The cumulative effects of the zone: Strugatsky science fiction

 | @neuralarts

“We know that things change, we’ve been told since childhood that things change, we’ve witnessed things change ourselves many a time, and yet we’re still utterly incapable of noticing the moment that change comes—or we search for change in all the wrong places.”

Change is, of course, a major if not foundational theme of science fiction: how we affect the world around us, how technology transforms us for better or worse, what contact with an alien race might mean for mankind. Philip K. Dick explored this in terms of identity, Bradbury in terms of dreams, Neil Gaiman in terms of mythologies.

New translations of two science fiction novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky place the individual’s struggle against the societal structures around them front and center. Hard To Be A God was written in 1964, while Roadside Picnic was completed in 1972. Both books are translated by Olena Bormashenko and both have inspired films: the first, directed by Aleksei German was released in 2014; the second became Stalker, directed by Russian luminary Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979. Stalker itself is the inspiration for a video game series.

In Hard To Be A God, Anton is sent from a future Earth to observe the culture and progress on a distant planet still mired in the Dark Ages. Renamed Don Rumata, he and the other observers from Earth are constrained by a policy of non-interference.

They observe and send back reports; they’re not supposed to change anything. As the novel progresses we see Anton struggle with the cruelty of humanity and his own urge to do something, or to feel he is doing something, by alleviating suffer ing here and there or challenging those in power. Don Rumata has the superior powers of a superior race, he is indeed a God. In the end, he finds it makes little difference.

Roadside Picnic begins years after an alien visitation on present day Earth.

The aliens arrived, lounged about for a bit, then left. They had no contact with humans, but the Zones where they landed are now dangerous and inhospitable places littered with  their debris. Red Schuhart is a ‘stalker’, he braves the terrors and he braves the terrors and danger of The Zone, recovering artifacts to sell either to scientific institutions or on the black market. No one knows what these artifacts are for, what they originally did, but everyone wants one for study. It’s not just the momentary horrors of The Zone the stalkers must endure, but genetic mutations in their children caused by exposure there. Red has a mutant daughter affectionately called The Monkey who, over the course of the book, becomes something more and more nonhuman.

(The book presents a chilling parallel to the events of Chernobyl which occurred sixteen years later in 1988. The single most disastrous nuclear event in history, Chernobyl required the establishment of the 1000 square mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. For more on this, see the recent translation of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.)

The title derives from an explanation posited by a scientist in the book that the visitation was nothing more than a day trip, a roadside picnic, for the aliens and that the humans inhabiting the planet were of no more interest to them than ants or squirrels might be to us at our own picnic. The Visitation, the complete casualness and apparent disinterest of it, casts a long existential shadow over the book. Aliens exist, they’ve visited the planet, but they didn’t bother with contact. Apparently, humans weren’t that important to them.

Both books are tightly plotted and fast moving. The writing is crisp and the characters well-drawn, populating a not-exactly dystopian universe where a little amorality goes a long way. While there is plenty of action, the Strugatskys are writing in the kind of sociological/ observational approach more akin to Ursula LeGuin than some more fantastical authors.

LeGuin says in her introduction to Roadside Picnic that “science fiction lends itself readily to imaginative subversion of any status quo.” The Strugatskys are commenting on the Soviet societal and cultural structures of their time, but they’re accomplishing this obliquely, in the ways their character chafe against the world around them and the ways that world eventually gets the better of them. Of course, it’s more than that: they’re commenting on the societal and cultural structures constantly surrounding us.

They’re also exploring the conundrum of God and godliness. Don Rumata and Red are vulnerable figures, whether ‘gods’ or not. In Hard To Be A God, Don Rumata knows too much, feels too much, to be able to live comfortably for very long on the planet he’s assigned. It’s just a matter of time before he begins to break down. In Roadside Picnic, humans have been abandoned by their God and are left sorting through the detritus of The Visitation looking for tools and clues. Meanwhile, The Monkey continues to transform into something ‘other’ and no one knows how that transformation will end.

The Zone changes everyone, only they don’t see how that change is coming about. Their belief in their own will blinds them to the ways they are constantly being molded by the world around them. It’s not only what happens in The Zone that changes these characters, or the ramifications of what they bring out. The very existence of The Zone has completely altered their lives. !

STEVE MITCHELL’S short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, N.C.