Science Fiction Studies

# 12 = Volume 4, Part 2 = July 1977

Ursula K. Le Guin

A New Book by the Strugatskys

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika. Tr A.W. Bouis. Macmillan, 1977, ix+245, $8.95. Also UK: Collier-Macmillan.

Roadside Picnic is a "first contact" story with a difference. Aliens have visited the earth and gone away again, leaving behind them several landing areas (now called The Zones) littered with their refuse. The picnickers have gone; the packrats, wary but curious, approach the crumpled bits of cellophane, the glittering fliptops from beercans, and try to carry them home to their holes...            

Some of the mystifying and dangerous debris proves useful—eternal batteries which power automobiles—but the scientists never know if they are using the devices for their proper purpose, or employing (as it were) Geiger counters as hand-axes and electronic components as nose-rings. They cannot figure out the principles of the artifacts, the science behind them. An international Foundation sponsors research. A black market flourishes; "stalkers" enter the forbidden Zones and, at risk of various kinds of terrible and painful death, steal bits of Visitors' litter, bring the stuff out, and sell it, sometimes to the Foundation.            

The implied picture of humanity is not flattering. In the traditional first contact story, communication is achieved by courageous and dedicated spacemen, and an exchange of knowledge, or a military triumph, or a big-business deal ensues. Here the aliens were utterly indifferent to us if they noticed our existence at all; there has been no communication, there can be no understanding; we are scarcely even savages or packrats—we are just garbage. And garbage pollutes, ferments. Corruption and crime attend the exploration of the Zones; disasters seem to pursue fugitives from them. A superintendent of the Institute thinks, "My God, we won't be able to do a thing! We don't have the power to contain this blight. Not because we don't work well.... It's just that that's the way the world is. And that's the way man is in this world. If there had never been the Visitation, there would have been something else. Pigs always find mud."            

The book built on this dark foundation, is lively, racy, and likeable. It is set in North America—Canada, I assumed, I am not sure on what evidence—which may have some relevance to the economics of exploitation shown at work, but very little otherwise; the people are just ordinary people. But vivid, alive. The slimiest old stalker-profiteer has a revolting and endearing vitality. Human relations ring true. And there is courage and selflessness (though not symbolised by power, wealth, or a Star Fleet uniform) in the protagonist, Red, a stalker, a rough and ordinary man. Humanity is not flattered, but it isn't cheapened. Most of the characters are tough people leading degrading or discouraging lives, but they are presented without sentimentality and without cynicism; the authors' touch is tender, aware of vulnerability.            

Judging from Hard to Be a God, The Final Circle of Paradise, and this book, the Strugatsky brothers are immensely versatile writers; the traits common to all three books are rather subtle: a quality of good humor; of compassion; of emotional honesty. The "premise" of this one, the picnic-litter idea, could have lent itself to easy sarcasm, or to wishful thinking, or to sensationalism. There is irony, yearning, and adventure in the book, but it does not stick in any one vein; it is a novel. Complex in event, imaginative in detail, ethically and intellectually sophisticated, it is, in the last analysis, the story of a particular person, an individual destiny. Red is not an interchangeable part, as the protagonists of idea-stories are. It's his book. His salvation is at stake. The landscape has changed greatly, but see, there, that's Mt. Dostoyevsky, and there's the Tolstoy Range....            

The end, the very end, leaves me brooding. Is it a spiritual victory, or a raising of the irony to the next power? Perhaps both; for Red, epiphany and spiritual liberation; for humanity—what? "HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED"....            

There is an interesting parallel between Roadside Picnic and a book of Stanislaw Lem's, Glos Pana, written in 1967 and not yet available in English, though a 1976 French translation is available from Editions Denoel, Paris, La Voix du Maitre. The book is set in a top secret research facility in the Western American desert; its narrator and all its characters are scientists, set to work on decoding an accidentally (?) intercepted message from the stars. The problem is thus presented "from the top," intellectually (there are many parallels with the Solaristics chapter in Solaris), rather than "from underneath," emotionally; but it is very much the same problem:

The myth of our cognitive universalism, our capacity to receive and understand extra-terrestrial, hence totally new, information, remains unshaken, even though, having received a message from the stars, we did no more with it than a savage who, having warmed himself at a bonfire of all the greatest scientific books, congratulates himself on having put his discovery to the best possible use. [p 43; my translation]

This "myth of our cognitive universalism" is of course a central theme in Lem's novels. His handling of it in this book is extremely interesting, particularly in contrast with the Strugatsky story. The message from the stars is, it appears, a letter of instruction, the description of an "instrument"; neither the instructions nor the purpose of the "instrument" are fully comprehensible to the human mind; but the senders of the message, envisaging this possibility, have built in precautions against the misuse of the instructions, or part of them, as weaponry (which is of course what the Government is hoping to get from the project). It is impossible to make a bonfire of these books.            

Nature provides no such precautions; nature is helpless against—indifferent to—the use we make of what we discover. The senders of the star-message are not indifferent; no error, misunderstanding, or ill intention can pervert their "instructions" to a destructive end. When the narrator says that, in realising this, he has "touched, for a moment, their grandeur," he means moral grandeur.            

In the Strugatsky book, the Zones, though dangerous, are unprotected; the alien visitors were as indifferent as the rest of nature to our safety. Moral choice, moral corruption or grandeur, is left up to humanity.            

Lem's narrator is left defeated and humbled: he sees mankind as having failed the test. The Strugatskys' hero "passes the test," but it was not sent him by any conscious agent. His triumph is purely personal, a victory over himself; one cannot believe that he really has won "HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE." Both books are profoundly sad, but what is dry and bitter in Lem is both rougher and tenderer in Roadside Picnic.

The second half of the Strugatsky book, Tale of the Troika, is not a novel but a tale, in the classic Slavic-Central European mode, Gogol through Ilf & Petrov through Lem et al.: the Send-Up of the Bureaucracy. Verbal fireworks, desperate wit, fierce absurdity. To turn a scream of pain and outrage into a belly-laugh, there's courage! But it is a light-handed courage, the heroics of the high-wire dancer. In my favorite passage, a decrepit inventor presents to the Inspectors his Heuristic Machine, which will provide the answer to any question whatsoever. The Heuristic Machine consists of a 1906 Remington typewriter "in fairly good condition," and the inventor. Its operation is beautifully simple: you just ask it a question, and the inventor hastily types out the answer. The answers, as might be expected, are rather peculiar, and contain a good many misspellings and typographical errors, which the Machine angrily defends and the inventor stubbornly repeats. "'Insade!' the old man whispered. 'Look insade, where there's an analyser and a thinker!'"            

I cannot judge the accuracy of the translation, by Antonina W. Bouis, but the English is flexible, colorful, spirited, and gives one no sense at all of reading a translation. I hope Macmillan will give us more Strugatsky and more Bouis as soon as possible.

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