The Russian novel Roadside Picnic was first published in 1972 and translated into English in 1977. Its Swedish edition won a Jules Verne award, and in 1981, it received an award for best foreign novel of the year at the Festival du Science Fiction in Metz. Over multiple re-readings of the 1977 translation in 2011, my sense of the politics of Roadside Picnic altered considerably. A breakthrough came this year when a new translation was published and I read the new edition’s foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and the afterword by Boris Strugatsky.
Le Guin revisits the context of the novel, telling what a refreshing text it was in the 1970s, written as if the authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were “indifferent to ideology” (vi). In contrast, Boris Strugatsky’s piece is about the complicated publication history of Roadside Picnic as a book in the USSR and the long-running arguments with the Soviet censors. If I understand it correctly, the censors were not concerned with the ideology, since the novel’s ideology followed Soviet orthodoxy. As Strugastsky repeatedly told them,
the novel contained nothing criminal; it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous in that sense. And the fact that the world depicted in it was coarse, cruel, and hopeless, well, that was how it had to be—it was the world of “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology.” (207)
It was precisely the graphic coarseness, vulgarity, and immoral behavior in the novel that was the problem for the censors. This material may have been acceptable for a literary journal like Avrora (where Roadside Picnic was serialized in 1972), but publication as a young adult title was a different matter.
Roadside Picnic is about humans dealing with weird artifacts left on Earth after a mysterious alien visit. The aliens are never seen nor are their vehicles; there are just the six Zones scattered across the globe where they visited, and the strange objects left behind. (The novel’s title comes from one theory about the Visit—that it was merely a roadside picnic, and the artifacts are only alien trash.) The Zones are dangerous, filled with weird monsters and deadly traps, but adventurers called “stalkers” sneak in to bring out artifacts they can sell. The novel is a series of episodes over a span of years following a stalker named Red.
Initially I took Roadside Picnic to be an action story that was, for a Soviet work, remarkably free of politics. It was a page-turning thriller with a heady mixture of elements from film noir, the fey logic of Wonderland, and even scenes from the Bible. The novel does an incredible job of shifting around: At the beginning, stalkers seem to be like prospectors who undertake personal risk in order to win their gold; then they more closely resemble gangsters trafficking in contraband; finally they are revealed to be still worse. Humor is used as a setup for a dark surprise time and time again in the tale. The opening radio interview suggests that mass hysteria and wild rumors exaggerated the alien arrival, but as Red enters the Zone in the next section, he offhandedly reveals that the reality of the Visit was far worse than what was ridiculed in the radio show. Nearly every section also has a dark surprise about its hero, too, whether it be that good guy Red has just smuggled a weapon of mass destruction out of the Zone or that bumbling bureaucrat Dick Noonan is also a brutal whoremaster working for the secret police.
By the third reading, though, I began to perceive Soviet details. For example, a wall is put up to protect the humans from the Zone, and it seems inconceivable that this was not related to the Berlin Wall. I resisted that interpretation, because such a reading reduces the Zone to mere “capitalism,” the stalkers to simple smugglers, and the wondrous alien artifacts to being only lipstick, blue jeans, and rock music—items of everyday Western “decadence” that worked their way into the USSR and “polluted” it. This transmutes the wonder into a typical anti-bourgeoisie rant. And yet I was forced to conclude that ultimately the work really is a devastating jeremiad by a pair of communist utopians earnestly warning about the horrors of capitalism.
This interpretation seemed to be a “magic key,” possibly capable of unlocking the texts intractable mysteries, so I researched whether it was already in common use.
Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005) says of Roadside Picnic:
This text moves in a space beyond the facile and obligatory references to the two rival social systems [capitalism and communism]; and it cannot be coherently decoded as yet another samizdat message or expression of liberal political protest by Soviet dissidents. (294)
Jameson states it is not a simple and obvious case, which seems rather cagey to me, but he points out that the text is not anti-Soviet. On this last item, Landon’s Science Fiction After 1900 (1995) agrees: “nor were the Strugatskys ever dissidents or anti-Soviet” (96).
Roland Boer, in Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1999), goes further: after describing how the brothers had been blacklisted for the unauthorized 1972 publication of their novel The Ugly Swans in West Germany, he writes, “Yet, it would be a mistake to see the Strugatskys as dissidents in the Soviet era, a view that led in part to the flood of translations and publications of their works in the 1970s” (111). In this way Boer claims that a misperception of the brothers as dissidents is what led to their being embraced by the West in the first place.
