Like so many, I suspect, I first became aware of this book when I was learning something about the life and career of the Russian film maker Andre Tartovsky, as he based the best part, as in all of it, of his movie Stalker on the later chapters. First published in 1971 the book has been translated into many languages and seems to have influenced and inspired a couple of generations of writers and thinkers. The Brothers Strugasky came up with this tale of otherworldly tech left behind after a brief unexplained visit by extraterrestrials who changed the locations of their visit, turning them into hazardous "zones ". A stalker is the name given to guides whom it is possible to hire who will take the inquisitive or the scientifically curious around these areas. Risking all manner of known but mostly unknown dangers...
Oh yes, the aliens came and went, without introducing themselves, leaving behind all manner of inexplicable detritus, most of which proved to be incredibly dangerous. possibly discarded and no longer needed alien junk, possibly a breadcrumb trail of civilization altering technology. the applications for using the alien tech require a degree of reverse engineering absolutely laced with danger. the enviroment itself, the zones the aliens touched down upon, has become altered, the seemingly ordinary locations subtly laced with unnatural otherworldly booby traps. Plant life becomes poisonous, bizarre cobwebs trail killing silently all they brush against, watery glowing pits disolve human bone and terrible plagues lurk in abandoned properties. Its a surreal landscape with quietly lethal pathways and dangerous routes only the lunatic dare explore. It t'was ever so....
I remember a while back hearing this book referenced in an Adam Curtis documentary. The actual reference escapes me as I type this but it was no doubt labyrinthine. And while reading it I was reminded of the Alex Garland scripted movie Annihilation, which also used the notion of a landscape being altered by the presence of aliens. It is quite possible he used it as a point of reference, a bassline genre jump starting point. There were in that movie some very striking landscapes, their realisation of the shimmer. And there have certainly been similar ideas explored during a number of episodes of Russel T Davis Torchwood, as all manner of dangerous alien tech came tumbling through the rift over Cardiff. Creating horrific scenarios involving the unwary or the just plain greedy. as the very mad and bad and dangerous to know Torchwood operative Suzie Costello put it about all the stuff that came tumbling out of the rift " its all the shit of the universe..."
When it comes to the notion of first contact we cannot hope but aspire to transcendence. Perhaps we should lower our expectations. When one considers the history of first contact between indigenous races and those of more advanced civilizations, the scorecard remains dangerously and sadly one sided. Imagine a little curious bunny attempting to reverse engineer a myxomatosis dispenser. Even if it manages to work out how not to use it, the margin for error places it in a very dangerous position.
Talking about some of the more outre aspects of this book should not distract from one of the truly striking elements of its inception. It is quite beautifully written, achingly humane in places, Caught up in the shock of the new. some rise to meet expectations, others fall, as in fall short.
the zones" of Roadside Picnic discover.