“Roadside Picnic”: The Insignificance Of Man


The science fiction genre is filled–too filled–with stories about what might happen if extraterrestrials came into contact with human beings.  It is a favorite subject of writers, who use the theme to explore deeper truths about man and his place in the universe.  And this is all well and good.

But imagine this.  Imagine that if such a “visitation” were to occur, that the aliens took absolutely no notice of man or his works.  Imagine that we humans are so insignificant, so low on the evolutionary scale, that we do not even register on the alien “radar” as worth of comment or consideration.  This to me seems the most disturbing and unsettling scenario of all.  Other alien visitation scenarios smack too much of self-centered human egotism.

How disturbing it is to be completely and totally ignored!

And yet this is the premise behind one of the most difficult, and rewarding, science fiction novels of the twentieth century.  I am speaking of the novel Roadside Picnic, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.  Published in the Soviet Union in 1972 (but not appearing in English until five years later), it has seen numerous editions and translations around the world.  Let us describe for a moment this weird and wonderful work.

The premise of the novel is that the Earth has been visited by aliens at various points around the globe.  This visitation (called “the visit”) was not noticed by humans at the time.  Essentially what happened was that some higher intelligence arrived on Earth, occupied some space (called “zones”) for a short period, and then left.  Each of these zones is a few square miles in size.  But they left behind numerous mysterious “artifacts,” about which humans know little or nothing.

These strange artifacts left in the visitation zones possess properties that are mostly beyond human comprehension.  Some of them create powerful gravitational fields.  Some seem to have the power to improve the health.  Some of the alien artifacts have functions that are totally unknown.  Most of them are dangerous.  No one is quite sure, and the acquisition of these objects has been forbidden by governments.  People who lived in the “zones” during the visitation suffer from health problems, like birth defects and insanity, as do people who try to visit the zones too often.  Access inside them has been strictly limited by authorities.

But human curiosity being what it is, people want to acquire such things.  An illicit trade has developed in the trafficking of these alien artifacts.  Daring thieves–called “stalkers”–sneak into the forbidden zones to acquire the valuable artifacts, which will then be sold on the black market.  The novel’s title is a reference to an analogy meant to conceptualize the alien visitation.  We should imagine a group of people having a picnic in a field on the side of the road.  Such people might leave behind them various things, such as magnets, can openers, watches, and the like.  After this “visitation” ended, the ants and other insects inspecting the residues of the visit would have no idea of the function of the objects they discovered.

This is the origin of the “roadside picnic” analogy.  In the same way that we pay no mind to grasshoppers or ants at a picnic, the advanced aliens who visited the Earth in various “zones” paid no attention to us.  We were beneath their contempt.  It is a disturbing premise, but yet also a brilliant one.  Such an incredible premise lends itself to philosophical speculation.  Consider the following piece of dialogue from Roadside Picnic:

“How do you think it’s all going to end?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The Visit.  Zones, stalkers, military-industrial complexes–the whole sinking mess.  How could it all end?…

“That depends on our luck,” said Valentine.  “We now know that for humanity as a whole, the Visit has largely passed without a trace.  For humanity everything passes without a trace.  Of course, it’s possible that by randomly pulling chestnuts out of this fire, we’ll eventually stumble on something that will make life on Earth completely unbearable.  That would be bad luck.  But you have to admit, that’s a danger humanity has always faced.”

In 1979, visionary Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky adapted the book into a science fiction film called Stalker that has since become something of a cult classic.  It is not an easy film.  It is dark, brooding, and filled with philosophical dialogues that may baffle the average viewer.  But like most great works, if one is willing to accept it on its own terms, it provides deep rewards.

The premise of the film is this.  Two clients (a writer and a professor) hire a “stalker” to help them enter the zone.  They have heard that within the zone is a room which exerts magical powers:  those who enter the room are able to have their deepest wishes granted.  Dark stories are told of previous adventurers who entered the room, had their wishes granted, and then committed suicide or met some dismal end.

Much of the film is spent with the characters trudging through the zone (which looks like the forbidden zone around Chernobyl), explaining why they want to enter the mysterious room.  The atmosphere is filled with foreboding and dread, and the viewer feels like he is entering a surrealistic nightmare.

Through the use of dialogues, the director explores the themes of human happiness, desire, the transient nature of all things, and the folly of greed.  What happens when the characters finally reach the room is an unforgettable experience.

Only in Russia could a film like this have been made.  It is a film of ideas, an examination of the human consciousness and what dark secrets animate it.  Much of the film was shot at an abandoned, run-down hydroelectric plant in Estonia.  Tarkovsky himself, as well as several other crew members, met early deaths, which some have attributed to the toxic nature of the film locations.  The film’s sound designer, Vladimir Sharun, later said:

Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.

