Several months ago, I read this post on io9 about a new translation of a Russian science fiction novel called Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.  The premise sounded intriguing, as well as the fact that the story had been adapted into a 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film called Stalker and a series of  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games.  So I checked the book out of the library, and I have to say that it was one of the most unique science fiction books I’ve ever read.

Roadside Picnic

The idea of Roadside Picnic is very unusual — SOMETHING happened in an area which afterwards was called the Zone, and now the Zone is a mysterious, dangerous, and inviting place.  Most of the people who ventured into the Zone have died mysterious and horrible deaths, and the few who made it in and out alive came back with strange devices that appeared to be of otherworldly origin.  The people who were the most successful at getting in and out of the Zone started marketing themselves as “stalkers,” and offering their services to people who wanted to venture safely through the Zone.  But even though they were able to get in and out of the Zone alive, they weren’t unscathed.  One of the main ways that the damage manifested itself was through the stalkers’ children, who were all mutated in various ways.

So now let me answer the question of why this book is called Roadside Picnic.  It’s because, while they don’t know exactly what the SOMETHING was that happened, the prevailing theory is that a group of aliens stopped on Earth for a little while on their way to someplace else.  And in the area where they landed, the ground and the air and the laws of gravity were different now.  And those otherworldly devices that greedy humans now risk their lives to steal?  That was just some garbage that the aliens left behind.  It was like what would happen if a group of humans were driving down a road, pulled over to have a roadside picnic, and then took off again without cleaning up after themselves.

So yes, it’s a book in which aliens are vital to the plot … except they already left before we got to the first page.  I think that was a pretty brave choice on the authors’ part!

Anyway, I definitely recommend reading Roadside Picnic.  I also recommend watching the film Stalker, but for somewhat different reasons.

Stalker

First off, if you’re going to watch Stalker, get ready to set aside a serious chunk of time because it’s almost three hours long.  Also get ready to pay attention and focus.  There are long periods with no dialogue, and long periods that will require your brain cells to be awake and alert so that you’ll be able to process what people are saying.  I’m warning you about all of these things because about halfway through the film I zoned out and lost consciousness for a few minutes.

So the two questions you probably have are “How close is the movie to the book?” and “Why is the movie 163 minutes long?”  My answers would be “Mostly, but not entirely” and “Because Tarkovsky likes to take his time with EVERYTHING.”  No, seriously.  He ‘ll film a static scene of characters talking, and then zoom SLOOOOOOOOOWLY in or SLOOOOOOOOOOOOWLY out.  There will be a scene of (to give one example) a guy with his hair blowing in the wind, and instead of lasting for a few seconds it will last a minute or more.  Yes, it was definitely more atmospheric, but scenes like that made me aware that with some more editing this film might have been over in half the time.

But let me tell you why I recommend this film, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t entirely faithful to the book and it was longer than I would have liked.  It was frigging GORGEOUS.  Watching this film was like looking at a series of brilliantly conceived paintings (the cover of Roadside Picnic pictured above is just one example).  From scene to scene, I was staring at the screen and marvelling at just how composed everything was.  The scenery, the ruined buildings, the shadows, the use of light and color … really, the whole thing was stunning.  Which is a little odd, because for the first half hour I was wondering if Tarkovsky used black and white film instead of color film and just dunked it in a sepia tint.  But then little by little, colors start to appear, and it’s just a wonder to behold.  I also have kudos for the SOUND of this movie, which is something I hardly ever say because I hardly ever notice the sound unless it’s too loud or too quiet.  Anyway, the way the film incorporated very specific and unusual sounds (like hard-soled shoes stepping on broken rocks in a tunnel) was remarkably cool.  Oh, and FWIW, I’m not the only person who thinks this is an amazing film … this is one of the few films I’ve seen that actually has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

Walking Through the Tunnel

So to sum up, I recommend that you read the book first and then see the movie so that you’ll be able to fill in the gaps without having to make the film even longer.  I’ve also heard good things about the video games, but I never had a chance to play those.  And hey, if you’re a fan of anything from the Roadside Picnic universe, feel free to chime in!

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