The notion of the Strugatskys operating within a Western ideological blind spot is picked up by Stephen W. Potts in The Second Marxian Invasion (1991), where, on the topic of the Strugatsky novel Space Apprentice, he writes: “Despite Theodore Sturgeon’s contention (in his introduction to the 1981 Macmillan edition) that this novel contains very little Marxism, it is in fact wholly dialectical” (20). Potts continues this topic of ardent Marxism with regard to Roadside Picnic: “gangsterism is closely tied to capitalism in Marxist thought; since both are geared to the accumulation of material wealth to the exclusion of other values, one is merely a form of the other. This connection is evident in the behavior of Red and his colleagues and contacts” (78); and, “Of all the works of the Strugatsky brothers, Roadside Picnic provides the strongest criticism of the capitalist ethic” (80).
Finally, the highly influential Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. wrote in 1986 that Roadside Picnic is “a fable of the despair of the ’60s [Russian] intelligentsia facing the complete destruction of the [Soviet] reform movement” and sees it as “the convergence of Eastern and Western ennui, the fruit of global acquiescence to purely material satisfactions and the abdication of all higher moral purposes—the victory of ‘realism’ over utopian idealism” (“Towards the Last Fairy Tale,” Science Fiction Studies #38). This is encoded, but I read it as asserting that Roadside Picnic is a firmly pro-communist utopian work that rails against the anti-utopian West.
A summary of this survey is like examining the layers of an onion: we see that the Strugatskys were taken to be Soviet dissidents by the West’s hoi polloi; then Jameson, Landan, and Boer aver the brothers are not anti-Soviet, which implies a type of political neutrality; while Csicsery-Ronay and Potts claim the brothers are really quite pro-Soviet, demolishing the pretense of neutrality.
I find myself in the camp of Csicsery-Ronay and Potts. To develop my reading further, I will start with the wall at the Zone. In Section 1, bureaucrat Dick Noonan tells stalker Red,
They’re starting a lot of construction. The Institute’s putting up three new buildings, and they’re also going to wall off the Zone from the cemetery to the old ranch. The good times for stalkers are coming to an end. (46)
Section 1 is set thirteen years after the Visit, that moment when the six Zones appeared on Earth. When Section 2 begins, eighteen years after the Visit, we find Red and Vulture at the cemetery, two stalkers hiding in the shadow of the nine-foot tall wall. So the Institute was talking about building a wall in Year 13, and in Year 18 the wall is in place, apparently with a stalker hole through it already.
Roadside Picnic is set in the fictional Canadian mining town of Harmont. The Harmont Zone, “a belt of empty land 50 miles across” (110), has overlapped perhaps half of the town at one edge. The text is very quiet about which half of Harmont is located in the Zone, but based on movements to and from, it seems to be the west side. I interpret the clues such that the Institute, the legal gateway into the Zone, is situated at the midpoint of the wall that stretches north to the abandoned ranch and south to the cemetery.
The timeline of the Zone wall’s construction has an eerie echo in that of the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961, sixteen years after the end of World War Two. The Berlin Wall completely encircled West Berlin, and while the Zone’s wall does not surround the entire Zone, still west Harmont seems to be in the Zone. These points suggest that the story’s hidden internal date is 1958 to 1966 and that Harmont is a stand-in for divided Berlin.
Moving from the Berlin Wall itself, the items routinely smuggled into East Germany from the West are commonplace: newspapers, magazines, recorded materials, films, radios, medicine, cosmetics, and Western clothing. The newspapers and magazines especially jump out as likely artifacts from a real “roadside picnic,” but otherwise it is difficult to match up any of these products with the wondrous alien artifacts from the Zone: the “empties” (force-field containtment bottles, full and otherwise), the spacells (self-multiplying batteries), the bracelets (which confer health benefits), the hoops (which exhibit perpetual motion), the black sparks (worn by citizens as jewelry), the sponges, the shriekers, the pins (which “talk” when squeezed), the jars of carbonated clay, the rattling napkins, and the lobster eyes.
“Pins that talk” easily fit into the category of “recorded materials,” i.e., vinyl records that talk via needles. “Lobster eyes” could be contact lenses. The “black sparks” (called “black sprays” in the 1977 translation), used as feminine ornamentation, are probably an encrypted version of false eyelashes or mascara.
The spacells, which reproduce in a quasi-biological manner, remind me of a detail from Fritz Leiber’s short story “Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me” (1963), in which the narrator is being quizzed on Norse mythology by a strange girl who reinterprets each magical device with a scientific explanation:
“And the gold ring Draupnir, that dropped eight rings like itself every ninth night—”
“That could be atomic transmutation,” she said thoughtfully, “or maybe just the capitalist economic system as it dreams of itself.” (310)
That is, the self-reproducing spacells strike me as a Soviet view of the capitalist system “as it dreams of itself,” creating wealth out of nothing, contrary to the zero-sum game expounded by communism. The same holds for the perpetual-motion hoops.
