Roadside Picnic & Chernobyl

Roadside Picnic & Chernobyl
Image: Andrew Liptak 

A show I recently watched is HBO’s Chernobyl, and I’ve become positively addicted to it. It’s a chilling, 5-episode miniseries about the nuclear disaster at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, with an interesting take on the disaster: it’s about the events that led up to the disaster, for sure, but it’s also about the layers of lies and deception that was part of Soviet society. After watching the series, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another Russian story: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

The brothers are possibly the best-known science fiction writers to come out of the Soviet Union, and published Roadside Picnic in 1972 — well before the Chernobyl disaster. But despite that, there are some parallels to the aftermath of the incident.

The novel opens with an explanation of an event known as “The Visitation.” Earth was visited some sort of extraterrestrial presence at six different locations. Nobody saw the arrival or departures, but they’ve left behind zones that exhibit strange properties and technologies. The book follows a man named Redrick “Red” Schuhart, who’s a Stalker — someone who goes into a zone in the pursuit of technology that he can flip on the black market.

The idea behind the book is that the zones could be thought of as a picnic on the side of the road: you stop your car, get out, eat, then leave, leaving behind a number of items that you might have discarded. The ants on the side of the road can’t comprehend what these items are, and the aliens essentially don’t recognize the ants as anything other than ants.

Writing in the Survey of Science Fiction Literature, Sam J. Lundwall writes that “much of the novel is actually a tale of self-fulfilling prophecies, with the aliens acting as catalysts, untouchable and incomprehensible gods who can only be glimpsed through the effects of their unpredictable litter. This is a rather ironic view of humanity, groveling before the discarded trash of unknown cosmic travelers and finding esoteric meaning in this junk.”

The book is a brilliant read, going beyond your typical alien invasion or visitation novel, and over the course of the novel, Red is after an elusive prize: a golden sphere that may or may not exist, but which would grant its user wishes. The zones are dangerous places, and it’s impossible to read the book now and not think of them as being similar to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (or the Fukushima Exclusion Zone in Japan, for that matter). The parallels to Chernobyl comes in another way: it’s a window into a very different mindset and vision of what humanity is capable of. Just as Roadside Picnic isn’t your typical alien invasion story, Chernobyl isn’t exactly disaster porn: it’s a fantastic meditation on the value of truth.