Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Trans: Olena Bormashenko), “Roadside Picnic” (1972, 2012); Leslie Stein, “Time Clock: An Eye Of The Majestic Creature Book” (2016); Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox), “Solaris” (1961, 1970, 2002)

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The key to understanding the underlying philosophy of Roadside Picnic is in the third chapter, the conversation between Noonan and Pillman, which is also an expansion on the interview with Pillman in the prologue. Noonan chastises Pillman for promoting theories that say the alien Visitors didn’t notice or care about the native population of earth, but simply dropped their stuff off and left without a thought. “Where do you get this disdain for man?” Noonan says; but in reality Pillman is not the one with disdain – as seen in his two relatively brief appearances in the book, he is simply skeptical about the idea that first contact occurs because of humanity or earth’s centrality, or that communication is a necessary outcome – as he explains in the prologue, the significance of the event is not the possibility of humans understanding the extraterrestrials, but that the possibility of life on other planets exists at all. He is the face of the ambiguous science fiction concept that provides the novel’s setting, not answering the questions we may ask about the nature of the technology, but telling us that it’s unimportant, that communication and understanding in this situation is unimportant. The only thing that matters is the expanding possibilities in the known universe. He acts as the Strugatskys’ contextualizing tool, but he doesn’t know much more than the readers about what the Zone is – that knowledge is beside the point.

Really, it’s almost every character other than Pillman that has disdain for man – specifically, Noonan’s “friend” Redrick, whose life as one of the Stalkers has driven him to completely reject all but a few people in his life, never realizing how much of his existence has been subsumed by the Zone until the end. Almost every relationship he has with the others on the edge of the Zone is paired with profound hate: hate for the authorities who try to prevent his scrounging, hate for his fellow Stalkers who are in a constant competition to see who can swindle the other, hate for anyone who knows less about the Zone then he does. We are in Rederick’s mind for most of the book, whether it be the introductory chapter where he is the narrator or the rest where he is picked apart but an omniscient one, and every thought seems to be fed by anger and disgust – his feelings about his destroyed hometown seems to melt away, any sentimentality buried by the realization that he has always had essentially nothing, and seems to want nothing. He seems to care for his family, but even that is undercut by his final thoughts in the closing chapter, his desire to owe no one – being a Stalker has become his sole source of meaning, beyond even his desire to make money, becoming the barest sort of survival drive. The significance of the Zone even begins to influence his family life, where two of the only people he shows affection for are casualties of the Zone’s malignant influence.

Redrick’s life is Exhibit A in Pillman’s theories about this story’s first contact – the very existence of the extraterrestrials and their technology becomes the most significant thing in his life, every action revolving around journeying in and out of the Zone or justifying his reaction to the authoritarianism and criminal greed that were themselves reactions to the visit. Many of the characters seem trapped in this cycle, trapped by how much the Zone has changed human civilization – and despite Noonan’s attempts, answers for what the Zone is and why it’s there cannot provide an escape from it. The only question that can seemingly be asked of it is “now that this stuff is here, what can be done with it?”, a question that is the driving force behind the stalkers and the scientists – but even that ends up having no possibility for conclusion.

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Continuing more or less directly from Stein’s previous Eye Of the Majestic Creature book, Time Clock moves the stories in the direction of small-scale internal conflict, a difficult attempt to balance what you want and what you think you want (complicated by what others want as well.) After spending most of the previous books drifting from job to job, Larrybear decides to get a more serious career going, the kind of structure that she seemed to be looking for in previous stories – there seems to be less of a sense of wandering, even when Larry does move to different settings, with a drive for predictability and security. The one big but brief change that occurs in the middle of the book is initiated with a big, dreamy flourish, pages of outdoor whimsy that contrasts the concrete urbanity of the rest – the one thing unifying both visuals, though, is their inability to affect Larry, who seeks some kind of fulfillment in two settings, the pastoral openness of the country and the tied-down structure of a New York job, but can’t seem to make it work. It’s an ambivalent streak that runs through the whole book in a way unlike previous Eye stories.

