Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Roadside Stalking, Bidonvilles and the Zone of the Numinous

Two brothers once dwelt in a faraway land (or at least so expansive that every place in it is far away from everywhere else) a world numbered second by the first and composed chiefly of reinforced concrete, fissionable materials, floppy-eared fuzzy hats and stray dog cosmonauts. Also vodka. Rivers and rivers of vodka. Which only partly explains all the other insanity.

Anyhoo, these bros Strugatsky wrote at least one very memorable tale of fictional science. Roadside Picnic described a mind-bending, desolate landscape, a Zone littered with incomprehensible artifacts created by superhuman intellects, the result of a "visitation" by extraterrestrials. Through this wasteland scurry stalkers, disparate, desperate specimens of our own sorry species, scavenging any gadgets, doodads and geegaws which might fetch a nice price on the black market while trying to avoid getting vaporized by monstrous forces beyond the ken of mortals. They manipulate the objects as best they can while never understanding their nature or purpose, interacting with them only in haphazard, superstitious fashion. Despite the obvious danger posed by such technological marvels, trade continues with every passing decade even as their hidden forces continue to maim and twist the humans who come in contact with them.

The book came out in 1971-72. By 1979 it had been adapted to film by none other than Andrei Tarkovsky himself, who chose to dwell more on uncertainty and the pursuit of power than on the science fiction elements of the story.

Then a few years later Chernobyl melted down and dusted the landscape around itself with invisible forces inimical to human life. The word "Stalker" became appended to the disaster, the book and movie's Zone a cold war meme, a symbol of monkeys' folly in monkeying with forces beyond their feeble intellects.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl came out twenty years after that. While translating the Zone to a poetically licentious mutant-riddled version of Chernobyl and using first person shooter mechanics complete with leering goblins and poltergeists as first-shootable persons, it also managed to quite artfully translate both the feel of Tarkovsky's movie adaptation and the original story's speculation on hunting down objects of power into its interactive medium.

Why am I writing this now?
I'd heard enough about the Numenera setting to take for granted its foundation in Clarke's third law, but an actual playthrough of Torment: Tides of Numenera manifests many other direct references or sources of inspiration (for better or worse.) As soon as my character stepped out into the Reef of Fallen Worlds I knew I'd somehow stumbled back in the Strugatsky brothers' Zone - a somewhat too colorful, de-bleaked, bubble-gummy re-iteration of it for my tastes, yet still quite Zoney. Tempted to call this an accident or merely a figment of this particular cRPG adaptation, I nonetheless can't help but notice the Numenera setting's version of extraterrestrials is called "visitants" in tune with Roadside Picnic's jargon.

To be sure, the vision of human life scavenging the detritus or corpse of superior civilization is a powerful one and has occasionally cropped up here and there in SciFi, both before and after 1971. See Asimov's notion of the citizens of Trantor tearing up their planet's industrial infrastructure and Crichton's Sphere (and the movie thereof) which could easily be likened (unfavorably) to both Roadside Picnic and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (and the Tarkovsky movies thereof) both displaying humans banging their primitive heads helplessly against an alien wish-granter. The theme has likely grown in popularity as the slums around modern cities began to incorporate more and more industrial/technological runoff, putting the "bidon" in bidonville. The Soviet Union itself, with its monstrous industrial capacity outstripping any sane vision of sustainability or practical use, made a particularly apt example which writers of the Second World have not failed to incorporate into their speculations.

In more modern SciFi District 9 for example made this connection quite deliberately, but Torment: Tides of Numenera's own development team had already toyed with the notion in Planescape:Torment's trash warrens chapter, and connecting it to the idea of stalkers hunting Numenera seems only natural. They are, after all, presumably quite the well-read bunch and find such references in no short supply.

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