Monday, October 21, 2013

Back From The Zone

One of the mysteries of the Zone

On Sunday I was fortunate to see Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker on 35 mm film at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The screening used the only remaining print with English subtitles. The curator shared that the film is deteriorating; hopefully someone will work on the film so that it can be restored. I have seen Stalker many times on video, but there is just no comparison with the subtlety of color, texture, and sound between the quality of the 35 mm film and video.

It has many of the qualities of the best nature films.

 And more than a little of the weird.

Brother Wolf?

This may be the first and last time in my life that I get to see Stalker on the big screen, so I am glad I went to the Walker's screening.

But on to the story the movie tells. Stalker is based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's novel Roadside Picnic, which deals with the shattering aftermath of an alien Visitation. Imagine the end of a roadside picnic. The humans get back in their car and drive on. They're litterbugs, and have left some things behind. Ants arrive to inspect the trash. They find bunch of crumbs, a few chicken bones, a few beer can tabs, some wrappers, some plastic bags - but would the ants be able to make any sense of this stuff? 

In the Strugatsky brothers' novel, six sites on Earth experienced the Visitation. These site fell along the so-called Pillman radiant, like a trail of shots fired from some alien weapon at the revolving Earth . The Visitation left wrecked Zones hiding inexplicable alien artifacts (artifacts like "empties" and "full empties" in the novel) and terrible existential and environmental threats.

Roadside Picnic is cited in the back of the Numenera RPG as one of Monte Cook's influences; that makes a lot of sense once you have read the novel or seen the movie Stalker. And just like in an RPG, the action in Stalker starts in a particularly grotty bar.

Stalker (c.), Professor (l.) and Writer (r.) meet up - where else? - a BAR!

The nameless Scientist and Writer arrange to have a character named Stalker sneak them into the Zone (more on both Stalkers and the Zone, below). They want to make the journey to a particular place in the Zone: The Room, where any one's deepest wishes will be fulfilled. Along the way many strange things happen.

The Zone is a queer place, a wilderness infected with the ruins of the built environment - and with something else. Travel into the Zone is a very local hexcrawl through an indoors/outdoors maze with terrifying subjective effects. A maze which reassembles itself and offers new existential snares with every visit.

After the aliens left, the armed forces had first tried to invade the Zone in a failed attempt at... something. Pacifying it? Dominating it? Privatizing it? Who knows?

Perhaps, like the U.S. military in Iraq, or the Russians in Afghanistan, they felt invading the Zone would be an easy roll. They could conquer the Zone and incorporate it into their national/rational state and subject it to market discipline. But while the Zone was still a partly familiar landscape, it was no longer theirs to conquer. The armed forces that invaded the Zones are still there standing watch. You'll see the hulks of wrecked and rusting armored vehicles and tanks, and the occasional burned skeleton behind the wheel of a jeep or APC.

After that disastrous expedition, the various militaries and special police forces settled for establishing a cordon sanitaire or "zone of exclusion" around the entire Zone. Only the Institute is allowed to sponsor expeditions inside the Zone to recover artifacts (in the novel) or to probe it's deepest secrets.

But the Stalkers sneak through. In the novel, we meet Red Schuhart, a Stalker who works for the Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures, taking scientists inside the zone of exclusion, but also running his own freelance artifact-hunting expeditions. He's a criminal, a jailbird who has trouble distinguishing the prisons with their barbed wire fences from the Zone itself. The only place he feels that he belongs is in the Zone.

No booze in the Zone! Stalker decants Writer's booze bottle.

As Stalker takes us inside the Zone, there is a lot of religious or mystical iconography. There is a dark night of the soul (i.e., the subterranean passage that Stalkers call "the meat-grinder"), a crown of thorns, a supine hand as in Jesus' in the Pieta, quotes from scripture, uncanny birds (the Paraclete?), the Threshold (of the Gates of Heaven?), and maybe even Francis's Brother Wolf.

And a 20 kiloton bomb.

Stalker came into my life around 1993 or 1994. It influenced the Shadowrun games I played in, and the ones I ran during the 1990s, and it has continued to influence the games and settings I create. In many ways, the movie encourages similar speculations to the setting of the Kult RPG. You could even see the Zones of Stalker as analogues or fragments of Kult's Metropolis. I hope Roadside Picnic's presence on the list of inspirations for Numenera brings some new attention to the Strugatsky brothers' novel, and to the film Stalker.

There is certainly a lot to work with there.

French poster for Stalker


  1. It is a fine film, and there's definitely a lot going on, so much that I'm not even sure it's really SF, more than anything is. A refreshing film too, for all of that space.

    Almost unbelievably, I'm actually at this very moment finishing up a review of the film in the Blogger editor, and then your post pops into the list. How about that for synchronicity? I've even kept well clear of Numenera so the overlap there can't be the reason, directly at least. Maybe even the wider set of influences on gaming is just restrictingly narrow?

    What do you think - should I post mine now or give it time, even a few days or weeks?

    1. Please do post! That's wonder synchronicity and I look forward to your take on the film. We just had Jeff Dyer (author of "Zona") here, which is why we also had a screening of the full film.

  2. Will do. I'm just looking for a useful clip. You got one of the amazing images for the lede.

    1. Not sure where to find clips these days, but the link in the first sentence takes you to the full film. A clip of the rail ride into the Zone would be pretty cool. You get to see the transition from sepia to full color.

    2. Here it is:

      There's a line of thinking in old school D&D that the adventurers need to cross a clear demarcation or pass through a certain trial on the way in, to build the tension of course and highlight a change in principles, a fading of normality or limits to it. This could serve that purpose here.

      Interesting that we don't see them come back, which I think also asks a few big questions. Did they actually enter the Zone? Could a wish have brought them back, and if so did they enter the chamber or can its powers extend beyond? Is the dog a form of spirit guide, or an incarnation of some kind?

  3. Thanks for posting this--after watching the clips at youtube, I really want to see the full movie. It looks incredible.