I read Roadside Picnic and I saw Stalker


“The inspiration for the film Stalker and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games”, read the front-cover copy of the recent edition of Roadside Picnic I read — a fresher translation from the Strugatsky brothers’ original Russian, apparently, than the one last published in the U.S. some decades ago. The idea to read it came to mind quite obliquely a couple of months ago, following a path including but not limited to my learning of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films via the video game The Witness earlier this this year.

While I seem to have lost my notes about Roadside Picnic, I do recall it as a fast and easy read. I loved its setting, which has surely inspired many more games and films than the two direct adaptations listed on the cover. The novel’s central conceit studs the world with lingering “Zones” that exist many years after a brief and ill-defined visit by never-seen space aliens. They left behind piles of refuse in the forms of miraculous artifacts of completely opaque purpose, and bizarre energy fields that warp local physics. To wander into a Zone unprepared is suicide, and so a sub-culture has sprung up of “stalkers” — desperados who risk their lives and flout the law in order to raid the Zones, seeking loot to sell, and building up maps and codexes of routes and secrets and survival techniques. Stalkers refer to each other only by goofy callsign-style nicknames, and they’re all extremely miserable people.

Having established this setting, Roadside Picnic tells several stories as vignettes from the life of ever-tragic protagonist Red. An expert stalker, Red makes his work a real pleasure to watch — even though he hates the Zone, and he hates himself for feeling more at home there than with his own family, even while it’s trying to kill him. (To this extent, he rather reminded me of Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker.) The modularity of this storytelling style all but begs other creators to borrow the same setting for their own ends.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker, then, feels like another story set in the same world, maybe surrounding a different Zone. (Roadside Picnic seems set somewhere in North America, but Stalker happens in Eastern Europe.) Instead of the book’s use of an abandoned but haunted industrial town, the film’s Zone encompasses a lush environment, so green and wild that the film stock explodes with color Wizard of Oz-style when the adventuring party arrives, after a dour and washed-out prologue. (A Twitter-friend coincidentally watched the movie just as I did, and noted how it made him want to re-read the Southern Reach trilogy.)

The movie sees a stalker lead two “tourists” with their own agendas through this Zone, whose allure is not caches of alien technology surrounded by deadly traps, but a magical wish-granting room couched in layers of dangers so strange and subtle that the threat they pose never really becomes clear. To risk a spoiler: Nothing happens. Between Tarkovsky’s mastery of the medium and my own expectations — based, if nothing else, on having watched umpteen seasons of Lost — I felt tense right up until the end, waiting the whole time for something terrible, and then I laughed, because yeah okay.

We do get an intriguing and lengthy epilogue that suggests that Stalker’s world does have room for the supernatural, but the blind adventurers just didn’t know where to look for it — each bundled up too tightly in their own convictions, perhaps.

Both book and film are about as old as I am, and the former shows it more. The exclusive masculinity among not just all the characters in Roadside Picnic but everyone in its whole world (other than “girls” used as props) felt some combination of dated and other-cultured, but also wholly separable from what made the book interesting. I ended up using the particular brand of doomed and self-hating masculinity espoused by Red, the sole point-of-view character, as an aid to digestion. I imagined the novel’s woman-free world as not the literal truth of its reality, but rather the sad and diminished reality that broken-macho Red chose to see. Maybe not quite the authors’ intent, but it worked for poor Red and me both.

I read: 1491


I think I heard about this book on a podcast some time ago? I knew its precis: recent anthropological studies suggest that Native Americans lived all over this continent in vast numbers in the centuries before Columbus, scarcely resembling the image of here-and-there villages of tribesmen that both the author and I grew up with. (In the book’s introduction, Charles Mann describes his motivation for writing in the disgusted disappointment he felt when discovering his sons’ history textbooks filled with the same outdated falsehoods about pre-Columbian civilization that he’d been taught.)

Growing up in New England in the 1980s, I learned about American Indians primarily as the scattered bands sometimes friendly to “the Pilgrims” and other early European settlers, sometimes not. I had to memorize (for a brief time) the names of their many local tribes, with little attention given to their fate after the American Revolution. As an young adult in the 1990s, media like Dances with Wolves and the Alvin Maker novels created a guilt-ridden continuation of that story, casting these tribes as proud but doomed martyrs who lived sparsely on the American plains and accepted their fate nobly as rapacious westward-marching white men drove them, defenseless, to near-extinction. When I heard about 1491, I felt ready to learn about ancient Native Americans as anyone other than a people who made no mark on history besides dying cinematically.

