s true that the plot of the film pretty much restricts itself to the novel’s final chapter, which involves a trip into the Zone to discover an artifact rumored to grant one’s wishes, but it’s a more complex adaptation than one might assume given that fact.

There’s no doubt that the film script is a loose adaptation–Tarkovsky not only reworked the Strugatskys’ own script (adapted from their novel) multiple times, he also had to re-envision the film halfway into production after his working footage was destroyed in the lab. Tarkovsky’s stalker is finally (in his words) “a very honest man, clean, and intellectually innocent.” “The last of the idealists . . . as if he were a priest of the Zone, the stalker leads men there to make them happy.” In other words, he’s less a hardboiled smuggler than a kind of Tarkovskian “holy fool” of the kind seen in Andrei Rublev (1964), Nostalghia (1983), or The Sacrifice (1986); a social outcast whose depth of vision separates him from humanity but also provides the key to its spiritual renewal. In both the book and the film, the mysterious object (or Room) ostensibly grants one’s innermost wishes (rather than those simply stated) and thus highlights the limits of mankind’s self-awareness and moral tensions in the face of the unknown. Tarkovsky emphasizes the more fable-like nature of his adaptation by separating the tensions into three bold archetypes–the idealist Stalker, the exploratory Writer, and the ruthless Scientist–but both the book and the movie suggest that the counter argument to the destructive potentials, ambitions, and obsessions in the Zone is love and selfless dedication.

I’m really glad I tracked the book down, and I highly recommend it to fans of Stalker or many of the ideas the film grapples with. It’s science fiction of the highest caliber, written with rigor and stylistic flourish, creating an imaginary but plausible world that’s a pointed reflection of our own, and peopling it with complex and compelling characters. I’m looking forward to tracking down more Strugatsky fiction.

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