A Roadside Picnic Of Soviet Sci-Fi

So I'm gonna ramble on here ... about a book which led me to a film, which in turn led me to a couple of music CDs and another book, and eventually some video games.

The book is Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and it was only by good marketing that I noticed it in the first place. Its cover features a striking photograph and a blurb by Ursula LeGuin, praising both the book and its new translation. Another note on the cover indicates it was the inspiration for both a movie and a series of video games. I've been a fan of LeGuin's work for many years, so I was immediately intrigued and checked out Roadside Picnic from the Pima County Public Library.

Like the best sci-fi books, Roadside Picnic starts with a unique, compelling and unsettling idea: Earth was recently visited by aliens looking for a nice spot for a picnic. These creatures were so far beyond our level of technological development that they saw no reason to make contact and, after lunch, took off again on their journey, leaving behind some trash strewn about their campsite. The site becomes known as "The Zone": an area where the laws of physics are bent, having been warped by the powerful and inscrutable objects left behind which irradiate and pollute the area. The UN places the site under quarantine following a number of deaths as people try to remove artifacts from the Zone for sale on the black market. Smugglers (referred to as "stalkers" in the sense of stealthily tracking dangerous prey) continue to illegally remove items from the Zone, and Roadside Picnic is primarily about the life and times of one such individual.

Roadside Picnic is a product of its time and culture. Published in Russia during 1972 while the USSR was near the height of its power (and after a long struggle with Soviet censors over its moral qualities), Roadside Picnic reflects a typically Communist preoccupation in science fiction at the time--how interpersonal human relations are shaped by technological development and contact with alien cultures. A lot of U.S. sci-fi is more concerned with those technological developments themselves, and it is often only in the realm of fantasy that authors from our country show a greater interest in people. In this work the Strugatsky brothers, much like Stanislaw Lem in his Solaris, are more interested in how people cope with the challenge of the unknown than with investigating the unknown itself. As a result, Roadside Picnic is more a tale of how its protagonist fares as a smuggler of exotic and dangerous items than an account of who the aliens were, why they visited Earth and so on.

Sometime after reading the book I got the film. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, with a screenplay written by the Strugatsky brothers, the film was released in 1979 (also while the USSR was still a strong geopolitical force). Re-titled "Stalker," the movie reflects the time and place of its creation, just as the novel. Much like Tarkovsky's cinematic interpretation of Solaris, the film is an often slow-moving, gorgeous and philosophical work. That is, it's sure to bore most US sci-fi fans as, throughout the movie, Tarkovsky favors long takes and very, very slow camera movement as he carefully composes and frames the ingredients of each scene.  Even the enthusiast himself here got a little sleepy during the second half of the film, as our stalkers take a load off in the Zone and start arguing over what constitutes a well-led life. The first half of the movie is classic Tarkovsky however, opening in an uncontaminated world captured in nostalgic sepia tones and then shifting to a much more vivid palette of colors as the stalkers enter the Zone. While the film departs significantly from the story in the novel, "Stalker" captures the feel of the book very well.

More bizarre is the tortured tale of the movie's creation, which was ultimately shot almost in its entirety three separate times. The first take was made using defective stock, and a second cut was abandoned by Tarkovsky after disagreements with his cinematographer led to the latter's dismissal. All three cuts were filmed downstream from a chemical plant in Estonia, with much of the outdoor footage taken in an area polluted by toxic waste. Some of the crew and actors suffered allergic reactions or fell ill during the filming.  Three of them, including Tarkovsky, later died of bronchial cancer. A scene in which snow seemingly falls on the actors during their mid-summer trek into the Zone is not actually snow, but in fact is airborne waste from the chemical plant.

What is really striking about the film however is its soundtrack, which is one of the great lost classics of early experimental electronic music. Russian composer Eduard Artemyev fashioned an unforgettable and haunting backdrop for "Stalker" after his initial orchestral score was rejected by Tarkovsky, who wanted something less conventional. Using primitive synthesizers and electronic treatments of traditional instruments, Artemyev completely recreated his soundtrack using instruments and tunings from across the globe to design a sound which is familiar yet changed in unexpected ways.  Over washes and scrapes of guitar-like synthesized sounds, a flute drifts in and out of the mix, employing a non-Western tonality which evokes the music of Japan or India.  In the main theme, a tambura plays a sustained drone over which the improvisation of a Persian lute (the tar) is mixed with an electronically-processed flute.  However, the tar is played back at a slower speed than its recording, making the improvisation more abstract and bizarre.  Artemyev and Tarkovsky also used natural sounds (water dripping, vehicular drones and animal calls), mixing these bits of found sound in such a way that--for example--the clank of a train running on the tracks becomes a rhythmic marker.

Artemyev never become particularly well-known outside Russia, and most of his music is out of print. Artemyev's son has released remakes of highlights from his father's catalog, however these differ significantly from the originals, de-emphasizing the unconventional elements (found sound, odd mixing) in favor of gentle, synthesized New Age orchestration. Neither PCPL or Freegal offers any of his music, but you can get you a taste of Artemyev's soundtrack for "Stalker" on sites like YouTube.

The book, film and soundtrack have continued to inspire other works. What is in effect a second soundtrack was created in 1995 by the noted American electronic music composer Robert Rich. Performed with Brian Lustmord, their Stalker (available on Freegal) is not a simple remake but rather a reinterpretation of the film through music. This album is anything but gentle New Age music: deep, ominous-sounding synthesizer lines predominate, punctuated by sharp swells in dynamics which accent its eerie melodic lines. The musicians describe their work as an attempt to "illuminate" and "decode" the feel of the film, and they have done an excellent job of capturing the emotional impact of "Stalker."

PCPL has in its collection a book-length reflection on "Stalker" by the award-winning author Geoff Dyer. His Zona: A Book About A Film About A Journey To A Room was published in 2012 to mixed reviews, but then "Stalker" is not a movie everyone will enjoy.  Dyer's meditation on the film, its place in cinematic history and its ongoing impact on his life is full of details regarding the film's production, although he does go on at length with asides and observations.  To reserve a copy, just click on the word Zona in the title above.

But wait... there's even more. Over the past decade a series of PC video games inspired by Roadside Picnic and "Stalker" have appeared, and these are uniformly excellent games. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series are "First Person Shooter" style games, but really have more in common with PC role-playing games. The graphics are absolutely superb, simultaneously conjuring up both the spookiest parts of the book and more fully developing some of the imagery of the film. The game's AI is challenging (to say the least), and its plot a carefully drawn-out and detailed variation on the original story. All in all, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. captures the eerie feel of Roadside Picnic perfectly, and if you've ever wanted to walk into a book's universe, this is the place to start. However, the games are at times terrifying in a way the book and movie never are--take care should you sojourn in the zone, comrade. The games also offer a clever--and disturbing--twist on the original story, replacing the hazardous trash heap of alien artifacts with ... Chernobyl. Now our dangerous artifacts are products of human culture, mutated by radioactive fallout which resulted from the 1986 core meltdown of a nuclear power plant in the USSR.

As a long-time fan of sci-fi books, movies and games, as well as ambient electronica, I highly recommend a journey into this unique world.

--Carl

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