Roadside Picnic

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Roadside Picnic is a science fiction novella written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971. The film ‘Stalker’ directed by Andrei Tarkovsky is loosely based on the novel, with a screenplay written by the Strugatskys. The novella was refused publication in the Soviet Union for eight years due to government censorship, numerous delays and sabotage.

The heavily censored different versions published between 1980 and 2000 have little in common with the original version written by the authors. Soviet censors rewrote major plot points, changed names of characters and dialog to better reflect the Marxist ideology (removed language deemed as ‘rude’; heavier emphasis was placed on the exploitation of the Zones for ‘materialistic’ purposes by an elite bourgeois cabal as a means to oppress the proletariat masses, etc.).

The concept of the Zones angered Soviet censors who viewed the plot as a treasonous attack on Soviet Communism. Wondrous objects within the Zones (Western countries), were unavailable outside the Zones (Soviet Union). Some censors viewed Stalkers as an allusion to smugglers or privileged Soviet citizens who returned from Western Countries (Zones) with wondrous objects (washing machines, dishwashers, color TV’s, luxury cars, etc.) which were not manufactured, available or even heard of by the majority of people within the Soviet Union.

The relatively short, 126 page novella begins approximately a decade after something alien, (called Visitors by human scientists), very briefly (approximately 12–24 hours), appeared at six different locations around Earth (called Visitation Zones by human scientists). The events take place some time during the 1970’s. The six Visitation Zones around Earth are positioned in a smooth curve and are situated as though someone had taken six shots at Earth from a ‘pistol’ located somewhere along the Earth-Deneb line. Deneb is the alpha star in Cygnus.

The six Visitation Zones (some rural others in parts of towns) became infested with deadly phenomenon and littered with mysterious objects with various properties whose original purpose was incomprehensible by humans, and so bizarre that it bordered on the supernatural. Each Zone was perhaps a few square miles in size, with abandoned buildings, railways and cars, some slowly decaying while others seemed polished as if brand new. The Visitation Zones became deadly to all forms of Earth life containing space-time anomalies, and random spots capable of killing by fire, lightning, gravity or other bizarre ways. The laws of physics and reality worked sporadically in the Zones.

United Nation Armies surrounded each Zone with strict orders to arrest or kill anyone attempting to sneak inside or out. Governments feared that some alien artifact would be found inside a Zone with enough power to cause extinction, permanently damage, or even destroy the planet. A frontier culture arose along the perimeter of the Zones, men known as ‘Stalkers’ who risk their lives to find and illegally recover alien artifacts (called swag) from within the Zones and sell for large profits. This was an extremely dangerous and illegal line of work since one wrong move inside the Zone could be deadly. Stalkers could only work during the night since the Zone was observed during the day by soldiers and scientists. Only one out of every three Stalkers normally makes it out alive. Children fathered by Stalkers are sometimes born deformed, sick or mutated which medicine cant cure and scientists can’t explain. Scientists legally enter the Zones to find, retrieve and study artifacts as well as purchase illegally recovered artifacts indirectly from the Stalkers.

Even though the original purpose of the artifacts recovered was not understood, some objects had beneficial properties discovered by accident. A round black stick (called so-so) produced endless energy and was highly valued as an alternative power source for vehicles or airplanes. Other artifacts, like a unique object called the ‘Death Lamp’ emitted rays which destroyed all life in its proximity. The original purpose of every object found in the Zones was unknown either because they were broken trash discarded by the Visitors or because their function was too advanced to be understood by humans. The most desired and legendary artifact was the ‘Golden Sphere ‘which was rumored to have the power to make any wish come true. The Sphere was located deep inside the Zone and guarded by a deadly, but invisible phenomenon referred to as a meatgrinder. Only one Stalker knew the route that would permit a human being to reach it alive and return safely.

The name of the novel derives from a metaphor proposed by Dr. Valentine Pillman, who believes there is no rational explanation either for the alien Visitation or the mysterious properties of the Zones or the purpose of the artifacts found there. In the novel, he compares the Visitation to ‘A picnic,’ after which curious wildlife investigate. The curious animals in this analogy are the humans who venture forth after the Visitors left, discovering items and anomalies which are ordinary to those who discarded them, but incomprehensible or deadly to those who find them.

This explanation implies that the Visitors may not have even noticed or paid any attention to the human inhabitants of the planet during their ‘visit’ just as humans don’t notice or pay attention to grasshoppers or ladybugs during a picnic. The artifacts and phenomena left behind by them in the Zones were garbage, discarded and forgotten without any preconceived intergalactic plan to advance or damage humanity. There is little chance that the Visitors will return again, since for them, it was a brief stop for reasons unknown on the way to their actual destination.

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