Death still plays a huge and terrible role in the updated history that this book collects, but shifts it centuries before the era of Manifest Destiny. In short, archaeological evidence up and down the American continents — as well as written observations of middle-millenium visitors from Europe, studied with fresh eyes in a new light — suggests a new story of whole civilizations every bit as complex and populated as their Old World counterparts.

Likely descended from bands who walked east out of Asia prior to that hemisphere’s Neolithic Revolution, the peoples of ancient America had to start their own tech-tree from scratch, and they followed it along broadly recognizable but often fascinatingly divergent directions. If their engine of invention didn’t turn quite as fast as Europe’s, we can perhaps ascribe it to their having fewer diverse trading partners to mix ideas with. (Yes, I did read this book through the lens of an avid Civilization player. Look, it’s a great game.)

By the book’s titular year, the continents thrummed with a number of American Indian civilizations with their own histories, conflicts, and national ambitions. When Europeans show up, Mann casts the event as alien invasion: the people of the known world (from the Indians’ perspective) already had to deal with all the complex political drama of any functioning power, and now this? And for their part, the visitors had all sorts of motivations too; not all European visitors were stomping Conquistadors bent on subjugation. Many achingly tantalizing written records exist of trade and treaties between the two worlds; ancient Indians might not have had ocean-crossing technology, but they knew how international politics and diplomacy worked, infinitely more than the naive chumps I learned about as a kid.

But then, no matter how good or evil their individual intentions, the Europeans always unwittingly brought smallpox with them. Over the course of just a few generations it did what smallpox does to any dense human population with no natural resistance (or knowledge of germ theory). The handfuls of American natives that 20th century schoolchildren learned about were — modern records strongly suggest — post-apocalyptic survivors, a human remnant of what had been before.

Here lies a new and terrible tragedy: while American Indians live on as a people, their ancestors’ civilization — their whole new world of civilizations, whose unique histories and cultures should by all rights have traveled and traded and intermingled with Europe’s and Asia’s in ways we can only dream about? It died, it all died, robbing the world of something forever unknowable. Only lately do we start to understand these buried histories and lost potential better, and it’s amazing, and it hurts.

I really liked this book, written engagingly by someone with both a clear passion and a personal connection to the subject matter. Mann clearly followed a mandate to use an impressively broad range of sources from academic journals to interviews, and as often as possible includes work by and voices from modern Indians. I read an original edition from 2005, and am led to understand that more recent editions include updated material.

An anecdote on the different contexts of noninclusive language


Last night, as the spouse of a civilian employee of the U.S. Naval War College, I attended an evening of lectures covering topics of interest to the college. This included a summary of USNWC’s role with America’s military allies, a history lesson about the foundational naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and a summary of unclassified U.S. military intelligence regarding China (particular, naturally, to China’s burgeoning navy and increasing sea-borne interests).

I found all the talks quite interesting for different reasons. The latter talk about China mixed in feelings of slight alarm, not because the speaker described a grave threat (as he cast it more of what we might call a “Nation of Interest”), but because he spoke so freely about the Chinese. “What do the Chinese want?” stood as the talk’s central question, and in so many words. The speaker easily made remarks speculating about the myriad plans and motivations of “the Chinese”, based on decades of careful observation.

And for long minutes I fidgeted in my seat, suppressing a desire to swivel around, counting how many folks of Asian descent attended the evening, so I could better gauge how dreadfully embarrassed I should feel. All the while a social-media trained voice in my head stood agog, yelling “Oh my god, ‘What do the Chinese want?’ Do you have any idea how racist that sounds? Why don’t you ask them, you dingleberry?”

But as the talk continued it become clear to be that by “the Chinese” the speaker did not mean “the Chinese citizenry” and certainly not “all Chinese people everywhere”. Rather, he applied the label in precisely the way that the computer game Civilization uses it: as the name of a single player in what a global military power unavoidably and only semi-metaphorically sees as the greatest and most real of all games.

In the context the lecturer spoke from, “the Chinese” is the name of a monolithic power, which — like all global powers, when considered from a sufficient height — acts with a unified mind and purpose. And when the relationship between two such powers is as frosty as that between the United States and China, how natural for the military-intelligence apparatuses of either to speculate about the psychology of the other as an individual entity.

Having reframed it like a game-player, I found myself able to chill out and enjoy the remainder of the lecture. Incidentally, the answer to What do the Chinese want? is: food, energy, and security. That’s all I was able to learn at my clearance level, anyway.