new Roadside Picnic translation; Stalker compared

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's science fiction novel Roadside Picnic resurfaced last year in a new English translation. Highly recommended -- it's a much smoother read than the 1970s version's probably more literal transcription from the original Russian. If you haven't read either, the plot centers on a mysterious region of earth called The Zone, left behind after a visit by extraterrestrials who never communicated with us except by means of the junk they left behind, which one scientist hypothesizes might be the refuse of the titular "picnic" -- meaningless to the aliens but profound to us ants. "Stalkers" are humans who go into the Zone and comb through the aliens' garbage, which is full of lethal traps. Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker was loosely adapted from the book.

Some of the new translation's ease of reading comes from replacing '70s slang with current idioms (no one said "he was checking her out" back then, not that we really needed that) but there is also a conscious attempt to streamline the prose. What's missing is a certain poetry/difficulty/awkwardness that contributed to the feeling that you were reading a novel from a truly foreign culture, with different mores and certainly a different political system. The Strugatskys wrote the book as if it took place in the West (possibly the Pacific Northwest, either in the US or Canada) but its intrusive and bumbling bureaucrats seem very "Soviet" -- less so in the current version but the taint is still there. As for the missing poetry, for example, "mosquito mange" is now "bug trap." It's a much clearer and more accurate mental image of the phenomenon the Strugatskys describe -- invisible "graviconcentrates" that cause a body or thrown object in the Zone to move (or even be held in place) in a manner contrary to physical laws, as opposed to a parasite-borne skin disease -- but part of the pleasure of the original translation was wrapping your mind around strange phrases that correlated (or didn't) to unearthly phenomena beyond your comprehension.

That's what the book is about, and it's already suffered one major misinterpretation in Tarkovsky's film, or rather, self-misinterpretation, since the Strugatskys wrote that film's screenplay, several years after their book. Tarkovsky treats the novel as a religious allegory (and later claimed that the only thing the film had in common with the book were the terms "Zone" and Stalker") whereas the book is having none of that. What happens in the book's Zone -- a blighted area oddly prescient of the landscape around Chernobyl, filled with those eldritch artifacts -- may be strange but it's not subjective based on one's degree of religious belief, as it is in Tarkovsky's ambiguous film. The reader is veritably assaulted throughout the book with the objects, effects, and aftereffects of the Zone, described in minute detail. These range from benevolent technologies that the stalkers pull out at great personal risk, such as perpetual batteries, to highly dangerous products such as "hell slime" and "heat lamps," sought by criminals and unscrupulous governments, to behavioral horrors such as the mutant children of stalkers, the revived corpses from cemeteries near the Zone, or the epidemic of lethal bad luck that follows people who live too near the alien visitation area and later emigrate to other cities. The book asks how much we would change as humans in response to so much mystery and horror, or even what it means to be human when the Zone has seemingly limitless potential to transform us into something else.

Tarkovsky had no special effects budget (or desire to use them) so the "alien-ness" of the film's Zone is suggested with eerie synthesizer music and close-cropped shots of an exotically dilapidated, post-industrial landscape in the former Soviet Union. Nothing much happens in the movie, and our fear of the Zone is mostly a matter of pregnant silences and the lugubrious Stalker informing us how dangerous it all is. The movie has a "surprise" ending that tells us the Zone is real, which it greatly needed after two hours of watching three middle-aged men stumbling around the woods and confessing their anxieties. The movie's big payoff -- entering "the room" where supposedly any wish is granted -- is an anticlimactic shaggy dog tale. The movie even has a dog wandering around the Zone that accompanies the Stalker back to his squalid apartment (whereas animals in the book's Zone tend to be crushed flat). The movie exudes atmosphere and its sound and cinematography are stunning but -- let's say it -- it's no Roadside Picnic.