“The inspiration for the film Stalker and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games”, read the front-cover copy of the recent edition of Roadside Picnic I read — a fresher translation from the Strugatsky brothers’ original Russian, apparently, than the one last published in the U.S. some decades ago. The idea to read it came to mind quite obliquely a couple of months ago, following a path including but not limited to my learning of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films via the video game The Witness earlier this this year.
While I seem to have lost my notes about Roadside Picnic, I do recall it as a fast and easy read. I loved its setting, which has surely inspired many more games and films than the two direct adaptations listed on the cover. The novel’s central conceit studs the world with lingering “Zones” that exist many years after a brief and ill-defined visit by never-seen space aliens. They left behind piles of refuse in the forms of miraculous artifacts of completely opaque purpose, and bizarre energy fields that warp local physics. To wander into a Zone unprepared is suicide, and so a sub-culture has sprung up of “stalkers” — desperados who risk their lives and flout the law in order to raid the Zones, seeking loot to sell, and building up maps and codexes of routes and secrets and survival techniques. Stalkers refer to each other only by goofy callsign-style nicknames, and they’re all extremely miserable people.
Having established this setting, Roadside Picnic tells several stories as vignettes from the life of ever-tragic protagonist Red. An expert stalker, Red makes his work a real pleasure to watch — even though he hates the Zone, and he hates himself for feeling more at home there than with his own family, even while it’s trying to kill him. (To this extent, he rather reminded me of Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker.) The modularity of this storytelling style all but begs other creators to borrow the same setting for their own ends.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker, then, feels like another story set in the same world, maybe surrounding a different Zone. (Roadside Picnic seems set somewhere in North America, but Stalker happens in Eastern Europe.) Instead of the book’s use of an abandoned but haunted industrial town, the film’s Zone encompasses a lush environment, so green and wild that the film stock explodes with color Wizard of Oz-style when the adventuring party arrives, after a dour and washed-out prologue. (A Twitter-friend coincidentally watched the movie just as I did, and noted how it made him want to re-read the Southern Reach trilogy.)
The movie sees a stalker lead two “tourists” with their own agendas through this Zone, whose allure is not caches of alien technology surrounded by deadly traps, but a magical wish-granting room couched in layers of dangers so strange and subtle that the threat they pose never really becomes clear. To risk a spoiler: Nothing happens. Between Tarkovsky’s mastery of the medium and my own expectations — based, if nothing else, on having watched umpteen seasons of Lost — I felt tense right up until the end, waiting the whole time for something terrible, and then I laughed, because yeah okay.
We do get an intriguing and lengthy epilogue that suggests that Stalker’s world does have room for the supernatural, but the blind adventurers just didn’t know where to look for it — each bundled up too tightly in their own convictions, perhaps.
Both book and film are about as old as I am, and the former shows it more. The exclusive masculinity among not just all the characters in Roadside Picnic but everyone in its whole world (other than “girls” used as props) felt some combination of dated and other-cultured, but also wholly separable from what made the book interesting. I ended up using the particular brand of doomed and self-hating masculinity espoused by Red, the sole point-of-view character, as an aid to digestion. I imagined the novel’s woman-free world as not the literal truth of its reality, but rather the sad and diminished reality that broken-macho Red chose to see. Maybe not quite the authors’ intent, but it worked for poor Red and me both.