I don’t read a lot of Science Fiction so when I do, I want to make sure it’s something different. The genre is filled with books we all supposedly must read before we die. You can find George R. R. Martin or Arthur C. Clarke in any bookshop any day of the week. I sell these sci-fi essentials to people all of the time and their familiarity is taking its toll.
I first became aware of Roadside Picnic thanks to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Developed by the Ukrainian company, GSC Game World, this is a violent and brutal first-person-shooter set in the abandoned wastes around the ruined Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It’s easy to assume that a video game concept such as this was dreamt up in some board room but in order to find the origins of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., we need to go back in time.
Published in Russia 1971 by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic tells the story of Red Schuhart, a Stalker. Due to some extra-terrestrial event, pockets of weirdness have popped up all over the world. The book is set in and around one particular area, known as the Zone. This is a strange and dangerous place where the normal rules of the universe no longer apply and where alien artefacts lie waiting to be found. To prevent this from happening, the zone is cordoned off and regularly patrolled by UN forces.
Who would dare brave the traps and anomalies of the Zone? Stalkers, like Red Schuhart of course. Because of their unique scientific value, the alien artefacts are worth a pretty penny on the black market. Red is after one artefact in particular, the legendary ‘golden sphere’. Stalker hearsay says that this artefact can grant wishes.
This is a novel filled with strangeness and wonder – not a plot-driven thriller. The images of an abandoned, overgrown landscape are beautiful and the characters deal with an existential angst that Satre would have been proud of. One man who sought inspiration from Roadside Picnic was the enigmatic Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Mirror).
In 1979, Tarkovsky directed the movie, Stalker. Loosely based on Roadside Picnic, it’s a very long, very artsy film containing extended, hypnotic scenes where the characters are evidently just waiting for something to happen. The unnamed Stalker leads two men known only as the Writer and the Professor through the zone to find a room.
Guess what this room does.
The wish-granting room lies at the end of an intricate path of invisible perils, haunting images and whispered Russian poetry. I don’t expect Stalker is everyone’s cup of tea but if you like Soviet art films of the 70’s, you might just fall in love with it.
Geoff Dyer is in love with Stalker. He’s into it in a big way. Last year, he wrote Zona, a scene-by-scene description of the movie including biographical details and miscellaneous trivia. You could consider it the script of an unrecorded commentary track. In Zona, Dyer himself questions the commercial logic behind writing a book about a film that few people have seen but it’s of little consequence to him – he has nurtured a love for the film for most of his adult life and this book is an expression of that love. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that he has gained at least one satisfied reader.
As for Roadside Picnic, I’ll admit that from a bookselling point of view, it’s a hard one to shift but every now and then, I get talking to a particular kind of customer. They don’t normally read science fiction, but when they do, they want to make sure that it’s something different. For good or ill, these curious few trust my recommendations. And I do recommend Roadside Picnic whole-heartedly. If you too are sick of the old sci-fi clichés and want something unexpected, this is the way to go.
Equally, if you want to read a very funny book about a film you’ve never seen, pop along to your favourite bookshop and get them to order you a copy of Zona…because they probably won’t have it in stock.