Friday, March 4, 2016

Weird & Wonderful- Roadside Picnic

This SF Masterworks cover
presumably depicts a (full?) empty.
City Lit's most recent Weird & Wonderful discussion was "Roadside Picnic" by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, written in 1971 but with a mildly convoluted publication/translation history.

The novel sketches out a few different characters in relation to one of the "Zones", areas that have been transmuted by an ambiguous alien visitation. The source of ineffable (but sometimes highly-profitable) technology as well as strange and deadly disasters, the Zones are studied and salvaged by government bodies as well as criminal organizations, with "Stalkers"--people who specialize in illegally entering the zone to procure artifacts--selling to both.

Short, stylish, rich in ideas, and highly weird, this was a fun novel to discuss. And we also had a delightful picnic ourselves! Possible spoilers below:
One criticism of the book was the weak portrayal of women--there are very few women in the book at all, and they aren't portrayed very positively. We noted that Russia actually had (at least theoretical) sexual equality much earlier than most Western nations, and wondered how this novel stacks up to other Russian literature of the time--and also noted that we don't know much about the Strugatsky brothers' many other works.

While a few of us were a bit confused by some of the style choices, many of us praised the approach, which shifts from first to third person, and jumps to an unexpected point of view character for one chapter. I'm not quite able to put my finger on it, but there's something wonderfully human and sympathetic about how the characters are written, without ever sliding into sentimentality.

One of the big themes here is about how humanity would respond to aliens' utter disregard--our insignificance or superfluousness--as well as how we would deal with something utterly unknowable, like the alien tech that our science can't get a grip on, or the "extrabiological phenomena" of disasters that follow emigrants from the Zones. In talking about those themes, we referenced VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy (2014), which deals with similar ideas, as well as Lovecraft's "The Mountains of Madness" (1936).

Also noted that Miéville's "Railsea", which we discussed last fall, is influenced by "Roadside Picnic" and even has some explicit references to it.

(Nonstop reminders: the first Megatext Bookclub, discussing China Miéville's work, is March 24th at Open Books!)

Talked for a bit about the etymology and connotations of "stalker" here, as well as Tarkovsky's film adaptation of the novel by that name. I don't think anyone had played the video game that also takes its name and inspiration from this story, but we talked about it a bit, too--it uses a nuclear accident, rather than aliens, to generate weirdness.

Tarkovsky also directed the adaption of Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris" (novel 1961, film 1972), which has some parallel concerns with "Roadside Picnic"--mainly, the idea of something so inhuman, so unconcerned with humanity, that it's kind of devastating. The Strugatsky's also seem to have placed a reference to "Solaris" in their novel--referring to the period after the zones as the "time of cruel miracles", which I find kind of haunting.

We definitely enjoyed the bizarre alien artifacts and effects, and want to know how to make a Hillslime cocktail. Monkey and her zombie grandfather were by turns heart-wrenching, silly, and really terrifying. The whole zombie thread going on here reminded us of George Saunder's "Sea Oak" (1998) or maybe even W.W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw" (1902), the latter of which also has the whole "careful what you wish for" resonance with "Roadside Picnic", as well.

Red's pragmatic, survivalist perspective reminded us of other "proud cowards", like in "The Americanization of Emily" (1964) or Heller's "Catch-22" (1961).

Le Guin's introduction to the recent edition of the book got us talking about ideological splits within the SF community, particularly about the pro-/anti-war factions and how that related to fear of anything Soviet-related. I made a note to look up the ad that Le Guin and others ran protesting the US involvement in Vietnam, which was paired with a list of SF writers supporting the war. (Found it!)

A good discussion as per usual! Next up for Weird & Wonderful is Murakami's "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World", and you can also check out City Lit's event page for more delightful things.

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