Opening Passages: From Roadside Picnic:
INTERVIEWER:...I suppose that your first important discovery, Dr. Pillman, was the celebrated Pillman radiant?
DR. PILLMAN: I wouldn't say so. The Pillman radiant wasn't my first discovery, it wasn't important, and, strictly speaking, it wasn't a discovery. It's not entirely mine, either.
INTERVIEWER: Doctor, you must be joking. Everyone knows about the Pillman radiant--even schoolchildren. (p. 1)
From The Inhabited Island:
Maxim opened the hatch a little way, stuck his head out, and apprehensively glanced at the sky. The sky was low and solid-looking, without that frivolous transparency that hints at the unfathomable depth of the cosmos and a multitude of inhabited worlds; it was a genuine biblical firmament, smooth and impervious. And this firmament, which no doubt rested on the shoulders of some local Atlas, was lit by an even phosphorescent glow. Maxim searched at its zenith for the hole punched through it by his ship, but there wasn't any hole, only two large black blots, spreading out like drops of ink in water. Maxim swung the hatch all the way open and jumped down into the tall, dry grass. (p. 3)
Summary: In Roadside Picnic, the earth has been traumatized by a strange event, commonly known as the Visitation, that has affected six areas on the earth, each a few square kilometers. Strange things began showing up in the Visitation Zones, like 'empties', which are two copper disks that remain, no matter what one does, a set distance apart from each other. Weird phenomena begin happening, like basements filling up with a toxic blue-burning 'hell slime', areas in which gravity stops acting correctly, ordinary objects begin doing unusual things. People who had been living in the areas are a little off; their children are often mutated and when they move away, the places become statistically worse off in ways that can't causally be traced to them, but are nonetheless too consistent to be accidental.
Redrick Schuhart, known as Red, is a 'stalker' living near the Visitation Zone at Harmont, in a country that is never identified but is English-speaking and has a few, but not many, British-y customs and phrases. A stalker is basically someone who smuggles things out of the Zones. Schuhart seems to be trying to some extent to get out of the business, but he goes into the Zone on a more legal ground to find an artifact; doing so leads to the death of his friend, who backs up against a spiderweb that apparently leads to a later heart attack, and Red seems never quite wholly to recover from this. And the Zone has its own lures, so, like a drug addict, he finds himself returning to stalking. While stalking with another stalker, Burbridge (also known as The Vulture), Red finds himself pushed to his limits when Burbridge accidentally steps into hell slime, which starts dissolving his legs. He manages to get out, with Burbridge and the slime sample that they were paid to retrieve, and, knowing that the sample is almost certainly going to be studied to create a terrible weapon, he turns himself in to the police. When he gets out, things keep dragging him back into the orbit of the Zone. Finally he enters the Zone to find the Golden Sphere, a legendary Visitation artifact that grants wishes, his last trip into the Zone.
A significant part of the story is the interaction between the human desire for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the effects of the Visitation, which, despite in some sense being wondrous, often seem more like arbitrary trash and toxic waste than like anything that anyone would intentionally leave anywhere. The conflict between desire for meaning and apparent meaninglessness grinds down everyone in its vicinity; the analogy with drug addiction, mentioned previously, is perhaps a good one in general, since it has similar psychological consequences for similar reasons: desire for meaning conflicts with apparent meaninglessness, eventually breaking the lives of those involved.
In The Inhabited Island, Maxim Kimmerer is an astronaut from a highly advanced Earth who due to a series of accidents finds himself 'washed up' on an undeserted planet. The planet has a number of features that unfortunately suggest that Kimmerer will be stranded a very long time. The planet clearly shows the aftermath of a nuclear war; however, the atmosphere has properties that mean that the inhabitants never learned that they lived on a planet in a galaxy of stars -- they think they live on the inside of a sphere, not the outside. Maxim has to give up his original plan to use local technology to contact Earth, and settles in for a long haul, eventually joining the Guards. Slowly he begins building a picture of this strange population, who live in poverty and on the perpetual edge of war but whose leaders, the Unknown Fathers, somehow manage to combine the incongruous features of being completely anonymous, totalitarian, and extraordinarily popular. Much of the domestic security of the nation is devoted to uncovering 'degenerates', who are marked out as getting terrible headaches whenever the rest of the nation is going through its daily periods of patriotic singing and enthusiasm for the Unknown Fathers. Some of them are just trying to blend in, but others are engaging in what rebellion they can. Their major attempts at rebellion consistent almost entirely of trying to tear down the anti-aircraft defense towers, which the Land of the Fathers builds in great supply, and, indeed, in far greater supply than would ever be needed for actual anti-aircraft defense. Of course, there is a deeper purpose for them, and Maxim, far more sane and mentally healthy than anyone else in the country, will find himself closer and closer to despair as he discovers every new layer of this seemingly perfect totalitarian system. How do you fight a government that is unknown, that can command the fanatical loyalty of almost all of its population, and that is entrenched in layers and layers of defenses?
It's tempting to think that political freedom is a matter of being free of tyrants, and certainly this is one element; but the twentieth century established securely that what chains are not tyrants but systems, and the system that is most dangerous to liberty and rights is without question the one that is so pervasive that nobody knows how it could be undone. The totalitarian goal is not to be 'in control'; the totalitarian goal is to be everywhere and inevitable. (And, as I've noted elsewhere, all modern governments of all kinds seem constantly to be tempted by this totalitarian temptation. Even structurally liberal governments seem to aim at entrenching themselves by making their policies pointless to resist.) If it is even only partially successful -- how do you resist what begins to approximate being everywhere and inevitable?
The Inhabited Island is very nicely structured; it starts out so innocuously that I wondered at first where it was going, but as the mysteries built in layers, it became increasingly engaging.
Favorite Passages: From Roadside Picnic:
There was nothing about it to disappoint or raise doubts, but there 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 about it. 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 -- it hadn't been placed here, it was lying around, just like all the empties, bracelets, batteries, and other junk left over from the Visit. (pp. 188-189)
From The Inhabited Island:
All the stories and legends that he had heard suddenly welled up in his memory, seeming very believable. They skin people alive...cannibals...savages...animals. He clenched his eeth, jumped up onto the armor plating, and stood at his full height. Then the one with the rifle comically shifted his short little bowed legs but didn't move from the spot. He merely raised his terrifying hand with its two long, many-jointed fingers, gave a loud hiss, and then asked in a squeaky voice, "Hungry?"
Maxim parted his glued lips and said "Yes".
"You won't shoot?" the owner of the rifle inquired.
"No," said Maxim, smiling. "Absolutely not, no way." (p. 257)
Recommendation: Both Recommended. They are very different books; Roadside Picnic is good if you look science fiction weirdness, and The Inhabited Island is very good as a sort of unfolding mystery.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, Olena Bormashenko, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2012).
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Inhabited Island, Andrew Bromfield, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2020).