Roadside Picnic Review

or, why the Strugatskys are better than H.P. Lovecraft

In his talk/rant about the AI-risk crowd, Maciej Cegłowski mentioned that what a lot of us need is to read better (meaning, Slavic) science fiction. This probably wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously, but I stored it away regardless. I had actually already read Lem’s Solaris even before Maciej’s post, and it was one of my favorite books, but his other suggestion, the Strugatsky brothers, totally slipped my mind for a while.

It was only after I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation that this came back to me when several commenters mentioned it was quite similar to the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic. A few went so far as to say it was a ripoff. A bunch of dangling mental threads came together all at once at this point: I knew that Stalker was based on a book, but didn’t realize it was this one, and since I love both Stalker and Annihilation, and taking Maciej’s advice, I knew I had to get my hands on Roadside Picnic.

And it was good! I think in terms of enjoyment I liked Annihilation better, but Roadside Picnic is probably the better piece of literature.

I don’t agree with the people saying Annihilation rips it off. The basic premise is the same— a hazardous Eldritch Location (danger! TVTropes link) that defies the laws of physics and serves as a metaphor for the limits of our scientific knowledge— but the tone and thematic focus of the two books is totally different, and it’s not such an unusual setup that two authors couldn’t have come up with it independently. But the differences between the two are where things get interesting, at least for me.

The copy of Roadside Picnic I got has a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin, where she (like Maciej) holds it and Solaris as foil to the perceived triumphalism and logical positivism they say are endemic to Western science fiction. The claim is that Western SF authors tend to feature Bold Men of Science whose intellects eventually overcome any and all obstacles. Meanwhile, in Solaris and Roadside Picnic, it’s pretty well established that mankind can’t hope to understand the alien artifacts put in front of it, and in neither book does the protagonist ever have any serious hope of solving the mystery.

“Wait!”, I can hear you say, “The Western canon deals with this subject all the time - just look at H.P. Lovecraft! Especially now at his renewed popularity in the Internet Age.”

But I would argue that Lovecraft and the Cosmic Horror genre actually solidify Le Guin’s argument. I mean, the whole premise of Cosmic Horror— that literally nothing is more terrifying than finding limits of our knowledge and things that are just fundamentally beyond our understanding— is only horrifying if, before you started reading, you already had a modernist, positivist belief in the Power of Science. Otherwise it’s not scary in the least. Characters in Lovecraft stories famously go insane when they realize the impossibility of comprehending the Alien Thing; in Lem and the Strugatsky’s novels, they just kind of shrug it off and get on with their messy human lives. It’s the difference between “We’ll never understand this - oh no!” and “We’ll never understand this - oh well. Time for a drink.”

And let’s be honest: the latter approach is more realistic. Give humans some credit! Our minds are pretty flexible. The whole “going mad from the Forbidden Knowledge” trope makes for good dramatic tension, but it’s not actually how our brains work. We’re good at handling this sort of thing. If it actually happened that an alien Zone sprung up with totally impossible physics that thwarted the best efforts of scientists and engineers to understand it, Roadside Picnic is probably a good approximation of what would actually happen: those scientists would get headaches trying to figure it out, but nothing a stiff drink couldn’t handle. Besides, they can’t figure out how to unify gravity and quantum mechanics either, and no one has gone insane from that. Meanwhile there’d be scavengers and thrill-seekers sneaking into the place for profit or for the hell of it, and if it really was so dangerous that no entry whatsoever could be permitted, we’d probably just put police tape around it and call it a day. No need to get dramatic.

Between Maciej’s writing, and my own experiences of the past few years, I’m finding myself increasingly sympathetic to the idea that there’s something kind of sinister lurking underneath the widespread fandom for Cosmic Horror… but that’s a very long post that will have to wait for another day.

What I’ll close out with instead is just my thoughts on Roadside Picnic: it’s a very human novel, where the Zone is really just background set dressing and what we’re really here for is a window into the psychology of the protagonist and their journey. Annihilation tried to do this as well, but if it has one failing (and again, I want to emphasize that it’s still a fantastic book), it’s that I don’t think it quite pulled it off. Or maybe that was intentional and the point was that there wasn’t much there to the Biologist, but still.

Written on October 21, 2017