Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, “Roadside Picnic” (1972) (translated from the Russian by Olena Bormashenko) – The site of alien contact with Earth gets all freaky and forbidding in this Soviet scifi tale. It’s the basis of the movie “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky and the source of metaphor in Adam Curtis’s last documentary (which I thought was a little weak tbh). All of them carry a heavy freight of existential dread and confusion.
The main character, Red Schuhart, is a stalker- a guy who goes into the forbidden Zone to seek out artifacts the aliens left behind. No one knows what is up with the Zone or the aliens, who made no meaningful purposeful contact with humanity. The rules work differently in the Zone- the rules of physics, seemingly the rules of cause and effect, and these changes are deadly. The stalkers that go through them are a hard-bitten, cynical breed, similar to hardboiled detectives or mountain men, and Red is no exception. The Zone is reaching out to make life in the surrounding areas unsustainable, but while there’s money to be had and, one suspects, a point to be made, stalkers will stalk.
The plot and characterization isn’t really the point in the Strugatskys’s novel any more than it is in Tarkovsky’s quiet, achingly-paced film. There’s a “one last job” where Red pursues a legendary wish-granting alien orb, but by then we’ve accepted the logic of the Zone- the Zone is the Zone and while one can take precautions, it makes mock of all of man’s attempts to put a system in place in or around it. People, including Adam Curtis, have put various political spins on the Zone, including claiming that it’s a metaphor for our own incomprehensible times. I don’t know about all that, but part of the strength of the Strugatsky’s work is that they create a powerful spacial metaphor for dread and the feeling of unreality. ****’