Books – Roadside Picnic & Beneath The World, A Sea

These two books, one old, one new, continue my lucky streak of ‘boundaried alien geography on earth’ novels that started with the amazing Southern Reach trilogy and continued with Tade Thompson’s award-winning Rosewater.

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, tells the story of Redrick Schuhart, a ‘Stalker’, which is the name given to those who risk their lives breaking through the government cordon that surrounds an area once visited by aliens. The area is now a strange and deadly place but it is also full of artifacts that the Stalkers go in for, earth artifacts altered in strange ways by their proximity to the alien’s presence and alien artifacts, some of immense value. As with the other novels mentioned here, to enter this place is to be affected by it, and Red’s proximity and experience with it have damaged him, the stress of it not unlike PTSD. Unlike the other books, the Strugatskys present a place that is absurdly and unthinkingly hostile. Both Red and other stalkers, along with government drones, have attempted to map the Zone and on each occasion he enters we learn a little more of the metaphorical breadcrumbs (he actually uses scraps of metal for this purpose), and the fatal topography of the otherwise normal streets and roads now abandoned within the Zone. The dangers are inventive, refreshingly and truly weird (though perhaps I’m poorly read in the genre) and it creates a tremendous sense of tension and the fear Red feels inside the Zone as he seeks the spoils that will keep his wife and, later, his daughter fed. Inevitably with the Zone, government and corporate interest in the artifacts complicate Red’s life more and more as this short novel progresses. Inevitably, he must enter the Zone one final time at the climax of the novel, and go deeper than anyone’s ever gone for the ultimate artifact. It’s pacily written and hugely imaginative. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bona fide classic sci-fi novel.

Beneath The World, A Sea, written by Chris Beckett, was published earlier this year. A British policeman is sent to an alien conclave called The Delta, in South America to investigate the widespread murders of a native, humanoid species. There is a small colonial-like human settlement there amidst the settlements of people that have become ‘natives’. The Delta is part of a forest surrounded entirely by a place called ‘The Zone’, which removes all memories as you pass through it of what happens while inside The Zone. When Ronson arrives at The Delta to investigate the killings of Duendes, a strange native species to this alien forest, he is already unsettled by diaries he’s kept of his time and his actions in The Zone, reluctant to read them beyond an introduction he’d written to his present self that unnerves him. He learns that the Duendes are being slaughtered whenever they approach the settlements, but these mute and placid creatures offer no fight or threat except that in their presence, people’s deepest psychological drives and urges well up. What follows is Ronson’s unravelling as he gets more and more obsessed with the forest and, like the natives, less and less like the man he was when he entered.

Beckett’s book is as clever as it is straightforward. The plot progresses, but the clear thematic current inherent in the book is what this forest represents; it is a place only as hostile or dangerous as its denizens are capable of being. We cannot face an unflinching scrutiny of ourselves, it would end us, and those that live in the Delta cling to their civilisation desparately with varying degrees of success. I see what others have said regarding the parallels with Heart of Darkness and this brisk book examines a very similar theme. What makes it a pleasure is that the policeman, Ben, must discover, in a kind of twisted hero journey, who he is as the forest benignly pulls at and unravels him on his way to trying to achieve what he set out to do. He quickly finds himself wanting, as would we all. His descent is unputdownable.

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