I Read A Book

Roadside Picnic

See, I’m not only about movies and video games. I read books too, you guys! Books like Roadside Picnic, the 1971 science-fiction novel written by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Granted, I only read this book because I played a video game (S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) based on a movie (Stalker) based on this book. But still.

There’s a long history in fiction of aliens visiting earth and either a) trying to destroy us or b) trying to help us. But what if they didn’t even seem to notice us?

That’s one of the ideas explored in Roadside Picnic, in which a brief — a few hours? a day? — extraterrestrial visitation occurs. The aliens leave behind otherworldly contamination and mysterious, often dangerous artifacts. Human scavengers, known as stalkers, enter these contaminated areas, called Zones, to collect and sell on the black market whatever alien trinkets they can salvage.

The title of the novel comes from the idea that the aliens were either completely oblivious to our presence or at least indifferent, much as we humans are to lesser animal life when stopping in a meadow for a picnic. We drive in, our tires bringing along mud or flora from other places we’ve been. We spread out our blankets, crushing blades of grass and disrupting the soil. We leave behind items the insects and birds may find useful (crumbs and bits of food), and others that may harm them (wrappers, trash, oil drippings from our cars, cigarette butts, etc). Then we leave, indifferent to the effect, good or ill, we’ve had on the tiny ecosystem we’ve just visited and barely noticed.

Just as an ant is unable to comprehend a candy wrapper, the humans in Roadside Picnic are largely unable to understand the artifacts the aliens scattered into the Zones. Some appear to be batteries, others may be containers, many serve no easily definable purpose. And, just as an ant might blunder into a puddle of oil, stalkers blunder into deadly otherworldly hazards: gravity vortexes that crush, slime that destroys bone, small electrical storms, bursts of flame, and an anomaly called a grinder that violently twists people into hamburger.

Most of the story revolves around a single stalker, named Red, who makes several successful trips into the zone yet still pays a price, losing companions and even altering his DNA. His ultimate goal is to reach a fabled artifact that can supposedly grant wishes. Other than two chapters, one in which a scientist is interviewed about the visitation, and one in which two scientists discuss possible explanations for the visit, the book focuses on Red over a period of ten years.

It’s a short, great book full of interesting ideas, and I really love the concept of aliens arriving on earth and either not caring about earthlings or not noticing us at all. Generally, whether hostile of friendly, alien visitations completely revolve around humans, either to destroy them, capture them, learn about them, help them, or inspire them. Here, there’s nothing like that. In Roadside Picnic, they don’t find us threatening, interesting, or worth knowing. They don’t find us at all.

Also note: there is the full text of this book online somewhere, but don’t look for it and don’t read it. Try to find this translation (it’s on Kindle now, and I found it in trade paperback at the library). It’s a million times better than the translation floating around on the internet.

I Read A Book

“The Terror” by Dan Simmons

Used to be that reading a book wasn’t a noteworthy accomplishment, but these days me reading anything not on the internet is pretty amazing. Plus, I read a fiction book, which is exceedingly rare for me, plus plus it’s a 766 page fiction book, or novel if you’re some kind of fancy pants. The point is: good for me.

The novel is “The Terror” by Dan Simmons, historical fiction horror, I guess, imagining the fate of the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, two old-timey ships that went looking for the northwest passage in 1845. In reality, the expedition did not go so well, and in this fictional version, it did not go so well even worse. Here’s some more bad news: I have no idea how to review a book, so I’m just going to say some things and hope I don’t sound like a complete moron.

In the novel, the two ships, carrying about 130 men, become stuck in the ice near Canada (this happened for real) for two years (also for real), and find themselves battling not just the extreme cold, frostbite, and a contaminated food and water supply (real), but also a mysterious and terrifying monster than begins stalking and killing them (this is the fiction bit). The book is broken into chapters told from the perspective of several of the crewmen, kind of A Game of Thrones style, a format that I think is pretty great. It lets events unfold without jumping around between multiple characters, but also lets you hear about these events later from another perspective. I dunno, I thought it worked well in A Game of Thrones, and it works well here, too.

Simmons seems to know his old-timey boat stuff; honestly, I’d have read a purely factual book about this expedition if he wrote it, because I like old-timey boat stuff. Like, I love submarine stuff in films if it’s done well, too. There’s a horror movie called Below, about a haunted submarine, and it’s not very good, but the submarine stuff is excellent. I watched it and I was like, “Please, forget the shitty ghost story, just keep doing submarine things and yelling submarine words at each other!”

Simmons also does a good job throwing in a lot of the elements I like to see in horror fiction:

1) Have the people in the story in an incredibly terrible situation. Forget about the monster: they’ll be lucky to survive even without a monster.

2) Add a monster.

3) Have one of the people in the situation wind up being way, way fucking worse than the monster.

4) Don’t play favorites: surprise me by killing people that I expect to live. This will make me think anyone can die, thus actually creating suspense.

5) Make the non-horror stuff interesting enough to get by on its own.

Stephen King was really good at these things in a number of his books, and Dan Simmons is good with them in this novel too.

In terms of Simmons’ monster, like I said, it’s almost kind of unnecessary: there’s enough horrible stuff happening without it. Plus, it’s not really scary, more gruesome, but no more gruesome than the other things happening. Plus, when you find out what it is, it’s kind of like, “Huh. Okie-dokie, then.” Also, if you have a monster in your book, describe it in great detail. Maybe I have no imagination, but when you keep describing it simply and vaguely as having a “triangular head,” I am basically just going to sit there picturing a literal triangle-headed monster. Like, flat with sharp points, and everything. And it looks really stupid in my head.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book! The ending went waaaaay out into left field, unsatisfying so, I think, but it’s only the very very end, so it doesn’t ruin the whole book or anything. If you like old-timey boats, and surgeons cutting off frost-bitten fingers, and a monster, and people writing in journals, and a book heavy enough to bludgeon cattle unconscious, there’s a lot to enjoy.