Russians in July: Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers

I cannot thank my Russian friend enough for casually mentioning the Strugatsky brothers in conversation and how much she enjoyed reading them when she was younger. Following this conversation, I read their hilarious Monday Starts on Saturday and was hooked, while my friend started rereading her collection of their works (in Russian, so I can’t borrow them off her).

Roadside Picnic is very different to the previously mentioned book, much more serious and sinister, although it is also quite different from the famous film based on it, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It was a forbidden film during Communist times in Romania, so a bunch of friends watched it as a bootlegged video in the original Russian with no subtitles, so one of the friends (who was studying Russian at university) had to do simultaneous interpretation. Not the most auspicious circumstances to watch the film, but I can imagine it must be amazing on the big screen, full of brilliant photography and heavy symbolism, saturated in a sickly out-of-this-world colour. Apparently, the sickness was real, filmed as it was in a swampy location in Estonia which may have cost the lives of several of the people involved in the production, including Tarkovsky himself.

The book, however, is funnier, more exciting, faster-paced than the film. The film is all about inducing a sense of world-weariness and despair in the viewer, while the book introduces mystery, character development, several points of view and a longer time frame.

First English language edition of the book, in 1977.

The premise of the book is both interesting and heartbreaking. This is a contact tale with a difference. Aliens have landed on earth, found it utterly boring and unworthy of their interest, so left in a hurry, leaving behind something resembling the litter discarded after a roadside picnic. The places where they stopped are called Zones, and they are contaminated areas with mysterious properties, cluttered with artefacts that humans retrieve and examine and do not fully understand. The people who venture into this dangerous territory and often risk their lives in the process are known as Stalkers. Most of them are motivated by money, but our main protagonist, Red Schuhart, seems to be driven by something else. Curiosity? A need to help or protect others? Perhaps, in the final instance, since his own daughter (affectionately known as Monkey but displaing increasingly mutant traits that dehumanise her) has suffered the consequences of the Zone, it is hope that he can find a way to cure her…

… an idea, which had previously seemed like nonsense, like the insane ravings of a senile old man, turned out to be his sole hope and his sole meaning of life. It was only now that he’d understood – the one thing he still had left, the one thing that had kept him afloat in recent months, was the hope for a miracle. He, the idiot, the dummy, had been spurning this hope, trampling on it, mocking it, drinking it away – because that’s what he was used to and because his whole life… he had never relied on anyone but himself. And ever snce his childhood, this self-reliance had always been measured by the amount of money he managed to wrench, wrestle and wring out of the surrounding indifferent chaos… and that’s how it would ahve continued, if he hadn’t found himself in a hole from which no amount of money could rescue him, in which self-reliance was utterly pointless.

Because, among the artefacts in the zone, there is a Golden Sphere that is said to have the power to grant your dearest wish. In the final part of the book, Red and a young lad, the son of a former Stalker who claims to have a map to lead them to the Sphere, do indeed find it. And it looks underwhelming.

There was nothing about it to disappoint or raise doubts, but htere was also nothing in it to inspire hope. Somehow, it immediately gave the impression that it was hollow and must be very hot to the touch – the sun had heated it up. It clearly wasn’t radiating light, and it clearly wasn’t capable of floating in the air and dancing around, the way it often happened in the legends abou tit. It lay where it had fallen. It might have tumbled out of some huge pocket or gotten lost, rolling away, during a game between some giants…

Still from the film Stalker by Tarkovsky.

This fine dance between cynicism and hope, between indifference and empathy, lies at the heart of this remarkable work. It is impossible not to see the story as a political metaphor (although it is also remarkably prescient about Chernobyl, which took place just a few years later). The Zone can be interpreted as some sort of gulag, where everything is random and you suddenly get punished for the slightest lack of attention. It changes everyone who comes into contact with it. The people living around the Zone are first encouraged to settle elsewhere (like the Russians were encouraged to settle in various of the Soviet Republics, while a good proportion of the local population were exiled to Siberia). Later, they are no longer allowed to leave the local area, becoming prisoners in their own country. The final wish and promise of happiness for everyone is, of course, a direct satirical arrow aimed at the heart of Communist utopia.

