Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Classic Sci-Fi- Roadside Picnic

For the March Classic Sci-Fi Meetup, we discussed Arkady & Boris Strugatsky's 1971 novel "Roadside Picnic".

I had this pretty fresh in my mind from Weird & Wonderful's discussion. It also helped our discussion that many of us had been present for Classic Sci-Fi's discussion of "Solaris" last year: Lem's novel has many resonances with this one. We also talked about "Roadside Picnic" in comparison to its film and video game adaptations.

To recap, if you're unfamiliar with the novel: a mysterious alien force briefly visits Earth, leaving behind several "zones" full of impossible-to-understand artifacts, physics-defying and often lethal abnormalities, and a wide range of strange phenomena among people who lived in or visit the Zone. Governments nominally control the Zones, but there is a brisk trade in artifacts harvested by "stalkers" who sneak in.

More discussion below:

(We also declared this to be the "Umberto Eco Memorial Meeting", and wondered which of his works would be science fictional enough to read someday. I am unable to reconstruct exactly how she tied into the "Roadside Picnic" discussion, but we also wound up talking about Amy Acker even more than usual.)

One of the first things we talked about with how it differs from Tarkovsky's film adaptation, which is beautiful and VERY slow/long. The "Stalker" focuses heavily on the question of the "wish" supposedly granted by a certain artifact. Like his adaptation of Lem's "Solaris", Tarkovsky also focuses more on the human/psychological element, downplaying the role of the alien.

We had a few folks who were familiar with the "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." video game series, which uses the basic structure of the novel, but set in a heavily damaged Chernobyl instead.

We talked for quite a bit about this novel's tortuous publication history. The afterword, which details some of that story--nonsensical back-and-forths with censors and editors--reminded me of Shevek's situation in Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" (which was also a Classic Sci-Fi read a while back). We wondered how much of this novel is an oblique criticism of the Soviet system--although the novel is actually set in North America, and the Soviet Zone is referred to as being "very well run", we detect some deniable critique in the nuts-and-bolts of the corrupt bureaucracy, and the highly permeable membrane it shares with organized crime.

I again tried to verbalize some other theme here about labor--Red's anguished statement that "you're turning me into a machine", his recollection of his father's return from the factory each day, and even the return of the dead to their old homes and old routines. There's something here that I can't quite frame, something that feels like a Marxist critique of alienated labor.

We also wondered how much English-language SF was making it into Russia in the 60s and 70s, translated or otherwise, and what the Russian SF scene looked like. The detailed Wiki Page on Russian SF was recommended. And we talked for a bit about how global & translated SF/F is seeing a surge in the American market, which is pretty cool--epitomized by the most recent Hugo awards, with Cixin Liu's "The Three Body Problem" (Chinese) winning Best Novel.

Human superfluity is a major theme in the novel--the idea that the aliens just didn't care at all about our existence, because they're so much more powerful than us, or so different. Besides "Solaris", we compared that (again) to Lovecraft, or to Bradbury's Martians. One of the strengths of this novel, though, is getting to see how fairly ordinary folk react to it, as well as the semi-comedic theories of Valentine (one of our favorite scenes). We really liked Red's "delightful cowardice" and pragmatism.

Also, someone suggested Terry Bisson's "They're Made of Meat" (1990), a short story about aliens being shocked to find that human intelligence is so...fleshly. And which reminds me of a recurring theme in Ryan North's delightful Dinosaur Comics:

Lots of fun discussion of the artifacts, technologies, and traps. The "makes no sense danger" environment and ambiguous redemption occasioned some comparisons to "Lost" (2004-2010). Monkey and the other Zone-induced mutations led us down a long talk about what we don't see in the novel, how the larger world is working--and also made us think of survivors of horrific things like Hiroshima.

Allowing for a super-topical
Trump reference, though, so,
there's that.
Finally, we spent a lot of time trying to unpack the Vulture, his organization, and his children. Particularly, we wanted to know the timeline--did his wonder-children spring into existence when he wished for them? Or did they exist, but were transformed? Or were they just born after the wish? We wondered what wish he wanted so bad that he was willing to sacrifice his son for it (his legs? Infinite wishes?), and found his wishing for a super-sexy daughter really. Creepy.

A fun discussion! Next up for Classic Sci-Fi is Tiptree's collection "Her Smoke Rose up Forever", and in May we'll be reading Clarke's "Childhood's end. Keep up with Classic Sci-Fi news over at Meetup.

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