My career as a master criminal was short-lived. I was twelve or thirteen, and bored, bored with my life, with being poor, with having no prospects or anything to look forward to except the day when I could leave the shithole that I called home, where violence and misery stalked my heels like a pair of dark dogs. I had walked to Meadowhall, a large shopping centre that resembled a hellish doll’s house, and was kicking my heels. I had no money, but didn’t really want anything anyway. I simply wanted to be somewhere away from what I knew, where, to my immature mind, people were living differently. I took a turn around a bookshop, lifting books from the shelves; and then, without making any kind of conscious decision, I put one of them under my t-shirt and tucked it inside my jeans. I expected to be caught, to be nabbed at the entrance as I walked out, but I wasn’t.
I was more scared when I got outside, when I had got away with it, than I was in the act of stealing. I knew I had done something wrong, that it should not have played out like that, and that is why I went back. I realised afterwards that I wanted to be caught, that being caught was part of it. Something had to happen, of that I was sure; I wanted something important to happen to me, something momentous, to give my day some sort of meaning. So I went back in, and I came back out again. Another book. No one batted an eyelid. Three, four more times. Nothing. The situation had become absurd. I was untouchable, or so I felt. Why will no one acknowledge me? Am I really this insignificant? And then, eventually, they did notice me. I had become increasingly reckless; I made no effort to conceal what I was doing, and, in fact, could barely walk for all the books I had hidden on my person.
I was relieved when the security guard touched me on the shoulder. He wasn’t rough, he simply requested that I turn around and accompany him. He took me ‘in the back,’ behind the shop floor, and the police were called. Only I didn’t think they were really the police. They didn’t have on uniforms and they don’t send out non-uniformed officers to deal with teenage shoplifters. It was a ruse, a way of scaring me straight. I was already straight, they didn’t get it. I wasn’t going to steal again. I had done it and had got what I wanted, which was their attention, and a new experience. Something different. No matter how negative. The policemen drove me home. I sat in the back of the car swearing to myself. They threatened to arrest me. I smiled.
“How can I give up stalking when I have a family to feed? Get a job? I don’t want to work for you, your work makes me puke, do you understand? This is the way I figure it: if a man works with you, he is always working for one of you, he is a slave and nothing else. And I always wanted to be myself, on my own, so that I could spit at you all, at your boredom and despair.”
Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart is a stalker, a criminal. He stalks the Zone at night, without permission. The Zone is what the aliens left behind, after the Visit; it is a dangerous place, full of alien litter, which can kill or mutate the people stupid enough or greedy enough to enter. However, this litter is valuable, and that is why Red is important. Schuhart is an average kind of guy, street-smart, but relatively poor. He has spent time in prison for stalking, which is illegal. He drinks a lot, swears a lot, and smokes a lot; he delivers wise-cracks like a hard-boiled, tough-talking PI; he is an irascible, but likeable anti-hero. On the most basic level, Roadside Picnic is a pulp novel, a noir, about an ex-con trying to go straight. Red frequently alludes to wanting to get out of the game, to become a normal citizen, and yet he never does.
It is suggested that Red became a stalker, i.e. someone who enters the Zone and steals and sells objects from it, for money; he says himself that he requires money so as to be able to live without having to count every penny. Therefore, you could see Roadside Picnic as being about what people feel forced to do in order to survive, in order to live comfortably, but for me that is too simplistic. It struck me that Red is like I was as a kid, that he continues to be a stalker, even after being arrested and doing time in prison, even after the birth of his daughter, when he has so much more to lose, because he needs the excitement, he needs to feel like someone. The Strugatsky’s write about the ‘surrounding, indifferent chaos,’ and Red himself talks about life being ‘gray,’ and this is, I think, most telling, most significant. Some people don’t want to go straight because that would mean that they are just like everyone else, working for a cunt of a boss [Red is antagonised by authority and frequently rebels against it], plodding towards extinction.
“I lock myself in the stall, take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech. I’m sitting on the bench, my heart is empty, my head is empty, my soul is empty, gulping down the hard stuff like water. Alive. I got out. The Zone let me out. The damned hag. My lifeblood. Traitorous bitch. Alive. The novices can’t understand this. No one but a stalker can understand. And tears are pouring down my face—maybe from the booze, maybe from something else. I suck the flask dry; I’m wet, the flask is dry. As usual, I need just one more sip. Oh well, we’ll fix that. We can fix anything now. Alive. I light a cigarette and stay seated. I can feel it—I’m coming around.”
Roadside Picnic is not, however, simply a character study. While it isn’t as relentlessly philosophical, or thought-provoking, as, say, Solaris, there are many points of interest outside of the protagonist. The objects, for example, that are smuggled out of the Zone are, as previously noted, valuable to humans, both scientifically and criminally. However, one character, Doctor Pillman, states that, as these objects are alien, we therefore cannot truly understand them or utilise them properly, not yet anyway. Stanislaw Lem makes a similar point in many of his novels, which is that if you can only bring human reasoning, understanding, etc, to an alien life-form or object or message then you cannot fail but to misunderstand it. Humans and aliens are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible; and contact, genuine contact is, therefore, impossible. As in His Master’s Voice, the Strugatsky’s show humans misusing and misinterpreting the alien. The aliens are far more advanced than we are, and so when we try to interact with their litter, when we try to utilise it, we are, essentially, like monkeys using an ipad as a dinner plate.
There is also something darkly funny about the nature of the alien visits. I’ve long thought that we are interested in aliens visiting earth, in alien-human contact, not because we want to study the creatures or learn from them, but because, in our arrogance, we think that we are worthy of their attention. The Strugatsky’s brilliantly burst this bubble by having their aliens arrive on earth only to make a mess of it, then skidaddle without ever saying a word or doing anything of note or paying humans any attention at all. The upshot of their visit is that the aliens couldn’t give a monkeys about us, and why should they? They are, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, far more advanced then we are, so why would they want to hang around with the likes of us? This is, of course, where the title of the book comes from, which is to say that the aliens came to earth almost as a kind of stopover to somewhere more exciting, almost by accident, as though they had a brief picnic and then continued on their way.
“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”
I wrote in my review of Solaris that Sci-Fi doesn’t really do it for me, and maybe I ought to revise that opinion, because I enjoyed this novel very much. However, the Strugatsky’s, again like Lem, are more concerned with us than they are aliens. There are no intergalactic battles, no spaceships, we don’t even see the creatures that created the Zones. Roadside Picnic is a [broadly pessimistic] study of human nature. Consider how it is the case that what is discovered in, or retrieved from, the Zones creates a black market and an industry whereby people are trying to snaffle up the stuff for themselves to serve their own ends. The message here seems to be that whatever man comes into contact with he will seek to exploit, to corrupt it, make money out of it. Furthermore, one could also point to the picnic idea as being a hint at environmentalism, as being a critique of the way that we treat our planet, and the animals that share it with us. The truth is that we are pretty disgusting, and we are making a big fucking mess of this eternally spinning globe. So, sure, there may be something out there, but is it any wonder that they have turned their backs on us?