Yet there are many more layers to the story here worth exploring: the ultimate unknowability of the human heart, the limits of science, the dangers of the quest for knowledge. What is goodness, what is evil, what does individual integrity mean in a society which is utterly compromised? All the big questions, in other words, but never in a dry, dull sequence of endless philosophizing. There are plenty of characters with rather dubious motivation, lots of interesting interaction between the characters, and a storytelling style full of black humour which might remind you of Kurt Vonnegut (whom the authors reference) or Raymond Chandler (the prose might be hard-boiled, but not quite as spare and minimalist).

Another still from the film.

Here is one more lengthy quote that I really enjoyed and made me think. It comes from one of the key dialogues in the book, between the Nobel laureate Valentine Pillman, and the rather shady businessman Richard Noonan. Yet in the end, the pragmatic and sly businessman is the one who cannot stare unflinchingly at the likely truth about alien contact and subsequent. He is the one who needs to believe that humanity is capable of more, that perhaps they are being tested.

‘How about the idea that humans, unlike animals, have an overpowering need for knowledge? I’ve read that somewhere.’

‘So have I,’ said Valentine. ‘But the issue is that man, at least the average man, can easily overcome this need. In my opinion, the need doesn’t exist at all. There’s a need to understand, but that doesn’t require knoledge. The God hypothesis, for example, allows you have an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything while knowing absolutely nothing… Give a man a highly simplified model of the world and interpret every event on the basis of this simple model. This approach requires no knowledge. A few rote formulas, plus some so-called intuition, some so-called practical acumen, and some co-called common sense.’

My Gollancz SF Masterworks 2012 edition of the book, in a new translation by Olena Bormashenko, also contains a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin, and an unmissable afterword by Boris Strugatsky, written in 2012. It evokes all the relief yet bewilderment of someone who has watched the whole world that they knew change beyond recognition in their own lifetime. Perhaps feeling superfluous?

At first I was looking forward to using this afterword to tell the story of publishing the Picnic: naming once-hated names; jeering to my heart’s content at the cowards, idiots, informers and scoundrels… being ironic and instructive, deliberately objective and ruthless, benevolent and caustic all at once. And now I’m sitting here, looking at these folders, and realizing that I am hopelessly late, and that no one needs me – not my irony, not my generosity, and not my burnt-out hatred. They have ceased to exist, those once all-powerful organisations with almost unlimited right to allow and to hinder; they have ceased to exist and are forgotten to such an extent that it would be tedious and dull to explain to the present-day reader who is who…

Except of course, what goes round comes round, and history is more cyclical than linear. Defunct organisations become powerful once more, or new ones are created. And ‘happiness for all’ is once more promised, and once more impossible to deliver.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, John Grant?

John Grant author photo (Meteor Crater, Arizona) (1)Nothing like shaking things up a bit, so it’s Wednesday rather than Monday this time for my customary questions about reading passions.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you today to a very prolific author and dynamic blogger, Paul Barnett. Under the name John Grant, Paul is an award-winning writer and editor, born in Aberdeen, Scotland but now living in New Jersey, USA. He has written more than twenty-five fiction books (mainly in the fantasy genre but also a couple of fantasy/crime crossovers) and non-fiction books on an eye-watering variety of subjects, such as Walt Disney’s animated characters, crank and corrupted science, fantasy and science fiction and, most recently, film noir. His second story collection, Tell No Lies, was published just before Christmas. He has won the Hugo (twice), the World Fantasy Award, and a number of other awards. You can find out more about John Grant and his books on his website, but I personally got to know him via his insightful reviews of films noirs. I was also delighted by his wry humour when commenting on this blog. You can also find Paul/John on Twitter @noircyclopedia.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

The first time I got hooked on crime fiction was probably through reading Sherlock Holmes stories during childhood. My mum tried to get me to read Father Brown stories too, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy them as much.

Another milestone came when, still during childhood, I went with the family for a short B&B holiday in the north of Scotland. It was one of those places where there wasn’t much to do except go look at the cemetery. Even this bit of excitement was out, though, because it rained the whole time. I swiftly worked my way through all the reading material I’d brought with me, and then discovered there was precisely one other book in the B&B, presumably left behind by a previous guest. That book was Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and I can remember being most reluctant to read it. Aside from anything else, it wasn’t science fiction, which had become my genre of choice by then. But it was either read the novel or watch the rain on the windows, so in I plunged . . . and loved it. It didn’t entirely break me of my science fiction habit, but it meant that from then on there was the occasional crime novel tossed into the mix.

