Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Roadside Picnic

Penguin's 1979 edition of "Roadside Picnic"

This cover looks like something we'd see in the Starblazer Adventures comic or RPG, no?

It is perhaps the most bizarre cover done for Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's classic SF novel Roadside Picnic, but it got two things right. Stalkers in the novel do wear suits when they enter the Zone on the Institute's official research business. The suits are called specsuits. I think this poor fellow forgot his gloves. Or he just took them off to inspect the device he just found.

Let's hope that's not a mistake.

The second thing the cover got right is that the landscape inside the Zone has altered from what it once was. Inside the Zone there are a variety of environmental hazards - graviconcentrates, hell slime, and silver cobwebs to name just a few - that have resulted in both the natural environment and the ruins of the built environment inside the Zone becoming otherworldly and dangerous.

That's why it's fenced off.

So what is the Zone?  We know it resulted from an alien Visit. But let's have the Strugatsky Brothers explain it in their own worlds. They do that through a conversation in which the Visit is described as an event which is prosaic for the aliens, but nearly unintelligible for the humans. What's left behind as the Zone are like the leavings from a "roadside picnic":

"A picnic. Imagine a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras...A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about...Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp... and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone's handkerchief, someone's penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow..."

"I get it" said Noonan. "A roadside picnic."

"Exactly. A picnic by the side of some space road. And you ask me whether they'll come back."  

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