“Roadside Picnic” and the Realm of Sci-Fi Realism
By the end of Roadside Picnic “the Zone” is no clearer than it was from the beginning. Despite having gone through it various times, its expanse escapes complete definition, though some, like the gritty red-haired anti-hero Redrick “Red” Schuart, excel more than others at navigating into its unknowns. It is perhaps somewhere between an industrial wasteland and an alien planet, a fitting landscape considering it’s one of several areas “The Visitors” decide to land and pack up and go without even the slightest communication.
Roadside Picnic is the tale of an alien visit without the aliens. A genre novel that is an entirely different kind of science fiction, one that focuses on the crude, raw reality of society, one with its fantastic elements numbed, wiped by the tangible corporeal ground the novel writes from. There is less here to take one away than there is to bring one crashing face to face with humanity’s perversions, its ego, and its failings.
The novel, which was the basis for both the 1979 film Stalker and the S.T.A.L..K.E.R video game series, is uncompromisingly human, a fact that the authors and brothers Arkday and Boris Strugatsky believe was instrumental in it taking eight years to get published in the Soviet Union, albeit in a heavily edited version that bears little resemblance to the current clean one that came out in the 1990s. Not that the book is ideologically dangerous — if anything it is a fierce critique on the capitalist commodity culture. But it strikes a nerve in a world not so unlike our own, despite its wholly different trajectory.
Humanity is kicked off its pedestal. The Visitors lack of communication plays on humankind’s psyche, its deepest insecurities — are we not worthy, evolved, or sophisticated enough? What does it say that we use their technology and artifacts, ones that might save or destroy our race, ones that could open it up to untold knowledge as jewelry and batteries? And are we no better than rodents and insects rummaging through dangerous and unknown trash that bigger, smarter, better beings have left behind?
It is a simple enough premise, but one that almost no science fiction authors have ever stopped to investigate due to their blinding bias of writing about aliens from a human perspective, as a species that is capable on some level of understanding higher beings. But it is a bias that the Strugatskys are able, in an exacting feat, to turn on its head and spin wildly around.