Stalker versus Roadside Picnic

I used to be very interested and invested in sci-fi, but in the last few years I grew weary of it – I think it’s mostly because I started to recognize the patriarchal bullshit that underlies so much of it. One of the things that survived, however, is my love for the Russian novel Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I loved the book when I first read it in high school and that love has only grown with re-reads, so when I found out there was a movie based on it out there, I was thrilled. Completely ignorant at the time of Tarkovsky’s reputation, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill adaptation, with the usual pitfalls and merits of these things. But Stalker turned out to have a rather weird relationship with the book. They share too little for Stalker to be considered a movie adaptation of Roadside Picnic, but they share too much for them to be considered entirely different cultural products. 

But as it happens, I think this relationship is perfect, because it makes them the best illustration of My Ultimate Division of Literature (tm), in which I am very invested these days, since I have exams and deadlines in an unrelated field. So, in the name of escapism and late night coffee rush, I hereby divide the world into narratives that treat the lives of the characters as ends in themselves, and narratives that treat them as means towards something greater. The criterion here is the perspective on what constitutes people's worth. I see two possibilities: (a) life as important by itself, with the characters' actions and choices being what's ultimately at stake and (b) life as a stepping stone that only makes sense in relation with something greater, where the characters' actions and choices are expected to amount to something that transcends them (or to actively fail to do so). 

I hold that Roadside Picnic is the first, Stalker, the second. And they are particularly fit to illustrate the distinction, since they both attempt to make a point about human nature through the same device: humanity confronted with an inexplicable and powerful entity (the Zone). Of course, I will spoil both of them in analyzing this, so beware. 

"But by and by they are buried in silence..."

When you have news fatigue, or internet fatigue, know that early modern scholars were there before you. This is from Robert Burton's (wonderfully-titled) Anatomy of Melancholy:

[E]very day almost come new news unto our ears, as how the sun was eclipsed, meteors seen in the air, monsters born, prodigies, how the Turks were overthrown in Persia, an earthquake in Helvetia, Calabria, Japan, or China, an inundation in Holland, a great plague in Constantinople, a fire at Prage, a dearth in Germany, such a man is made a lord, a bishop, another hanged, deposed, pressed to death for some murder, treason, rape, theft, oppression; all which we do hear at first with a kind of admiration, detestation, consternation; but by and by they are buried in silence.

Believe it or not, the message of this is supposed to be grimly positive. Burton's lesson is that whatever bad stuff you pull, it will be forgotten, the way all things are, so there is no need to get depressed over it.