What if aliens made first contact, landing in various locations across our planet for two days, and then they just left. No abductions, no anal probes, no tripods with heat rays, no chest bursters, no communication via music tones and flashing lights, and no floating bicycles. Maybe we were too insignificant a species to acknowledge and this was just a rest stop for them, a roadside picnic, or maybe the aliens have a long-term plan for the planet. Whatever the reason for their leaving, their brief stay had potentially dramatic consequences for earth and its people.
Strange, seemingly supernatural, phenomena are now occurring at each landing site. They have become exceptionally dangerous areas, but there is a demand for anything that has been affected or left behind by the alien visitors, and this has create a black market. The areas are controlled by the government in an attempt to keep them quarantined, but people referred to as stalkers now sneak into the zones and return with anything they can find to sell. This novel follows a veteran stalker, Red Schuhart, as he tries to get away from the criminal life but quickly finds himself sinking back in.
There’s something depressing about a world that finds itself suddenly insignificant, falling from seeing themselves as the centre of the universe to becoming nothing more than insects to another species. The aliens pull over, dump some of their litter, and continue on their way seemingly without a second thought. A minor detour for them manages to profoundly affect human life, in ways that are yet to be seen. Right now there are some mutations, strange things happen to people who travel away from these zones, and the dead aren’t acting as they should, and no one knows how this will continue to affect life on the planet.
There’s excitement around the potential advancements that can be made from this discarded technology, but there’s also a sinking dread that comes with the feeling of losing control, of being at the whim of whatever these alien powers will do next. I haven’t read much Russian literature yet, but this felt quintessentially Russian to me, although I’m not sure why. I think because it’s quite dark, depicting people coping with long-sustained suffering, while also raising a lot of philosophical questions without obvious answers – all attributes I, possibly incorrectly, assume are classically common in Russian literature.
“[…] I don’t know how to think, those bastards didn’t let me learn how to think. But if you really are – all-powerful, all-knowing, all understanding – figure it out! Look into my soul, I know – everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want – because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his – HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!”
I read Annihilation a while back, the first in the Southern Reach trilogy, and it feels heavily influenced by this novel. I have no idea if that’s the case, but the tone and premise are very similar. They turn out to be two incredibly different stories, but from a high level it’s easy to draw comparisons between these landing zones and Annihilation‘s Area X. Reading this actually reminded me that I need to continue on with that series.
I love the world they built in this, and the different take on first contact. This was written forty years ago, but nothing about it feels dated to me. Apparently the previous English translations weren’t very good, but this 2012 translation seemed great.