Thursday, September 1, 2016

Roadside Picnic: Life inside the Zone

If you're like me and wondered what the hell Stalker was all about, I would suggest reading Roadside Picnic, the book on which it was nominally based.  Tarkovsky took his idea from the character, Redrick Schuhart, a laboratory assistant and Harmont Branch of the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures, leaving the rest up to the imagination.  The names were changed to protect the innocent.

While Tarkovsky chose to shroud the story in mystery, the Strugatsky Brothers lay it out pretty clearly in their science fiction classic.  Redrick, the Stalker, has gone into the zone countless times but each time represents a new set of challenges, especially with the Harmont Branch cracking down on the plundering of alien objects left behind by a visitation to a small rural town in Canada.

I suppose setting the story in a place outside Russia, allowed the Strugatsky brothers more room to explore new ideas and avoid heavy censhorship, but according to Boris in the afterward the book still underwent extensive editing before being published.  Red is Russian as is the scientist he leads into the Zone in the second chapter, but the rest of the characters are a hodgepodge of nationalities representing the UN mission that oversees these visitation sites.  There are 6 of them scattered around the globe, which Dr. Valentine Pillman explains in the first chapter.

What drew the aliens to the planet remains a mystery.  Dr. Pillman compares it to a roadside picnic in a later chapter when pressed by Richard Noonan, the head of security, to offer some kind of explanation.  Dick gets the Doctor drunk at a local bar and he starts offering all sorts of ideas but seems to feel they don't really amount to much.  We live in a world of chance encounters.  Noonan had come under fire for the continued pilfering of objects from the quarantined zone after he thought he had it under control.

Ultimately, Red makes one last visit in search of a mythical golden sphere, which forces him to confront his demons, much like the Stalker in the movie.  He had spent some time in jail and is trying to deal with his wife and deformed daughter, who he calls Monkey because of all her body hair.  Seems anyone who ventures into the zone has his DNA altered.

What makes the novel work is its humor, something sorely lacking in the movie.  You can see the Strugatsky Brothers were inspired by Kurt Vonnegut.  They even mention him in this novel.  Roadside Picnic was one of three books meant to be published together in an anthology entitled Unintended Meetings, but the publisher Young Guard didn't think they measured up to the standards of youth fiction and had the Strugatsky edit the books of the bad language, immoral behavior of the characters and physical violence.  According to Boris, there wasn't much left in the end and he felt the books were confined to a fate worse than death.  Mercifully, Perestroika came and interest in their books was expressed by the outside world and they were able to have Roadside Picnic and other novels published in full abroad.  Now, you can get most of their books online, although Space Mowgli, which was originally part of the trilogy, is still unavailable in English.  But, Dead Mountaineer's Inn is available in English, which was also made into a movie in 1979.

There has even been a second attempt made at the novel in a video game that fused together the story with the wasteland of Chernobyl, resulting in a new printing in 2012, the year Boris died.  Arkady had passed away the year the Soviet Union broke up.  The brothers loom large in Soviet science fiction.