by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.
Translated by Olena Bormashenko,
foreword by Ursula K Le Guin,
afterword by Boris Strugatsky, 2012.
Gollancz, 2012 (1972).
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;From ‘An Essay on Man: Epistle II’ by Alexander Pope
The proper study of mankind is man.
Superficially a speculative thriller, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic for me turned out to be a deeply philosophical novel under its science-fictiony veneer. For the most part it focuses on a character called Redrick, a chancer who lives for the pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, gambling and occasional sex, living at some unspecified future time somewhere in North America. So, initially, a not very edifying tale.
The ostensible premise is that extraterrestrial visitors have touched down at six points on the Earth’s surface and then just as mysteriously departed, leaving behind their detritus in what turn out to be highly dangerous, disturbance-filled Zones. It is for this debris that Redrick and others enter the Zone adjacent to Harmont, to retrieve alien junk for the black market.
But there are deeper matters to think about than mere cupidity. At the central point of the novel we find ourselves listening to a conversation about the implications of this First Contact, implications that should matter to all humankind but which if ever considered are soon forgotten. In its underhand way Roadside Picnic encourages us to quietly consider those implications.
When Alexander Pope wrote about quintessential Man as “Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, | A being darkly wise, and rudely great” he could easily have had in mind not just the human race in general but someone like Redrick in particular. Red is a Stalker, one of the best, expert at navigating through the toxic Harmont Zone to retrieve desired objects exhibiting perpetual motion, everlasting energy and other impossible attributes. He is happy to sell to the local branch of the International Institute of Extraterritorial Cultures or to the highest bidder, and despite official clampdowns he is generally lucky in getting away with his illegal forays.
In her foreword to this edition Ursula Le Guin describes Red as “ordinary to the point of being ornery,” and it would be easy to think this is about him and the various and varied people he comes into contact with. It would be equally easy to think this is about the absent aliens and their marvellous artefacts and thus typical of ‘hard sf’ with its focus on mechanics, astrophysics and the like. But we would be wrong to think along these lines, for this novel challenges us to think about our humanity.
For, contrary to the thinking of xenologists who might, as with certain religionists, imagine alien minds – or those of deities – to ultimately function in a way similar to humans, it may be that there’ll be in fact no way for aliens to communicate with us, or indeed for them to be aware of us. The Visit that occurred for the people of Harmont and others, and the debris they left behind, could be likened to a roadside picnic by day trippers or holidaymakers with their discarded litter, with no message of significance intended. So are we supposed to regard the novel as essentially nihilistic in tone?
I don’t think so. In many ways Roadside Picnic is a modern equivalent to the medieval quest for the holy grail. The last section of the novel is, in amongst Red’s stream of consciousness musings, a physical search for an object that might grant wishes, the attainment of which could result in the quester’s transfiguration, or the healing of mankind’s woes, or maybe nothing at all. That Red is accompanied by a young man called Arthur may or mayn’t be relevant; but that Redrick is himself a Perceval or Galahad surely can’t be in doubt.
And what is the story’s notional goal? Is it about man’s search for meaning? Is it to discover the soul of humanity? Or is it instead a chimaera, an insubstantial construct? Written before his death, Boris Strugatsky’s afterword mentions the initial notes he and his brother made for Roadside Picnic: “Thirty years after the alien visit, the remains of the junk they left behind are at the center of quests and adventures, investigations and misfortunes. The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it. …” In other words, quests which may end in failure, and questions may have no answers.
Alexander Pope in his 1733 Essay on Man wrote that Man, “With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, | With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, | He hangs between,” adding that this in-between state rendered the individual “in doubt to act, or rest; | In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast …”
God or beast? Redrick may not have decided on which side he leans, but perhaps he asks himself whether he’s primarily a sceptic or a stoic. As this reader has often done.
Read for the tenth anniversary of #SciFiMonth, hosted by Lisa at deargeekplace.com and Imyrel at onemore.org. I’m currently reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) for the centenary of his birth in November 1922.