The artist who sacrifices himself for his work occupies a special place in the collective consciousness of man.  Reading Roadside Picnic and watching Stalker are not easy tasks.  But those who are interested in the most fundamental questions on the origins and destiny of man will not be deterred from penetrating these forbidden zones of inquiry.  We must become our own stalkers, in a way, to penetrate these uncertain regions, and try to haul back what artifacts that we can.  Even if the prizes are dangerous.  Even if they are to be our ruin.  We must do it.  Must.

They, like the stalkers of Roadside Picnic, are the pathfinders of the mind.


Read More:  Dr. Carlos Finlay:  A Medical And Scientific Visionary


3 thoughts on ““Roadside Picnic”: The Insignificance Of Man

  1. Good one, Quintus. I must say I’m surprised by this one.

    You see, the whole world of Stalker and Roadside Picnic has been something I’ve been into for a very long time, even though I only finally read the book last month.

    Back in my days of avid gaming, when I was a teenager, I played an entire series called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which is entirely based on the book and the movie. It was a very, very good series (and now that I read the book, I feel like it really does capture the feel of what a stalker’s life would be like), and it was through it that I first got interested in the movie.

    I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it. Now that I’ve read the book, I feel like the whole cycle’s complete. And what a damn good book it was. I agree with everything you’ve said there, and more. There’s really too much I could say about both the book and the movie, and both really need to be enjoyed several times. Oh, and, yes, that very last scene when they finally reach The Room was incredible.

    Really, the movie just has to be watched, it can’t be described (it’s up on youtube in two parts, if anyone’s interested).

    You nailed it perfectly regarding all the themes and questions investigated by these works.

    There’s something else to be noticed about the book (and many works of Russian literature) that help finish up what you wrote here, Quintus. You see, Russians, from my experience, seem to be really good at writing about humans!

    Let me explain this with a few lines from a poem by Fernando Pessoa (a Portuguese poet):

    “Arre, estou farto de semideuses!
    Onde é que há gente no mundo?

    Então sou só eu que é vil e errôneo nesta terra?”

    “Ah, I have had enough of demigods!
    Where is there people in this world?

    Then, am I the only one who is vile and erroneous in this land?”

    (translated it on the fly, probably not as appropriate as an “official” translation)

    And this is what it’s about. Take a look at Roadside Picnic’s main character, Red, for example (minor spoilers for those who haven’t read it):

    He’s angry and selfish. He’s a drunkard. He’s not very bright. He lacks social graces. He doesn’t wax very philosophical about things in flowery and deep terms. He’s a simpleton in many ways. He doesn’t have special powers or superhuman traits. He’s not even very moral in his actions or has strong principles (though he is a good person at heart).

    He is, however, human. He’s a scrapper. He has very strong emotions (a trait of most characters in Russian literature). He fights and toils and hustles. All he has is a will and some smarts when it comes to navigating the Zone. And he makes it work.

    Now, compare him to Paul-Muad’dib Atreides, from a sci-fi classic, Dune (also spoilers). He is the son of a noble house, trained to near-elite status in political intrigue, fencing and social manipulation. His mother trained him in the use of a power similar to a jedi’s mind trick. He’s a messiah from prophecy. He’s, basically, the apex of countless generations of a sort of mix of eugenics and artificial genetic selection. He was being trained to be some sort of super human-computer. He rarely ever fails. All of this while still being young (15 years old when the book starts, though the yeas pass).

    Dune is a great book, an incredible story that also explores some good philosophical themes, and I like Paul, and all his powers and stuff can be cool and fun. However, who seems more human? The epic messiah guy, or the drunk, angry, strong-willed stalker who struggles and hustles constantly? Rhetorical.

    And you know what? Give me the flawed, worthless and insignificant human over the demigod, any day.

    I think this is a common theme with Russian works, from most writers and artists. The Strugatsky Brothers, Andrei Tarvoksy, Dmitriy Glukhovskiy (Metro 2033, you might enjoy this one, too) Mikhail Bulgakov (the Master and Margarita), Dostoevsky… most of them, really. You can expect them to write about humans, and be believable; to write stories bursting with earnest (sometimes exaggerated) emotion that leads to scenes full of extreme behavior; to write scenes of great violence, pain and suffering, but with characters who push on, despite the constant darkness. Finally, you can expect deep, philosophical and disturbing questions in their works.

    They also, at times, embrace human insignificance, and this resonates in Roadside Picnic, as you’ve noticed.

    Hell, Dostoevsky’s work reads as a study in human behavior and emotion under extreme trauma, as much as it is just a good fictional story. Of course, it’s sometimes semi-fictional; many of them come from his own experiences, such as when he was imprisoned in Siberia.

    Frankly, I’m getting tired of how only books and movies about demigods and superhumans seem to succeed, nowadays (stuff like Avengers sometimes seems like just power-fantasy for powerless slobs). I want humans.

    Liked by 1 person

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