Roadside Picnic is a classic science fiction story written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and is also known as the source of the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. I had not read the story or seen the film in many, many years. Yesterday I re-read it after finding it online (through the link above) and realized that it had made an enormous impression on me, one that stuck through all these years.
Told in a hard-boiled, Dashiell-Hammett like way, the story tells of a ‘Zone’, a mysterious area where the laws of nature as we know them are not obeyed, where strange artifacts reside, where inexplicable effects occur from unknown causes. The Zone is bordered and guarded by the UN military, but that doesn’t stop “stalkers” – bold thieves – from sneaking in and attempting to retrieve artifacts in order to sell them on the black market. The main character in the story is one such stalker. Theories abound that the Zone was created by a visitation from some alien race – one scientist’s theory was that the creatures had merely stopped off on Earth for a moment and departed again – the relics left behind were mere trash to them, such as humans might leave at a roadside picnic, to be marveled at by the ants and bugs that witnessed it – the implication being, of course, that we humans are mere ants and bugs to these aliens.
It is never explained, really. This is the main thing that influenced me, which was the idea underneath my conception for my Snapdragon Alley, which is a place, or creature, or both, or neither. I discovered that when you do not spell everything out, readers will whine about it. No one likes a loose end. But in Roadside Picnic, there is no crying, there is only risk, and fear, and greed, and death. The contrast between the imagined magnificence of these aliens, and the low-life, seedy struggles of the people who strive to squeeze money out of the Zone, is the great beauty of this book. The Strugatsky brothers mince no words in their contempt of the paltry nature of our capacities – “We’re all cave men in one sense or another. We can’t imagine anything scarier than a ghost.”
It’s one of my common refrains that religion is essentially a failure of the imagination. Strugatsky’s say “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 pins so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”
But these philosophical asides are not the main stream of the story, which is science fiction as a feat of imagination. The descriptions and properties of the various relics are at the heart of it, and the authors excel in conveying the weirdness and the magic of them all. There are also the side-effects of mutations and ‘moulanges’ which give the story a sense of boundless creativity. You have no idea what they’ll come up with next, but what they ultimately come up with is a magic trick, a ‘Golden Ball’ that can allegedly fulfill your heart’s deepest desire. This is nonsense of the purest sort, the common stuff of everyday fairy tales, so it’s easy to imagine everyone automatically believing in it without question, and risking everything to pursue it. There is no evidence, no proof, no relation at all of the myth to any reality, yet stalker after stalker goes to his near certain death in quest of it. In the words of the X-files. they all “want to believe”, and how could they not? Fulfillment of your deepest desire? Who could resist? This is the key idea that can easily hypnotize any one of us at any time. What suckers we are! It works every time.