Friday, September 11, 2009

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: ROADSIDE PICNIC and STALKER

While Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have collaborated on a number of novels, Roadside Picnic is probably their best known work in the West. It was written in 1971 and published in 1972. It seems to have been first published in the US in 1978, for it was nominated for a John W. Campbell Award for the best SF novel of that year. It came in second place to one of Fred Pohl's best novels, Gateway, and ahead of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly.

It was obviously a highly regarded novel at that time, and it still is, as it was just reprinted in 2007 as a SF Masterworks edition, which is the edition I have. It seems that 1978 was a banner year for SF since the top three finalists for the John W. Campbell Award have all been reprinted in the SF Masterworks Series: Gateway, Roadside Picnic, and A Scanner Darkly.

Andrei Tarkovsky became interested in the work and in 1979 directed a film based on the novel. It was first seen outside the Soviet Union in the Netherlands in 1980, and it appeared in the US in 1982. Tarkovsky won two awards for the film, one being an Ecumenical Jury Award (a special award) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are the credited screenwriters for the film, while Andrei Tarkovsky, the director, according to, is listed as an uncredited screenwriter. After viewing the film, I suspect that Tarkovsky was a major influence, if not the most significant screenwriter of the three.

As I am usually biased against the film when I read the novel first, I saw the film and then reread the novel. I had read it several decades ago and had only the vaguest idea of what was in the novel.

The Novel: Roadside Picnic

The plot of the novel, Roadside Picnic, is relatively simple. Unknown aliens have visited a number of places in the Northern Hemisphere. Why they came and what they did is unknown. All that is known is that they came and the places they visited have been changed. They also left a number of artefacts behind them which provides the title for the novel. As one of the characters explains:

"Imagine a picnic... A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car 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 watch in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. 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."

In other words, humans are as unable to understand what the aliens left behind as the inhabitants of the meadow are unable to understand the debris left by humans. And, some of that debris might be beneficial while other items might be most deadly.

The plot element of an alien visitation, and the Zone created by that visitation, was later taken up by M. John Harrison in his novel Nova Swings, published in 2006. It also received considerable recognition as it won the Arthur C. Clarke and the Philip K. Dick awards for best novel respectively in 2006 and 2007.

In Roadside Picnic, the governments has interdicted the area and banned all travel into and within the Zone, the area affected by the Visitation. Red Schuhart works for a government agency and guides scientists into the Zone, both for research and for the artefacts which are brought out for study in various laboratories. When he's on his own though, he is also a stalker, one of those who enter the Zone illegally. He guides clients who pay a considerable amount for his services. He also brings back artefacts which he sells to buyers, who understandably are eager to possess something from the Zone.


In the novel, Schuhart is eventually caught and spends several years in prison. He can't get his job back when he gets out. What happens is obvious. He becomes a stalker. Moreover, he is strongly attracted to the Zone, to the dangers he finds there and which he has successfully avoided so far. These are real dangers, inexplicable as they may be, and someone is injured or killed on all of the trips into the Zone that appear in the novel. In addition, the Zone has other effects as the children of the stalkers show a higher degree of mutation and birth defects than found in the general population. Schuhart's own daughter is nicknamed Monkey primarily because of her high activity level and for the fur that covers her body, and as she gets older, she seems less and less human.

The Artefact that all search for, whether they believe in it or not, is not the Golden Fleece, but the legendary Golden Ball. Supposedly those who find it can make a wish, and it will grant their deepest desire, which may or may not be known to those making the wish. Even here there is danger, for which of us can be sure that we know what we really want. The novel ends as Schuhart approaches the Golden Ball.

The Film: Stalker

The film begins roughly about 1/3 of the way into the novel, shortly after the Stalker (I could never catch whether he had a name in the film version and the cast of characters on lists him simply as Stalker) has been released from prison and now is a full time stalker.

The setting is similar to the novel: an alien visitation has created the Zone which the government has cordoned off and forbidden to all unauthorized individuals. At the beginning of the film the Stalker meets his two clients who want him to guide them to the Golden Room (the equivalent of the Golden Ball in the novel) in which one is granted one's deepest desire. They encounter several threats which are never shown and in which the clients and the viewers have to take solely on faith in the Stalker's sanity.

In the novel, the Stalker approaches the Golden Ball thinking of "Happiness for All," while in the film, the Stalker and his clients debate the dangers of the granting people's deepest desires, including those of a very evil person. One of the Stalker's clients in the film is a scientist who has stolen a small nuclear device and intends to blow up the Golden Room, for it is too dangerous to be left for anyone to enter it and get one's deepest desire realized. The others persuade him to dismantle the bomb, and the three leave without having entered the room.

The only "special effect" in the film is Tarkovsky's decision to film the opening scenes, which are set outside the Zone, in sepia. I guess it's sepia as it looks to me like old photographs taken before color film was available. However, when they enter the Zone, Tarkovsky switches to color. It's a very intense color, but I'm not sure if that's just the effect of the first part being shot in brown and shades of brown. For the most part, the environment inside the Zone, mostly rural scenes, is far more pleasant than that outside the Zone, which appears to be a bombed-out area or one affected by urban decay. Tarkovsky then shoots the ending of the film, set outside the Zone, in color, though a washed-out color in comparison to the Zone. One is free to contemplate the significance of the color changes.

The pacing is slow. Be prepared to spend considerable time studying the character's profile, the short bristly hairs on the side of the character's head and unshaven chin. At another point, one gets slow pans of a pond with various submerged objects. Tarkovsky seems far more interested in a film that provides atmosphere and far less interested in telling a story.

Overall Reaction:

I recommend the novel for it has interesting characters, action, and an intriguing SF theme--our perception of truly alien artefacts. A great many SF works, prose fiction and films, assume that we would be able to understand and use alien items while this work suggests it might be more difficult than we assume and in some cases impossible.

I would recommend the film only to those who will not be turned off by the slow pacing of the film and the focus on settings and objects which seem designed more to provide an atmosphere than to move the plot forward. In addition, I would recommend that one does not come prepared to see a dramatized version of Roadside Picnic, except in only the broadest sense--that there is an alien zone and people enter it for various reasons.


  1. Thanks, Fred, for pointing me in the direction of another title to add to my "wish" list for future reading. As always, your comments serve as wonderful guideposts (and I appreciate being warned away from the spoiler).

  2. R. T.,

    I hope you enjoy _Roadside Picnic_. I'd be interested in reading what you think about it.