What really did it was something silly. By my late teens I was an editor at a book publisher on London’s Fleet Street. More or less just across the road was the St. Bride’s Public Library, which naturally became a haunt. The UK publisher Gollancz used to publish all of its science fiction and crime fiction in uniform yellow covers, which made it easy for me to find the stuff. It wasn’t long before I worked my way through all the Gollancz sf in the place, so I thought I might as well give those other Gollancz yellowjackets a go . . . One protracted binge later, plus another binge on Wilkie Collins, and crime fiction had become an important staple of my leisure reading. These past few years, in fact, it’s become predominant.

JG's shelves 2Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m really not picky, to be honest. I try to make sure there’s a good admixture of translated work in there, just so’s I’m not always reading the same old, same old. I’m not hugely fond of modern cozies, although I do enjoy reading (or rereading) Golden Age mysteries, many of which are of course cozies. I like pulp hardboiled, although I haven’t yet read nearly enough of it to feel I’ve got a proper grasp of the subgenre. Scandi noir has become a favorite too, although I’m off it a bit at the moment having read a few over the past year or so that really didn’t impress me. I used to enjoy noirish urban fantasy until it became all werewolf detectives and nymphomaniac vampires. I’ve written a few stories in that fantasy/noir borderland myself (sans the werewolves and vampires, of course!).

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Oh, lordy, that’s a difficult one. I guess it would have to be Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read last autumn. I don’t know if it’s the best crime novel I’ve read recently, but it really spoke to me. It’s a very long book, but I devoured it in just three or four days and loved every minute of it. A good English translation (by Sam Taylor), too. Last year I was also impressed by Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death — another long book! — and blown away by my discovery of Karin Alvtegen.

But I’m not very good at ranking things. If you asked me this same question in just a few hours’ time, I’d be adding a few books, consternated because I hadn’t thought of them first time round.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author (crime fiction) to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’m not a great reader of series, although there are exceptions (Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks books). Usually, though, I prefer standalones . . . and even with series books I generally leave a long enough gap between them so that they become in effect standalones. The one big exception to all this is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I gravitate towards these not just because of their near-uniform excellence but also, at least in part, precisely because of the series context. Mixing with Steve Carella and the rest of the gallant boys of the old Eight-Seven feels like coming home to me. In later years McBain was able to play all sorts of games using the basic format as a substrate — Fat Ollie’s Book, for example, is a marvelous piece of metafiction as well as hugely entertaining and funny — but I like the earlier ones too, where you knew exactly what you were letting yourself in for. So, yes, that’s the series I’d take with me to my desert island. An additional advantage of this series is that it gives me lots of books to read! In fact, I’ve even written a crime/fantasy novella, The City in These Pages, as a (surreal) homage to Ed McBain.

All of that said, I’m not sure McBain is the single author I’d choose to take with me. He might just get pipped at the post by Wilkie Collins, another prolific writer. Collins’s novels, for all their ups and downs in terms of quality, have a capacity to engross me — in a very schoolboy way, really: mouth open, eyes wide, turning the pages eagerly . . . Besides, it’s far too long since last I read most of them, so they’d make a good choice.

JG's shelves 1What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

That’s another problematic one. My day job, as it were, is writing nonfiction books — such as (plug, plug) my recent YA book Debunk It! — and my research reading for these has to be pretty structured, as you can imagine. So I make it a matter of deliberate policy not to plan my leisure reading too far ahead. I have several bookcases full of stuff I haven’t read yet, and I enjoy browsing through these to select my next book on whim.

The big exception comes, of course, when I’ve borrowed books from the library. I know that I’ll soon be reading Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites, recommended to me recently, because it has to go back to the library soonish. I’m trying to cut back on my library habit a bit, though, precisely because I enjoy not knowing what’s the next book I’ll read until I actually pick it out.

We recently bought a tablet to use as an e-reader, so that’s likewise stuffed with goodies waiting for me. A lot of them are public-domain items from places like Gutenberg. A small part of the motivation for getting the tablet was that I’d become interested in expanding my horizons to encompass some of the mostly US crime/mystery writers of the early 20th century about whom until recently I’ve known virtually nothing: Isabel Ostrander, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart . . .

