In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The Soviet science fiction masters Arkady (1925–1991) and Boris Strugatsky (1933–2012) had that particular Russian knack for making humor out of tragedy, the first but not last reason their work transcends genre. Famous in Russia, the brothers are known in the West for the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, which the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker is based on. Roadside Picnic and another of my favorites, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn (1970), have thrilling plots the way best sellers should, but they also have a depth of social commentary and layered metastructuring that are revelatory of the brothers’ Soviet world—and relevant to our times as well. To this end, I supped with the brothers Strugatsky, making some of the classic dishes mentioned in their books. Readers should be forewarned that the following article contains spoilers, though it offers blini and caviar in return.
To return to sardonic wit: Roadside Picnic is the story of earth after extraterrestrial contact. The aliens came, did something mysterious, and then left, leaving a handful of sites contaminated with toxic but possibly useful junk. As one character explains, it’s as if “a car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios … A fire is lit. Tents are pitched. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about … A roadside picnic.” The human survivors devote themselves to studying the alien detritus, but they’re like the insects and animals of the anecdote: unable to understand it. Roadside Picnic’s portrait of humanity isn’t particularly flattering, and it’s a spoof on the grandiose alien-contact science fiction of the era. As another character remarks, “Somehow this isn’t at all how I envisioned it.” Read More