Monday, 6 February 2017


When I was a young teenager, like many boys of my generation, I devoured science fiction. I could often be found with my snout inside some garishly covered paperback by Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Dick. With this in mind, my mother organised a birthday present when I was around 14 or 15 which no young boy could have failed to love; two tickets to a London lecture by Isaac Asimov.

It was exciting and wonderful. The great man, with his mutton chops and fear of flying (he had come to Britain by sea), talked of many things and captivated us all. The high spot – and I see it still in my mind’s eye – was when we were invited to ask questions at the end, and he spotted a young lad in garish trousers and accepted his question.

I asked Dr. Asimov – he was a scientific historian in his own right – if he felt that it was the duty of the sci-fi writer to prepare the rest of us for the future. He praised my question – something I will never forget – and said, yes, essentially it was. Asimov was an exponent of ‘hard’ science fiction – the type that adhered to conceivable physical laws – rather than the ‘soft’ variety that became so faddish afterwards and segued into some of the dreadful fantasy nonsense one sees nowadays. For a non-scientist like myself this is a difficult division to grasp, and I dearly wish I had my battered paperback copy of one of my favourite science fiction books, containing as its foreword a brilliant discussion of this very topic by Brian W. Aldiss.

The book in question is Roadside Picnic, by the Russian – then Soviet - Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris. I came to the book via Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, the first film I had seen since watching Hitchcock’s The Birds as a child whose images haunted me and haunt me still. It also contains Tarkovsky’s brother Arseny’s poem Now Summer Has Gone…, which became one of my favourites. The Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay to Stalker, although the film is a loose adaptation based on just one of the novel’s four sections.

The premise of Roadside Picnic is that earth has been visited by aliens who did not stick around long. This is not one of those Mexican stand-off, Independence Day-type scenarios. What the aliens did do, during the short duration of what is known as ‘The Visitation’, is to leave various items inside a mysterious area known as ‘The Zone’. The government wants these objects for research, both ethical and nefarious. Collectors want them for curiosity and cash value. Others want these blasphemous things destroyed. But the only ones able to retrieve the bizarre range of physics-defying objects from The Zone and brave its deadly unpredictability are the stalkers, men on the cusp of sanity who both fear and yearn for a return to The Zone. We follow Redrich Schuhart, a stalker, for three of the book’s four sections as he comes back from The Zone with a fabulous and sometimes deadly treasure trove. There are myths and legends surrounding the stalkers and the objects they retrieve from the strange pathways of The Zone.  And then there is the fabled Golden Sphere, which will grant the finder his innermost desire, whether he wants it or not…

This is not space-suits and rockets sci-fi, not a western in outer space or a bunfight with marauding aliens. The aliens are never seen, and there is no clue as to who they were or where they might have returned to. There is only The Zone, with its mystifying objects, some entertaining, some valuable, some deadly. This is not intended as a spoiler – Ursula LeGuin gives the game away anyway in the foreword to the Kindle edition – but the novel takes its title from a throwaway comment made by one of the workers at a research institute, who has a theory about the real meaning of The Visitation;

‘“Certainly,” said Valentine. “Imagine a picnic – ”

Noonan jumped. “What did you say?”

“A picnic. Imagine: A forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras… A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects, that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelter. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about… Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some god-forsaken swamp… and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow…”

“I get it,” said Noonan. “A roadside picnic”.’

This is the beauty of the book. It is about the search for meaning with absolutely no clues whatsoever. Everything about The Visitation is a conundrum, including the almost erotic yearning of the stalkers to return to The Zone. Take one of the objects, the highly prized ‘empty’. An empty is comprised of two copperish discs a couple of feet apart, as thought they were the two ends of a cylinder. But there is nothing in between. A hand can be passed between them, but the discs themselves cannot be moved in relation to one another. The teasing descriptions of the alien detritus are one of the most entertaining features of the book.

Roadside Picnic is a science-fiction novel about the impotence of science in the face of mystery. When science cannot explain, it becomes scared. The effects of The Zone are far-ranging. The stalkers have mutant children. Curious and terrible things happen to those who move away from The Zone and the areas they move to. And still the inventory of mysterious and dangerous objects grows longer as the stalkers return with their plunder.

But this is Soviet science fiction, and there are other considerations than that of plot and mood, ideas and quests. Although I began by bemoaning the fact that I do not have with me my battered old copy of Roadside Picnic and its marvellous foreword by Brian W. Aldiss, the Kindle edition, as well as Ursula LeGuin’s foreword, has a curious appendix which I found almost as fascinating as the book itself.

The Afterword is written by Boris Strugatsky, and is a small diary of the genesis and eventual publication of Roadside Picnic. The first and most delightful fact is that the word ‘stalker’ was brought into Russian by the Strugatskys as a description of the semi-sinister prospectors of Roadside Picnic. It came not from a simple etymological derivation, but from Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co, his short novel of artful public school boys amid the gathering storms of war. The novel was a favourite of Arkady Strugatsky.

But what makes the afterword frighteningly contemporary is the inevitable struggle with the Soviet censorship board in order to have Roadside Picnic published. As Boris writes;

‘I’ve preserved a remarkable document: the page-by-page comments on the novel Roadside Picnic by the language editors. The comments span eighteen (!) pages and are divided into sections: “Comments concerning the immoral behaviour of the heroes”, “Comments concerning physical violence”, and “Comments about vulgarisms and slang expressions.”’

What follows is eight years of bargaining, nit-picking, endless correspondence, the rumour that the Politburo wants nothing more to do with the brothers, and a final victory Boris calls ‘Pyrrhic’. The purpose of all of this is the purpose of Communism itself, the ritual humiliation of all those who do not agree that two plus two equals five. It is coming to the West, with its attendant train of censorship and, eventually, prison sentences for writing the wrong words in the wrong order.

In the modern West, of course, these things are not done by centralised government. They are farmed out to the private sector. Do you think that if you wrote a novel in the UK whose elderly white heroine was bemoaning the effect Islamic immigration has had on her town, it would be published? Would your book about black gang violence be published by a known house? Milo Yiannopolous’s upcoming book has already led to threats against the publisher Simon & Schuster.

Roadside Picnic is vital on three levels. As a science-fiction novel, if you are an aficionado of the genre, it is unmissable. The film is beautiful, but is one to be watched on a big screen. And as a ‘Pyrrhic victory’ against the monolithic Soviet, science fiction indeed prepares us for the future of writing in the West, just as Isaac Asimov told a young boy many years ago that this was the way science fiction ought to function. I don’t, however, quite think that this was quite what the good doctor had in mind.

I’ll leave you with Arseny Tarkovsky’s poem, from the film Stalker:

Now the summer has passed.
It might never have been.
It is warm in the sun,
But it isn't enough.

All that might have occurred
Like a five-fingered leaf
Fluttered into my hands,
But it isn't enough.

Neither evil nor good
Has yet vanished in vain,
It all burned and was light,
But it isn't enough.

Life has been as a shield,
And has offered protection.
I have been most fortunate,
But it isn't enough.

The leaves were not burned.
The boughs were not broken,
The day clear as glass,
But it isn't enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment