Ryandake's Reviews > Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
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Jun 01, 12

really liked it
Read in June, 2012

what if aliens came to earth, landed in several different spots, hung around for a bit (unfortunately extinguishing the towns they landed on), and then left, without so much as a thank-you note? and oh yes, they leave circles of semi-destruction in their wake, and a lot of detritus from the picnic.

what a beautiful premise.

in this novel by the brothers Strugatsky, scientists descend upon the "picnic" Zones. as do "stalkers," people lured to the areas who wish to scavenge the aforementioned detritus and sell it to the highest bidder. the scientists and the stalkers are equally ignorant of what these objects are all about: what was their purpose? how do they work? is there any useful technology to be gained from them?

which all sounds like a second picnic, except for one thing: scavenging in the Zones can be lethal in unpredictable ways. horrible ways. ways that defy what we know of laws of nature, of physics. my own personal favorite is the "bug trap," an area (visually undetectable) within which gravity is increased a bazillion-fold: toss a bolt into a bug trap and, from midair, it will slam down a hole a foot wide into the earth.

the best thing about this book is that it is told almost entirely from the point of view of a stalker: a lowlife guy, relatively uneducated, broke, and a little greedy. he is not risking his ass in the Zone for glory, or for science, or for the betterment of humankind--he's doing it for money, the more the better. and he knows it. he has no illusions about why he's there.

but he's not unprincipled, nor is he beggared by his own low station. he has pride, and he should, because he is one of the best, which means the longest-lived. he loves his wife and daughter. he genuinely enjoys a tipple and a smoke (do not read this book while you're trying to quit smoking). in short, he's as human as the rest of us; rougher around the edges than most, perhaps, but also sweet, and a guy who would be way fun to party with.

so! aliens, lowlifes, and mysterious artifacts. some huge questions about how we would know an intelligent lifeform, and what we might do if they could not or did not communicate with us. a lot of sf does have this bias--that intelligence is identifiable on our own terms (i.e., they're like smart us), that we can recognize social goals, that interchange between intelligent species is something to be desired by both parties.

i've never been comfortable with this, because if aliens are alien, surely they should be really alien? and if they are really alien, how do we communicate? the structure of language is inextricable from thought and perception. but what if their thought is utterly unlike ours? what if they do not think linear thoughts at all, but instead think in simultaneous combinations of smells? what if they do not want to explore other planets for conquest/exchange/discovery at all, but want instead to make an olfactory quilt of what they find?

anyway, digressions aside. it's an interesting book, and despite being written in 1970, it does have a pretty timeless feel. despite being written in Russia, it has a placeless feel as do a lot of Murakami's works. best of all, it does have many moments of a skin-crawlingly alien feel, which a lot of science fiction sadly lacks.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Daniel (last edited Jun 02, 2012 12:47AM) (new)

Daniel Roy Sounds lovely. And I agree with you that aliens are rarely alien enough. I keep thinking that intelligent extraterrestrial life has to exist in forms that mark a dramatic departure from our own understanding of life and civilization... We as a species are such a product of our own environment, and how that environment has shaped our cognitive processes.

And then there's the question of recognizing intelligence. The difference is so small between us and the other great apes, yet we mentally bundle them with the rest of the animal kingdom, as different from Us as a cat or a pig. There are Humans, alone, and there are Other Animals. I think the more reasonable, and appropriate thing, would be to grant certain rights to great apes. This is the idea behind the Great ape personhood project, which I think deserves a lot more attention than it does:


What if ants represent a civilization? (To bring it back to the picnic metaphor!) They are not individually intelligent, but an ant colony does have a weird, trial-and-error form of intelligence which allows it to overcome great obstacles, and shape its environment. So let's say ants are a primitive civilization occupying the same space as us, but a different niche; how are we to even begin communicating with a colony? Is this even theoretically possible?

And yet we hope to establish a common language with a species that has evolved completely independently from us, light-years away...

Ryandake Daniel wrote: "Sounds lovely. And I agree with you that aliens are rarely alien enough. I keep thinking that intelligent extraterrestrial life has to exist in forms that mark a dramatic departure from our own und..."

and what if apes have an agenda so radically different from our own that we do not recognize it as intelligence simply because it is so different from our own? or ants? or dolphins? or plants?

i was dumbstruck when i read once that aspens are one organism--not merely individual trees--that can cover square miles of turf. what do they/does it communicate amongst themselves/itself, in their aspen thoughts? we have no idea whatsoever, nor any way to apprehend these thoughts.

as a writer, i try from time to time to think about alien species, and how one might depict them... and then i get snared in the language of my own culture and my own time. it's deeply frustrating to try to conceive of a species not only outside my experience, but outside human experience.

and what if ants are not primitive at all?

btw, have you read any of Lynn Margulis' works? one of her foundational theories is that we are nothing more than vehicles for the spread of bacteria. we have evolved in response to their needs and desires. we exist only to reproduce them. now there's a wild thought.

message 3: by Daniel (last edited Jun 02, 2012 01:13AM) (new)

Daniel Roy Haven't heard about Margulis and her work before... Woah.

Another thing that keeps me thinking about aliens... What about time scale? We expect civilizations to move, think, and change, at the same rhythm we do. That means having similar lifespans, I suppose, but is really not a given.

For instance, I once heard a biologist describe plant and tree life as a ferocious and merciless battle for access to sunlight... only it happens really, really, really slowly compared to us. And thus we don't even recognize a battle taking place.

Same problem considering that we think as individuals, not as a society, and nor as a species. What if a species had an understanding of itself as a species, not only in the present, but over time? What if its own evolutionary path was taken into account when it made decisions about itself? That would be one heck of a different civilization than ours.

(I have an idea for a short story or novel based on that stashed away in my notes somewhere.)

Ryandake Daniel wrote: "Haven't heard about Margulis and her work before... Woah.

Another thing that keeps me thinking about aliens... What about time scale? We expect civilizations to move, think, and change, at the sam..."

oh i'm liking it, the different time scales and the thinking-as-a-species. i bet ants think as a species.

do you write, daniel? i would kill to see your writing. email me some!!!!!!!

message 5: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Roy Haha! Yes, I write. :) I'll send you something...

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