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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.
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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.

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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. A licensed Tabletop RPG (based on the book) called Stalker: The Sci-Fi Roleplaying Game published by the Finnish Burger Games was released in 2008, with an English translation released in 2012. And the concept of "stalkers" and "zones" spread far beyond the Strugatsky brothers, appearing in series like Metro and Mutant Year Zero and even being embraced in real life by scavengers around Chernobyl (and its Exclusion Zone) and similar areas. You really can hire a stalker to sneak you to Pripyat illegally.

A final interesting lexical note - "stalker" is not a translation. The Brothers really liked the English word "stalker" and transliterated it into Russian. But since they didn't speak English well at the time, they mispronounced it "stahl-ker" rather than "staw-ker", and it remains pronounced so in Russian-language works like the film and games.

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Tropes featured include:

  • Aliens are Bastards: Some characters take this point of view. For them, the aliens radically altered human history then left them on their own to deal with the Zones.
  • Ambiguously Human: The children of stalkers suffer from mutations, but no one knows why. Richard Noonan wonders if it's a form of Alien Invasion, with the visitors intent on changing humanity to their liking. He's drunk off his ass when he think this, however.
  • Amputation Stops Spread: Burbridge comes in contact with Witches Jelly while in the Zone which starts to slowly dissolve his leg bones. A doctor amputates them below the knee to stop the Jelly from eventually killing him.
  • Artificial Limbs: After his stint with Witches Jelly that cost him the lower halves of his legs, Burbridge gets a pair of prosthetic legs made with technology developed by research in the Zone.
  • Badass Normal: Redrick, definitely. It's a survival requirement in his profession.
  • Berserk Button: Don't try to harm Redrick's family. When his father turned into a zombie and they came to take him for study, Red threw two orderlies and three doctors out of his home, chasing them for a couple of blocks on foot. When he comes back for the van driver, he finds the van empty, since the driver's already run away in fear during the commotion.
  • 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".
  • Body Horror: Witches Jelly dissolved the leg bones of Burbridge. The description of what it did to the flesh isn't pretty either.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: The Visitation changed everything for humanity, but for the aliens that caused it, it was just a Roadside Picnic.
  • 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.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Burbridge's encounter with the Hell Slime/Witches Jelly dissolves his legs, no more Stalking for him.
  • 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.
  • End of an Age: The last chapter has this tone. Life around the Zone slowly achieves a sense of normality. Most of the original "old-school" Stalkers are dead, disabled or moved on. Most artifacts have already been picked and the remaining ones are being collected by remote-controlled drones instead of Stalkers. Redrick's and Arthur's expedition to find the Golden Sphere is supposed to be one last hurrah for Redrick, he intends to retire after this.
  • 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.
  • Evil Old Folks: Burbridge 'The Vulture' is mostly described with two characteristics: he's old, and he's a complete bastard.
  • 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. Some characters ponder this, wondering if there is a better way to use the artifacts we just can't see, and if the use we're putting them to is equivalent to using a computer screen as a night light.
  • 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.
  • For Happiness: "HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED!"
  • The Ghost: The visitors. By the time humanity realized aliens had visited Earth, the aliens had already continued on their merry way.
  • 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.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: This is Redrick's reasoning for taking some highly dangerous "Witches Jelly" out of the Zone and selling it to the military. They'll pay really well and he needs to support his family.
  • 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.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Redrick does a lot of very questionable things. He also does some good, genuinely cares for his family, and eventually makes a Selfless Wish For Happiness.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Because of her horrible condition, it's implied that Redrick's daughter was being bullied by the other children in their neighbourhood. To help her, he bribes them by building playsets in the park as long as they stop.
  • 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. It's stated that the children of Stalkers are born with various anomalies, another side effect of the Zone.
  • No Ending: Redrick sacrifices Arthur by allowing the latter to run into the meat grinder, without any warnings, setting it off and killing him almost instantly. With a few minutes to spare before the trap reactivates, Redrick sits and sadly contemplates his actions, debating his supposed morality versus the town's wickedness. He then makes a final decision by walking down to the golden ball, selflessly repeating Arthur's wish for 'happiness for everybody'. The story abruptly ends without showing what happens next, and with the Strugatsky brothers having passed away without leaving any clues, it's left open-ended.
  • One Last Job: The last chapter's quest for the Golden Sphere is intended to be Redrick's last venture into the Zone before retiring.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: They're mostly intact, except for the brain. Rather than being inimical to humans, they "exude good health".
  • Papa Wolf: Redrick is very protective of his mutant daughter. Also, in an inversion, he's very protective of his zombie father (who's harmless) and became physically violent when scientists came to grab him for experiments.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Played With: It's been years since the Zone appeared, and most of the manmade structures inside decayed as expected, but certain areas still remain pristine in spite of the complete lack of maintenance. Just another unexplained weirdness of the Zone.
  • 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.
  • Selfless Wish: At the end, Redrick decides to repeat Arthur's wish following the latter's death.
  • 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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