I also want to get round to having a second — and long overdue! — bite at G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Some fantasy/sf writers: Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones — both much missed — Tom Holt, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Charles De Lint. In nonfiction: Martin Gardner, Paul Davies. Others: George Eliot, George Gissing. I recommend my own books interminably, of course, but only to strangers who don’t know my home address and whom I think there’s little chance I’ll ever run into again.

Thank you very much, John (or should that be Paul?) for a very entertaining look at your reading passions and for adding a huge amount of new authors to my TBR list (and not just for crime fiction, either). I am glad to see some old favourites there too, such as Wilkie Collins, Ed McBain and Terry Pratchett. 

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. This series depends so much on your participation, so please, please let me know via Twitter or comments if you would like to share your criminal passions with us.

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Janet O’Kane?

JanetOkaneIt’s a real pleasure to welcome another avid crime reader and writer on the blog today: Janet O’Kane. Now happily ensconced on the Scottish Borders, Janet is not only a friendly voice and discerning reviewer on her blog http://janetokane.blogspot.co.uk/  and on Twitter under the handle @JanetOkane, she is also the only writer I know who keeps chicken. I ‘ve had the pleasure of interviewing Janet about her debut novel No Stranger to Death for Crime Fiction Lover. She kindly agreed to answer even more of my questions here today.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I dedicated No Stranger to Death to the person responsible for my love of crime fiction: my Mum. I remember climbing aboard the mobile library with her when I was small, thrilled to be choosing my books as she chose hers. She read historical and crime fiction and once I’d outgrown children’s books (there being no such thing as Young Adult literature back then), she introduced me to her favourite authors. I read all of Jean Plaidy’s historical novels but it was the so-called Queens of Crime – Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh – whose work captured my imagination. Agatha Christie was still writing at that time; I recall the arguments at home over who got to read her latest book first. Mum’s now in her 80s and still a huge crime fiction fan. When I last visited her, the pile of books next to her bed included ones by Mari Hannah, Denise Mina and Ann Cleeves.

Scottish crime pileAre there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

Maybe because I cut my teeth on traditional crime, I gravitate more towards police procedurals and psychological crime fiction than action-based thrillers. I can also see from my shelves that I’m biased towards UK writers (though I’ve recently been on a Scandi-crime binge), especially Scottish ones, although this has been a conscious decision because I live north of the Border now. That said, I’m open-minded and will try any author once.

What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Of all the books I read in 2014, two in particular stand out. The first is Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason. I’d not read any Icelandic literature before and it’s made me keen to try more. I’m a big fan of fictional investigations which delve back into the past to solve a present-day crime, and this is an excellent example of that type of story.

2014 was also the year I started downloading audio books, and I enjoyed another excellent novel this way: A Pleasure and A Calling by Phil Hogan. It’s an unusual tale of an estate agent who keeps the keys to every home he sells, so he can let himself in when the new owners are out. As well as being truly creepy, this novel has some very black humour in it, and I can’t understand why it’s not been hugely successful.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I think the complete works of Scottish crime-writer Christopher Brookmyre would keep me busy for some time and, very importantly, would make me laugh too. His debut novel Quite Ugly One Morning is among my all-time favourite reads, and I’ve enjoyed plenty of his subsequent books too.

scandicrime pileWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

I’m currently trying a new approach to reading, by choosing a different theme every month. So far I’ve done Scandi-crime and Scottish crime, and next up is books written by friends. I’m particularly looking forward to reading at least one of Dave Sivers’ Archer and Baines novels and Rebecca Bradley’s recently published debut, Shallow Waters.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

I have a fondness for science fiction, probably because, like crime fiction, it’s a broad genre which embraces many different types of stories. When I was a teenager I read all John Wyndham’s books and they’re still on my shelves. I reread The Chrysalids recently and found myself loving it all over again but for different reasons to when I was younger. I’ve also enjoyed I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and for my recent Open University degree I read several books by Philip K Dick, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What a delightful personal selection; this is what I love about this series, who’d have guessed that Janet O’Kane is a sci fi fan? So pleased to see that Phil Hogan’s delightfully subversive book gets a mention here – I too thought it deserved much wider recognition.

For previous participants in the series – and there have been some good’uns (only good’uns, to be honest), just follow this link. If you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions!