Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Roadside Picnic

I went old school recently. Maybe not as old school as Capek's War With the Newts (on my to read list), but old school nonetheless. 70's era Russian scifi by the Sturgatsky brothers. Translated literature is always a bit strange, and Roadside Picnic was no exception. It just didn't flow as well as I'd hoped, and it was obvious that Russians from the 70's thought just a little differently than I do. The idea that aliens may have dropped in and left behind piles of crap that is incredibly valuable and dangerous is just a great idea. But when the holy grail of refuse is a dream granting machine and the main character is willing to sacrifice another character's child to the guardian nasties in exchange for world happiness. At that point it gets a little strange and seems to cross over from scifi into political commentary, although it's difficult to pinpoint what the Sturgatsky's are criticizing or postulating. Perhaps the idea that what we (in their case, the Soviets) might think of as science is nothing compared to what might be ahead, and that it isn't science that's going to create a better future, even the best science that's so out there it might as well be magic, but human dedication and hope.

I thought it was interesting that in the Wikipedia article they state that gleaners around Chernobyl are known as stalkers, just as the gleaners are in Roadside Picnic.

Tale of the Troika is one of the most amazingly weird stories I've ever read. There's a big tower, thousands of stories tall, and growing. It's full of all sorts of magical and scientific wonders. Full cities, talking bedbugs, strange black boxes, and that's only by floor 70-something. And there are three individuals, the troika, who are ruling one floor and making all sorts of decisions about what's allowed to exist and what is not. And they're sort of insane. And there are scientists trying to deal with them, one of them visible, one invisible. And they've teamed up with a talking bed bug, Gabby, who is trying to forge a new era of cooperation between humans and bedbugs (the troika just wants to squish him). And they've brought a machine with them to make the troika act differently, a humanizer that "repressed primitive urges in the person subjected to its rays and brought to the surface and directed outward all that was rational, good and eternal...Eddie managed to cure a philatelist, return two out-of-control hocky fans to the bosoms of their familes, and bring a chronic slanderer under control."

Did I mention the abominable snowman, Fedya? At one point he reminisces about his clavichord and how beautiful it is up in the mountains. But what he doesn't like are "mountain climbers with guitars." "You can't imagine how terrible it is, Eddie, when in your own quiet mountains, where the only sound comes from avalanches and then only occasionally, you suddenly hear someone start strumming away and singing about some guy whose love is lost in the misty mountains. It's a disaster, Eddie. Some of us get sick from this, and the weaker ones actually die."

While Roadside Picnic had some politics, Tale of the Troika seems to be nothing but politics. I think it must have been pretty out there in the Soviet Union of the 70s, as it criticizes government ineffectiveness, labor, science, and all manner of things I slightly remember as being important from my history classes 20 years ago. Just the idea that the government deciding something is a nonissue to the point that it ceases to exist in reality is snarky. Maybe the bedbug, tower, and abominable clavichord are just dressing to make sure the story was perceived as absurd, rather than pointedly critical.

1 comment:

BiggTree said...

If you like weird Russian lit, read The Master and Margarita