I remember I was a teenager when Channel 4 broadcast a series of science fiction films. The usual – and very remarkable – suspects were shown including Bladerunner and THX1138 but the film that made the strongest impression in my memory was the stand-out film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker.
Tarkovsky’s film was based on this book. The film stood out because there was very little about the film that could be called ‘science fiction’. This is a story about people. For comparison, Roadside Picnic should be compared not with ‘classics’ such as ‘2001’ or ‘I, Robot’ but with those stories stripped of any semblance of human technological achievement such as Margaret Atwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ or more recently, Cormac MacCarthy’s, ‘The Road’.
Roadside Picnic imagines an Earth that has been shattered by The Visitation. On six ‘zones’ around the world, are to be found the remains of a visit by another alien culture. By studying the impact points and the time of their occurrence, scientists have an approximate idea of the origin of the visitors but no more than this. In the background to the story, some scientists even speculate that the visit hasn’t occurred yet, that the artifacts have been sent so that humans may acquire a level of sophistication to match the alien culture. Though there are artifacts to be found in each zone, no scientist is able to duplicate the technology though many corporations try and here is where the story comes into it’s own. Around the zone in Canada where this story is set has grown a sub-culture of ‘stalkers’, men who are daring enough to confront the mysterious and unexplainable dangers of The Zone to risk bringing back artifacts. In the face of such superior technology, there is no tool that can be used except for cunning and so the most successful stalkers are the most conniving and intelligent among a whole group of schemers willing to break the law to enrich themselves.
The most successful stalker is Redrick Schuhart or, ‘Red’, a man of strong temper and nerve who has learned to hide his weaknesses and fears. As a young man, he dreams of gaining enough from his adventures to emigrate from his home town which has been wrecked by The Visitation but as he grows older, is imprisoned, falls in love and becomes a father, so he sees his horizon narrow. The real test for Red Schuhart, played out across the zone, is how to confront the diminishing powers of his real life with what remains of his hope for the future.
The story is powerful because it shows humanity at it’s most cynical, that even our heroes are flawed and selfish but beyond this, Roadside Picnic, is a story about faith – not the blinding and God-centric view of the universe but a passionate questioning of what is left behind when we feel ourselves falling far short of the standards we set ourselves and each other. Though on an initial reading, this story feels almost relentlessly bleak periodically broken only by very real fear, on a second reading, the reader can feel just how much love ‘Red’ Schuhart has for his lover, Guta, and for their daughter, Monkey, blighted by the effects of The Zone on Schuhart. ‘Red’ Schuhart can be seen to be drawn to re-entering The Zone not for the promise wealth on returning with artifacts but for the attraction of the challenge, for he is really a pilgrim returning only to find understanding and his true place in the world. It is out of love for his daughter that ‘Red’ Schuhart will make one last tragic journey into The Zone.