This tracing of low-level artifacts to black market consumer goods in the USSR may be haphazard, but I have a much greater degree of confidence in tracking the high-level artifact called “hell slime.” For Section 2, the military-industrialists commission the two stalkers, Red and Vulture, to fetch some of this notoriously dangerous stuff. In doing the job, Vulture’s legs are splashed with hell slime, and they rapidly waste away into a rubbery material. Red still sells the slime to his patrons. They, in turn, put it into a specially designed facility called Carrigan Labs, which subsequently suffers a disaster when the slime gets out of control: “thirty-five dead, more than a hundred injured, and the entire laboratory is completely unusable” (135).
Hell slime seems to be the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction, so it is probably a code for the atomic bomb, first developed in the West. The Soviet atomic bomb project used spies in the West from 1942 to 1945, and the first Soviet bomb was tested in 1949. So Red and Vulture are analogous to atomic spies. The novel’s Carrigan Lab accident seems like the USSR’s Kyshtym Disaster of 1957, a military-industrial mishap that is currently the third-worst nuclear accident after Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011).
So, by this reading, the Zone is capitalism, how the wall is the Berlin Wall, and how hell slime is the atom bomb. Next I will touch on how Roadside Picnic is a different kind of alien-invasion novel.
The seminal alien-invasion novel, Wells’s 1898 The War of the Worlds, gives us the storm of (heat-ray) guns, (Martian) steel, and (plucky Earth) germs. In sharp contrast, Roadside Picnic presents a soft invasion, something like the coca-colonization implied by the list of Western goods in the Soviet black market. At the same time there are strong hints of a slow-motion invasion along the lines of botanical propagation, vermin eradication, and plague.
In the botanical analogy, the artifacts can be seen as alien seeds, with the stalkers then recast as birds and squirrels, transporting the seeds and accidentally replanting some of them. The first artifact encountered in the text is the empty, a cylindrical force field with a copper disk at each end. When the stalkers find a full empty, there is a fluid inside, described as “blue filling swirling slowly” (31) and “blue syrup” (32). Red says the context makes it plain that an empty is a container, but one might also call it a husk or eggshell. When Red later finds the Golden Sphere, he notes that, despite its name, its color is “closer to copper” (188). Thus it seems possible that the empties are seeds/eggs of the Golden Sphere.
In the vermin eradication analogy, the artifacts are like those sweet poison ant traps where the worker ants carry the tasty poison back to the queen, thereby dooming the entire colony. The Zones might be the beachheads for an impersonal alien terraforming project.
Then there is the plague model. Plague terms are used to describe the effects of the Visit (for example, the Plague Quarter is the first neighborhood of the Zone from the Institute), but such a model can be extended far beyond the day of the Visit. The text tells of an emigrant effect (139–40) wherein people from Harmont who move away are followed by uncanny coincidences that harm those around them. This weirdness is never resolved, yet it seems as though each emigrant is a Typhoid Mary who, having successfully survived the Zone plague, is now a carrier of the same strangeness in a smaller scale.
In The War of the Worlds, the arrival of the Martians is marked by a shooting star in the sky, an impact crater on the ground, and a spaceship in that crater. Roadside Picnic has none of this—no signs in the sky, no crater, no vehicle or remnant of same. This fits perfectly with Dr. Pillman’s theory in the text of a “roadside picnic”: the vehicle and the aliens are gone and all that is left behind is their incidental trash.
We have few clues about what the Visit was like. For the vast majority of people it seems to have been taken as a hoax, as Dr. Pillman reports about his own initial reaction (2). For those caught in the suddenly created Zone, there was something real and immediate, yet the evidence suggests that effects were highly localized: in the Plague Quarter the people caught a “disease” that later made their skin peel off and their fingernails fall out (21); in the three Blind Quarters adjacent to the Plague Quarter there were said to be some bright flashes, yet the people caught permanent night blindness from a loud thunder (22).
Having argued that Roadside Picnic is a profoundly pro-Soviet work and that it describes a slow and often deadly invasion, I would like to cap it all off by showing how Roadside Picnic is surprisingly like a Soviet version of Blish’s Black Easter—a science-fictional treatment on the literal arrival of Satan on Earth.
The satanic elements of Roadside Picnic show up early in the text, in full view and not encoded. The first mention is in “Satan’s blossom,” a spitting plant of the Zone (18). Then there is Gutalin, the quixotic counter-stalker who buys up artifacts and returns them to the Zone. Gutalin preaches that Satan put the Zone there to tempt humans and that the artifacts are Satan’s toys. As he says in Section 1:
And futile are the prayers of the worshippers of Satan. And only those who renounce him shall be saved. Thou, of human flesh, whom Satan has seduced, who play with his toys and covet his treasures—I tell thee, thou art blind! . . . Stamp on the devil’s baubles. (44)
Gutalin declares that doom is near, “Because the pale horse has been saddled, and the rider has put a foot in the stirrup” (44). This is an allusion to the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, a figure in the Book of Revelations (6:8). It turns out to be a foreshadowing of many details shared between Revelations and Roadside Picnic.
