Literature / Roadside Picnic

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Pilman: Imagine 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 watched 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, burn 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, comic, faded flowers picked in another meadow.
Noonan: I see. A roadside picnic.
Pilman: Precisely. A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos.

A novel by the Strugatsky brothers.

Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине) focuses on the Zones of Alienation, where debris and items left behind by visiting extraterrestrials are concentrated. These Zones are filled with bizarre anomalies and physics-defying objects, ranging from the sun appearing to stand still all the time to two pieces of metal that forever repel and attract each other. Needless to say, scientists and collectors pay hefty prices to acquire the objects, but access to the Zones, which are deadly enough in their own right, is strictly controlled by the United Nations.

This is where the Stalkers come in — illegal intruders who brave the patrols and the dangers of the Zones to bring back the artifacts for sale and study. The story focuses on one particular Stalker, named Redrick.

Roadside Picnic has been loosely adapted to film as Stalker (1979). Both the book and the movie have inspired the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game series.

Tropes featured include:

  • Badass Normal: Redrick, definitely. It's a survival requirement in his profession.
  • Berserk Button: Don't try to harm Redrick's family. When his grandfather turned into a zombie and they came to take him for study, Red threw two orderlies and three doctors out of his home.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Two characters discuss Xenology midway through the book. One an engineer (Pillman), another a business man (Noonan). It largely centers around classifying intelligence, and the closest humans can come up with a definition for it is "displays human reasoning".
  • Came Back Wrong: People buried in the zone reanimate, but they can't think for themselves, only imitating people near them. Even more strangely, severed body parts will still act on their own.
  • Changing of the Guard: Zig-zagged. Redrick's the POV character for the first two chapters, only to be replaced by a middle-aged engineer named Richard Noonan in the third chapter, who is in turn replaced with Redrick in the final chapter.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: A short, middle-aged, not very competent engineer Richard Noonan, who actually is a secret agent.
  • Da Chief: Mr. Lemchen to Richard Noonan.
  • Eldritch Location: The Zone itself. Whatever the Visitation was, it left the region filled with bizarre entities, patches of lethally broken physics, and the artifacts with their own strange properties.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Subverted. In the first chapter Redrick states that no stalker (including Smug Snake Burbridge 'The Vulture') will ever bring "witches jelly" out from Zone (other translations call it "hell slime"). In the second chapter Redrick and Burbridge are doing exactly that.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: "Alien" here means "mostly incompatible with terrestrial life". Where to start? There's a dense fog that turns your bones into jelly. A spider-web that gives you a heart attack hours after you've touched it. Spots where gravity is hundred times stronger than normal (in other words, step in and go splat on the floor)... The "meat grinder" that... um... well, take a guess... The Zone is littered with the bodies of scavengers that serve as markers for places where you really shouldn't go.
  • E.T. Gave Us Wi-Fi: Here, this trope is transferred into the future: Humanity makes considerable progress by studying and finding uses for the artifacts found in the Zone — even if scientists admit that they understand little about how and why these artifacts work, they have found out what some of them do and invented ways to put them to use.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: Some things in the Zone will kill people. Some things won't. One stalker loses the bones in his legs and becomes unable to walk, but survives because Red spends a day dragging him out of the Zone; one of his friends retains a butler heavily mutated by exposure to an unspecified anomaly. When his son goes into the Zone, he brings along a pistol with one bullet in it, just in case.
    Come back with Swag, a miracle. Come back alive, success. Come back with a patrol bullet in your ass, good luck. Everything else, that's fate.
  • Forbidden Zone: Access to the Zones, which are deadly enough in their own right, is strictly controlled by the United Nations.
  • Human Sacrifice: There's no religious aspect, but this is basically the function of the meat grinder in front of the golden ball—it'll deactivate for a few minutes if something large and organic is thrown into it.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: Discussed. Dr. Pillman states that the Zone is something like a fieldmouse stumbling into an abandoned campsite and finding a burnt-out spark plug (swag), a page out of a comic book (junk), and an oil slick (hazardous anomaly), but on human scale. In fact, the discussion is the page quote.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: Arguably a deconstruction of the trope, via Possession not implying mastery. Just because they can study the artifacts and put some of them to use doesn't mean they've made any progress understanding how they work. One of the biggest breakthroughs during the story is figuring out what the "Empties" might have been used for.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Dr. Pilman's theory (which has given the novel its name) is that the landing site was merely the aliens' road stop on the way to somewhere else.
  • Lovable Rogue: Redrick Shuchardt
  • Make a Wish: The function of the golden ball. Red ultimately chooses a Selfless Wish, though the results of it remain forever unknown.
    • Resulting in a sarcastic fan-made ending:
    Happiness for everyone, for free, and so that nobody would walk out disappointed!
    So the Ball bit everyone's legs off. And nobody walked out.
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: a deconstruction, with the aliens being Mike and the humans being stuck dealing with the aftermath of whatever they did through accident or indifference.
  • Mutants: Red's daughter has fur and a tail; his friend's butler is severely deformed (and mentally disabled) by exposure to the Zone.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: They're mostly intact, except for the brain. Rather than being inimical to humans, they "exude good health".
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: As the "Zone" has been abandoned by all (well almost all) human population, industrial facilities and whole city quarters have been left deserted and slowly crumbling (or inexplicably preserved by the strange properties of the Zone) for decades.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The general theory on the origin of the Zone; a collection of scraps and residue from unfathomably advanced technology scattered throughout the Zone, left behind either by a crashed alien spacecraft...or by one dumping its trash on an Insignificant Little Blue Planet after "a picnic" in the countryside.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Captain Quarterblood.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Kirill Panov and Arthur Burbridge, the two young, nice and most idealistic characters in the book, die in the same chapters where they are introduced.
  • Twenty Minutes In The Future: Apart from a few technological advances, the setting seems largely congruent, with the time when the novel was written. Though from today's perspective, it possibly could be more adequately classified as an Alternate History setting.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Anyone who was near a Zone at the time of the Visitation became this. It takes twenty years for the authorities to notice, because it's not immediately obvious. One case study is a barber who left the city, but his clients had a 90% mortality rate over the course of a year, due to various freak accidents. At the beginning of the book they are paying people to leave the Zone, so that they can build a military perimeter around it, but that policy is soon reversed.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The protagonist's daughter is born with fur and a monkey tail, gradually becomes less human and more feral as the story proceeds, until his wife sobs: "The doctor says... She isn't human anymore."

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