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Literature / Roadside Picnic

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Some cultures believe the Earth is really a giant turtle. Meet the plastic sixpack holder.

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, burnt 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, comics, 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, written in 1971 and published in 1972.

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 "Red" Schuhart. His life is dominated by the Zone and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his daughter has been determined by the Zone. And it is for her that Red makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile depths.

Roadside Picnic has been loosely adapted to film in 1979 by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker. 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.

There are also many works that aren’t direct adaptations, but draw tonally on or borrow elements from Roadside picnic: The Southern Reach Trilogy (and its film adaptation Annihilation) has some thematic similarities, but the author claims it's not an adaptation of Roadside Picnic, but a thematic companion piece. Hell, the most recent Shrek spin-off takes the plot of competing criminal gangs sneaking into a dangerous zone that’s been corrupted by an object from outer-space, in order to claim a wish-granting anomaly for themselves.

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. And of course "stalker" here means "somebody moving slowly and carefully, constantly expecting trouble", not "somebody who obsessively follows and harasses another".

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.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: While there are many zones scattered around the world, and while the location is never overly spelled out in the text, the point of view zone in the book is clearly in a failing industrial/oil town in North America, and the first military responders to the alien visitation was the "Royal armoured corp." So it's a failing industrial town in Canada, possibly around Edmonton of all places.
  • 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 thinks this, however.
  • Amputation Stops Spread: Burbridge comes in contact with Witch's 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 Witch's 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'd already run away in fear during the commotion.
  • Big Bad: The Meat Grinder, which is the closest there is to the main antagonist of the novel. It is an anomaly that guards the wish-granting artifact, the Golden Sphere, and has ended many unfortunate lives of stalkers who attempt to grant the artifact's wish by killing them and turning them into goo.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Two characters discuss Xenology midway through the book. One an engineer (Pillman), another a businessman (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: Witch's Jelly dissolved the leg bones of Burbridge. The description of what it did to the flesh isn't pretty either.
  • Book Ends: The first and last chapter, eight years apart, both feature Redrick leading a novice companion on a Stalking expedition to find some artifact of inestimable value.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: The Visitation changed everything for humanity, but for the aliens that caused it, it might as well have been 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/Witch's 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.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Downplayed and Played With. Aliens visited the Earth... and that's pretty much all we know about them. Their visit radically altered parts of the Earth with various anomalies and "artifacts" which have miraculous properties that baffle science. One simple visitation by aliens, who didn't bother talking to the locals, which might as well have been a Roadside Picnic to them, dramatically altered human culture and technology and humanity will likely spend all of its future existence wondering who the aliens were and what were their motives, likely never getting answers. But life pretty much goes on normally for the rest of the Earth, and in fact the study of the Zone has yielded significant scientific breakthroughs that improved humanity.
  • Covers Always Lie: Some covers show a Stalker holding an assault rifle in an attempt to market the book to fans of the video game series, despite the fact that Stalkers in the book not only avoid guns, but Redrick actively mocks someone for bringing one into the zone. Other editions of the book use an image from the climax of the film adaptation, which takes place in a different location than the book's climax and isn't a location in the book.
  • 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 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 either dead, disabled or have 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 it.
  • Establishing Series Moment: Redrick's first venture into the Zone in the first chapter quickly establishes what the story is all about: venturing through the Zone for lucrative artifacts, despite the obvious dangers. Averted in the final chapter when stalker life is as nowhere common as it was eight years ago and ONLY Redrick is the last "old-school" stalker.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Subverted. In the first chapter, Redrick states that no stalker (including Smug Snake Burbridge 'The Vulture') will ever bring "witch's jelly" out from the 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" 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 treasure, 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!" (Or something close to that, the translation from the original Russian varies..)
  • 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 (treasure), a page out of a comic book (junk), and an oil slick (hazardous anomaly), but on a 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 gives 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
  • Low Culture, High Tech: Humanity makes considerable strides by repurposing Zone tech, but even over decades later they have never quite figured out the artifacts' true purpose or exactly how they work.
  • Make a Wish: The function of the golden ball. Red ultimately chooses a Selfless Wish, though the results of it remain forever unknown.
  • 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.
  • Multiple Narrative Modes: Chapter one is told in First Person past tense, Redrick even addresses the audience directly when trying to explain what an "empty" is. From the second chapter onwards, the story is told in Third Person past tense.
  • Mundane Object Amazement: The key implication of the "roadside picnic" analogy is that humans are engaging in this, that the marvelous artifacts of the Zone might just be some alien's casually-tossed litter.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: One notable Stalker is known as "the Vulture", apparently for leaving others to die while he returns with the loot himself. No one really likes or trusts him, not even Redrick.
  • 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 becomes physically violent when scientists come 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.
  • 20 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 when they realize that the weirdness of the Zone is following them.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The protagonist's daughter is born with fur and a monkey tail, gradually becoming less human and more feral as the story proceeds, until his wife sobs: "The doctor says...she isn't human anymore."
  • Would Hurt a Child: Averted. While Redrick sending Arthur, a child, to the Meat Grinder as a Human Sacrifice to use the Sphere, is considered child murder, it was the only choice for him and he even granted the child's wish posthumously.