Happy New Year all!
Inspired by Zarf’s yearly book review, I’m going to try to write a few lines on the books I read as I finish them. (We’ll see how long this lasts.) I’m not going to try to write full reviews, just a few notes.
So after sending twelve 50-litre boxes of books to Greece, I found myself in need of comfort reading over the silly season. Roadside Picnic won’t fit the bill for most people, but it’s familiar enough after many re-readings that it works for me.
Roadside Picnic is smart and thoughtful SF, using the tropes of the genre to say things and ask questions about real humanity. It’s got great sensawunda: the picture of humanity as very small and unimportant in a cosmos where lots more is going on. It’s also utterly, totally, unmitigatedly bleak and brutal, and very clever.
This time around I picked up on a new detail. The setting is that Earth has been struck by a series of “visitations”: areas where strange objects crash-landed from outer space, with even stranger conditions and effects arriving with them. (My favourite is that whenever someone emigrates from a visitation zone, the place they move to starts attracting extremely unlikely levels of natural disasters and accidents.) The roadside picnic theory says that the monumental effects these objects are having on humanity are comparable to the effect on an ant colony if a party of friends stops for a picnic, leaving behind cigarette butts, empty beer cans, a lost lighter, uneaten sandwiches, and so on. “Damn you scientists,” says one character in response to the this theory. “Where do you get your contempt for man? Why are you always trying to put mankind down?” And in the same conversation, he asks the scientist who proposed the picnic theory, “Suppose that man meets an extraterrestrial creature. How do they find out that they are both rational creatures?”
The answer, I realised on this read-through, neatly encapsulates about a semester’s worth of philosophy course:1
“Everything I’ve read on the subject comes down to a vicious circle. If they are capable of making contact, then they are rational. And vice versa; if they are rational, they are capable of contact. And in general: if an extraterrestrial creature has the honor of possessing human psychology, then it is rational.”
Smart folks, those Strugatskys.
- “Radical Interpretation, Hermeneutics, and Forms of Life” to be precise. [↪]