Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Damn your pseudo-science! Somehow this isn’t at all how I envisioned it. - Roadside Picnic by Strugatsky & Strugatsky

Science fiction actually has a “cool stuff” sub-genre (also a branch of exploration literature) typically involving the discovery and exploration of an alien artifact.  Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1972), for example.  An enormous structure is invented and then filled with the most interesting creatures, machines, and puzzles the author can think of.  The characters and I wander around and admire the result.  These particular novels are especially pure examples since the origin of the structure is never really explained, perhaps because the author has not come up with one, or because he has and it is lame.

Both novels have several sequels which might well contain ingenious and satisfying solutions to their puzzles.  For now I will stick with my sense of wonder.

Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is an example I recently read.  The Strugatskys bring the alien space to Earth.  The Zone is a small American town which unknown aliens turned into a nightmarish magical landscape full of physics-bending gadgets and traps.  And zombies, it turns the dead into zombies, but surprisingly friendly ones.  The traps are deadly, the gadgets useful or decorative or also deadly.  The small town location sacrifices the awe created by the giant alien structure device but nicely drapes everything with an uncanny feeling.

I have a problem now.  If I want to demonstrate the inventive qualities of Roadside Picnic, I should provide a description of a good invention.  But the method of the novel is to normalize  the weirdness.  To the alien gizmo smuggler (the “stalker”*) with whom we spend most of our time, The Zone is not cool or intriguing like it is to me but a constant threat.  Here is what he sounds like when something strange happens:

Over the pile of ancient trash, over the colorful rags an broken glass, drifts a tremor, a vibration, just like the hot air above a tin roof at noon; it floats over the mound and continues, cuts across our path right beside a marker, lingers over the road, waits for half a second – or am I just imagining that? – and slithers into the field, over the bushes, over the rotten fences, toward the old car graveyard.  (24)

The narrator has been creeping into The Zone, pausing, evaluating the weeds and sidewalks, for several pages, and this is the first “event” of the trip.  What happened?  “God knows!  It came and went,” he says, and that is all we ever find out from him.

Similarly, here is how he describes the artifacts he pinches:

Two empties.  A box of pins.  Nine batteries.  Three bracelets.  And another hoop – resembling a bracelet but made from a white metal, lighter and about an inch larger in diameter.  Sixteen black sparks in a plastic bag.  Two perfectly preserved sponges close to a fist in size.  Three shriekers.  A jar of carbonated clay.  There was still a heavy porcelain container, packed carefully in fiberglass, remaining in the bag, but Redrick left it alone.  (76)

He does not know what these things are.  Those are just the names ("empties," "sparks") that have become attached to them.  Some are described in more detail elsewhere, some not.  That last container is explained – it figures in the plot.  Otherwise, a mystery.  A good science fiction joke that runs through the novel is that scientists figure out how to use some of the artifacts, like the batteries, without ever understanding the science.**

So to recapture the "cool stuff" thrill I have to translate the stalker’s normal to my weird.  Where he is jaded I am freshly curious.  A late chapter – the post’s title is from it, p. 132 – includes a scientist seeming to explain this and that, but mostly just reinforcing the mysteries.  The authors do not want to explain their crazy creations which are more fun – cooler, weirder – as mysteries.

It was Scott at Seraillon who recently recommended this novel to me – thanks!

*  The stalkers are named, amusingly, after the title character of Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co.  See p. 197 of Boris Strugatsky’s afterward to the new translation of the novel (Chicago Review Press, tr. Olena Bormashenko).

**  Roadside Picnic is a demonstration of Clarke’s Third Law, although the novel precedes Clarke’s aphorism by a year.


  1. Hey, great, and you're welcome! I'm glad you liked this. One reason it transcends my usual tepid feelings about SciFi is precisely that it seems to embrace the wonder of it all and relegate the science-fictiony stuff to the sidelines (I can just picture the Strugatskys at a picnic, seeing ants crawling over empty cans and bottles. cigarette butts, melon rinds and discarded food packaging, and coming up with the question: what do they make of these weird things?). So they normalize the weirdness. And in one of the novel's many admonitory themes, they also commercialize it. I just love this book, in large part for the very reason you latch onto - that it leaves the mysteries mysterious, including the mystery of what our own deepest desires might be if we were truly pressed to identify them.

  2. Yeah, this was a good one. The characters, the lead especially, are actually pretty good. The writing is nothing fancy but clean, never awkward, and it is structurally clever. So no real negatives - nothing to pretend isn't there.

    And then it has all this inventive weirdness that fires the imagination and may even mean something.

    So thanks again!

  3. Glad you liked the book --- I just read it this summer, too, and found it a refreshing read, especially given its vintage! Good SF at its best.

  4. Yes, among the best SF novels I have read, and among the best written even more so.