Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is a Russian science fiction novel written in 1971, but because of the bureaucracy and censorship laws of the Soviet Union it was not published for eight years. Even then it was brought out in such a heavily edited format that the authors hated it and released an improved edition in 1990 when the USSR was finally on its last legs. However in 1979 they worked with the acclaimed Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky to produce a famous film, Stalker, loosely based on the book, that achieved international success. The story is set on earth in the present day during the aftermath of a very strange alien invasion. The brief arrival and immediate departure of extraterrestrial or interdimensional beings has left the world almost entirely unchanged except for a small area of the land surface a few miles across known as "the Zone". Within the Zone is a totally surreal environment. The very laws of reality are warped and causality no longer applies. Shadows fall the wrong way, objects appear and disappear, hot burning ash falls from cloudless skies and there are anomalous gravitational fields that can twist a human body into a coil. Anybody who even lives near the edge of the Zone finds strange things happening in their life; mental health problems, their children becoming mute or growing hair on their bodies, the corpses of their deceased relatives being animated as undead zombies. The Zone is an extremely dangerous place and everybody who lived there had to been evacuated. There are only a few people who dare to enter the Zone and these are known as "stalkers". The stalkers do what they do because they can earn a lot of money by finding alien artefacts and selling them on the black market or to the government and scientific institutes. These artefacts are all bizarre objects that have a variety of applications. "Sparks" make good jewellery, "death lanterns" are weapons and have been bought up by the military industrial complex. "Hell slime" is extremely toxic and ended up shutting down an entire laboratory when it escaped from its container. However the ultimate prize of the stalkers is to retrieve a legendary "golden ball" that is said to grant wishes like the genie in the lamp. Adam Curtis brings up the subject of Roadside Picnic in his latest documentary, Hypernormalization, see: See here for my review:

There are several interesting themes in Roadside Picnic. The most interesting part is a long dialogue between two of the characters, Richard Noonan and a scientist called Valentine Pillman. It reveals the same points that I've made about an extraterrestrial intelligence; that we should not anthropomorphize it when speculating what it might be like. We don't know whether the aliens will think like we do. It could be that communication with them might be impossible. What if the aliens are so much more intelligent than we are that we are to them as an insect is to us? Valentine suggests that the visitation by aliens that led to the formation of the Zone might be completely accidental and that they are oblivious to the effect it has had on humans and our planet. He compares it to how insects and other small animals might respond to the debris left behind on the verge of a road after a picnic; food wrappers, tin cans, a lost children's toy etc. These items are incomprehensible to the animals. Some of them might be useful, especially if there is residual food in the wrappers; some of them might be dangerous, but the animals will never understand them. What's more this litter is not a gift from the humans who had the picnic; nor is it a deliberate attempt to harm the animals. It is a completely accidental and arbitrary occurrence. This humbling vision of our place in the universe may eventually prove to be the most accurate. The free energy element also comes into the story. One of the most beneficial treasures salvaged by the stalkers is a small portable machine called a "spacell" ("so-so" in the original translation). This cannot be back-engineered by human scientists, but it can be made to reproduce itself. A spacell can be plugged into an electrical or mechanical device of any kind and it provides free, unlimited, clean and safe power for it. In one scene Richard Noonan drives his car by plugging a spacell into a socket on the dashboard. The aliens who caused the Zone to emerge are never identified and play no part at all in the plot. It appears nobody knows who they are or where they came from. There's a distinct sense of interdimensionality to them rather than extraterrestrial, although this concept was not en vogue with science fiction when the book was written. It could simply be my subjective interpretation. Some of the properties of the Zone remind me of the strange case of "Mel's Hole", a subject which will require an article of its own in the future, see here for some of the Coast to Coast programmes about it: The scenario also reminds me of the possibility of something "going wrong" at CERN and creating problems; I've covered that before, see the background links. Messing about with the walls between parallel universes is potentially very destructive. Roadside Picnic is one of the most fascinating sci-fi stories I've ever read. The ending is very abrupt and feels truncated, but it's still well worth reading. See:

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