• The resurrection of the dead is a part of Revelations, which finds a mockery in the reanimated corpses of Roadside Picnic (including Red’s zombie father).
• Revelations tells of demonic “miracles,” including non-divine healings (13:12), which translates into Vulture’s answered wishes and his hope for new legs from the Golden Sphere.
• Revelations says that the Beast “maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in sight of man” (13:13), and Roadside Picnic has Red and Arthur attacked by demonic lightning that goes sideways between two hills (179–80).
• Revelations describes a false prophet and an idol made in the image of the Beast of the Sea, an idol that comes to life and kills those who do not worship it (13:14, 15). This is close to Vulture as false prophet and the Golden Sphere as idol, especially in how the artifact seems to come to life for Red with aquatic detail, “to dance in place like a buoy in the waves” (192).
The links between Revelations and Roadside Picnic show that, in order to transmit the apocalypse of their vision, the brothers Strugatsky lifted bits from the Bible’s apocalypse. But they took more from the Bible than just that.
The action in the final section with Red and Arthur trudging deep into the Zone reminds me of Abraham taking his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him to God (Genesis 22). Yet the analogy is not quite right, since Arthur is not Red’s son. Sacrificing “someone else’s son” sounds like a warped version of the crucifixion of Jesus, and there are some strange Jesus-like details to Arthur.
Red’s daughter, Monkey, along with Vulture’s offspring, Dina and Arthur, are all children directly affected by the Zone. Monkey has been cursed with a mutation that causes her to devolve over time into an animal. Through Vulture’s wishes and human sacrifices, the Golden Sphere has blessed both of Vulture’s children: Dina has been given physical beauty as well as an attitude that makes her a good stand-in for the Whore of Babylon (another figure from Revelations); whereas Arthur seems to be genuinely good, a paragon of innocence, idealism, and altruism. The three offspring of stalkers are thus partially children of the Zone. So Red’s feeding of Arthur to the grinder guarding the Golden Sphere is a perversion of Jesus being offered up to his father, God, in exchange for universal redemption.
From this angle, with Red sacrificing Arthur in a satanic parody, it looks like a very black Easter indeed. Such a reading also provides a logical solution to the vexing problems regarding the arrival of the Zones, since if they came up from infernal regions like fairy rings rather than coming down from the sky like meteors, there would be no shooting stars, no craters, and no vehicles.
Now we come to the famous enigmatic ending and the curious way in which this text has been perceived in the USA. The very first note is emblematic of all I’ve seen:
The Strugatskys’ deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness [produces] a truly superb tale, ending most poignantly in what can only be called a blessing
—Theodore Sturgeon, introducing the 1977 edition
“Can only be called a blessing?” No. This is too far overboard for me to tolerate. “Might be called a blessing” is a form I’m more comfortable with, but even then it raises many questions.
It boils down to how one interprets the abrupt ending of the novel. If one believes that the Golden Sphere grants wishes, and that Red really is a sort of Galahad who just found the Grail, then the device bestows Utopia on Earth, and reality as we know it ends as suddenly as the text with the ascent of mankind to superman or angelhood.
If one doubts that the dingus grants wishes or believes that the wishes are as limited as Vulture suggests (such that Red’s wish is clearly impossible), then what you have is more like a wild savage who has just committed human sacrifice to an evil idol that is demonstrably taking over the world on its own. Witness the descent of modern man to primitive, bloodcurdling superstition.
So by my reasoning, Sturgeon must see the utopian ending and feels that “the ends justify the means,” that is, murder of Arthur is bad, but it is worth it for the worldwide good of the utopia.
I would be curious to find a published Soviet reading that finds the ending utopian or even “ambiguous,” as I suspect the majority took it as unambiguously anti-capitalist. Room for further research.
Michael Andre-Driussi lives in Albany, California.
- Boer, Roland. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. London; New York: Routledge, 1991.
- Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “Towards the Last Fairy Tale.” Science Fiction Studies #38. Greencastle, Indiana: DePauw University, March 1986.
- Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future. London: Verso, 2007.
- Landon, Brooks. Science Fiction After 1900. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Leiber, Fritz. “Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me” (1963.) In Worlds of Fritz Leiber. Boston: Gregg Press, 1979.
- Potts, Stephen W. The Second Marxian Invasion. San Bernardino, California: Borgo Press, 1991.
- Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic. Translated by Olena Bormashenko. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012.
- ——. Roadside Picnic. Trans. Antonina W. Bouis (1977). London: Gollancz (SF Masterworks Edition), 2007.