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Every story here also seems to have Larry become aware of how other people find solace with their passions while she struggles – she goes to a convention for her artistic calling, where she finds camaraderie with the other artists as well as a “nemesis” whose popularity and methods are the inverse of her situation, but after that point sit becomes increasingly difficult to find inspiration for her work. The move back to the country is spurred by her talking guitar’s increasing sense of isolation and his attempt to find his own calling – but while the move benefits him greatly, she has trouble adapting again and in a fit of low-key desperation goes back to her job and the city, seeking something to do other than constantly ponder what’s supposed to happen next. But no decision in this book is ever not fraught, always in some way tainted with regret – no matter how committed one is to their life choices, it always seems like there’s more good than bad and there’s always something better somewhere else. It’s a secret that everyone other than Larry has figured out, it seems, and by the end she seems to have become even more isolated.

In that way, I guess the wandering feeling of older Stein books isn’t entirely gone – but where before it seemed to contain possibilities, now it just feels lost.

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I decided to read Roadside Picnic because of the essay Lem wrote about it in Microworlds (wherein he attempts to come up with the most logical explanation for the whys of the technology, as Lem is wont to do), and it’s easy to understand why Strugatskys’ novel interested him: in its active refusal to show humanity understanding the signs of alien life, they are playing within the same realm of science fiction thought that Lem himself often did. Lem has often explored the difficulties of a true cultural understanding or exchange between species of wildly different evolutionary histories with vast differences in between, and while Picnic uses the unknown quality of the extraterrestrial presence mainly as a background element (an important one) without the depth of argument that Lem gives it in his own work, the strange incomprehensibility of the alien signs and the human reaction (how the limited nature of human cognition would lead to numerous assumptions as obsessive individuals attempt to crack the indecipherable code) is still very much in line with it.

Solaris is many ways the inverse of his other alien contact novel His Master’s Voice in that it involves humans visiting an alien “intelligence” rather than the alien intelligence being visited upon them. Long stretches of the book are devoted to recounting the history of scientific studies of the sentient ocean, the many theories about the hows and whys of its existence and what it can do and whether humans can communicate with it, volumes of study and debunked crackpot hypotheses that shift and change – Solaris becomes a vessel through which the scientific community displays the aforementioned limits of human cognition, bias and the herd mentality of consensus. Kelvin retreats to the vast library of Solaristic material as a way to further understand what is happening around him, but finds that even first-hand accounts and the words of his own mentor only suggest that Solaris can only be understood by humans in entirely subjective terms, a complicated act of interpretation that never reaches any conclusion. Each of the three human characters in the book have their own “visitors”, dealing with them in different ways after very similar initial reactions – subjective possibilities also seen in the reports Kelvin reads – the true picture of Solaris seems to be distorted because it appears in different forms to different people, contorting itself to their minds.

The most wondrous passages in the book describe the series of nature phenomenon that occurs in the ocean, large ephemeral monoliths and complicated acts of mimicry when humans arrive, which constantly straddle the line between deliberate acts of beautiful creation and mindless reactions to stimuli – the possibility of the latter, of course, making the ocean’s power to spontaneously form life and “read” the innermost minds of the station crew all the more disturbing. As an act of a cognizant being that can be benevolent, malevolent, or even just confused, doing something like physically manifesting Kelvin’s guilt into a independently intelligent being could be understood in human terms, but if it is able to do that unconsciously it is psychological violation and trauma without any purpose at all, and uncontrollable loosing of our own unconscious minds. This is the idea of God that Kelvin speaks to Snow about in the final chapter, a thing with the greatest possible power with no understanding of how to use it – what’s more interesting, or concerning, about this form of non-contact is not simply us being unable to reach another mind, but knowing that it can reach yours and reacts in its own inscrutable cosmic way.

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