A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos

From Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. The ‘visitation’ is the major background event of the novel, an unobserved alien arrival and departure that left behind, at its place of occurrence, a ‘zone’ filled with unexplainable technology and even more bizarre non-tangible effects. Coming more from the Tarkovsky film – also written by the Strugatskys – I hadn’t fully appreciated before how good a partner this passage makes to Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice.

“Really? Well, who cares about him anyway. What do you think about the Visitation? You can answer unseriously.”

“All right, I’ll tell you. But I must warn you that your question, Richard, comes under the heading of xenology. Xenology: an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. It’s based on the false premise that human psychology is applicable to extraterrestrial intelligent beings.”

“Why is that false?” Noonan asked.

“Because biologists have already been burned trying to use human psychology on animals. Earth animals, at that.”

“Forgive me, but that’s an entirely different matter. We’re talking about the psychology of rational beings.”

“Yes. And everything would be fine if we only knew what reason was.”

“Don’t we know?” Noonan was surprised.

“Believe it or not, we don’t. Usually a trivial definition is used: reason is that part of man’s activity that distinguishes him from the animals. You know, an attempt to distinguish the owner from the dog who understands everything but just can’t speak. Actually, this trivial definition gives rise to rather more ingenious ones. Based on bitter observation of the above-mentioned human activities. For example: reason is the ability of a living creature to perform unreasonable or unnatural acts.”

“Yes, that’s about us, about me, and those like me,” Noonan agreed bitterly.

“Unfortunately. Or how about this hypothetical definition. Reason is a complex type of instinct that has not yet formed completely. This implies that instinctual behavior is always purposeful and natural. A million years from now our instinct will have matured and we will stop making the mistakes that are probably integral to reason. And then, if something should change in the universe, we will all become extinct—precisely because we will have forgotten how to make mistakes, that is, to try various approaches not stipulated by an inflexible program of permitted alternatives.”

“Somehow you make it all sound demeaning.”

“All right, how about another definition—a very lofty and noble one. Reason is the ability to use the forces of the environment without destroying that environment.”

Noonan grimaced and shook his head.

“No, that’s not about us. How about this: ‘man, as opposed to animals, is a creature with an undefinable need for knowledge’? I read that somewhere.”

“So have I,” said Valentine. “But the whole problem with that is that the average man—the one you have in mind when you talk about ‘us’ and ‘not us’—very easily manages to overcome this need for knowledge. I don’t believe that need even exists. There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas plus so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”

“Hold on,” Noonan said. He finished his beer and set the mug noisily on the table. “Don’t get off the track. Let’s get back to the subject on hand. Man meets an extraterrestrial creature. How do they find out that they are both rational creatures?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Valentine said with great pleasure. “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. Like that.”

“There you go. And I thought you boys had it all laid out in neat cubbyholes.”

“A monkey can put things into cubbyholes,” Valentine replied.

“No, wait a minute.” For some reason, Noonan felt cheated. “If you don’t know simple things like that … All right, the hell with reason. Obviously, it’s a real quagmire. OK. But what about the Visitation? What do you think about the Visitation?”

“My pleasure. Imagine a picnic.”

Noonan shuddered.

“What did you say?”

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives , off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

“I see. A roadside picnic.”

“Precisely. A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos. And you ask if they will come back.”

And maybe it’s just me but this part feels some masked Soviet-era subversion, especially given the final sentence. Substitute any favorite scientific or socio-historical theory for God and you have the same situation on a more limited scale.

There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas plus so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”

One thought on “A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos

  1. I have long thought this book said so much about the state of the Soviet Union at the time, 1970s. It’s like an admittance that it does not have the answers, that Marxism fails, that communism is not the end, but by its own structure it is just another thesis, or antithesis, to something else.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s