Megan Barickman

Aliens in Paradise


Lay the secret on me of man’s red fire by Lawrence Lemaoana

In 2017, astronomers detected the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system. The object, named ‘Oumuamua, sped past us and off into deep space, accelerating according to its own laws. ‘Oumuamua’s strange path and unexpected haste led Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb to speculate that the object might actually be a piece of debris from an alien civilization, a soda can bumping erratically between the orbits of planets rather than a rock or a chunk of icy comet. If this were true, what would an encounter between Earth and the refuse of some remote intelligence mean for humankind?

Nearly 50 years before ‘Oumuamua appeared, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky imagined a different kind of meeting between humanity and extraterrestrial trash. In the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (the novel which would later inspire Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic arthouse film, Stalker), a burst of unintelligible alien contact, known as the Visit, leaves the Earth polluted with strange and undefinable rubbish. The Visit is brief, albeit devastating in its impersonal violence—people run from their houses, blinded and disoriented, with crusts of blackened skin peeling from their faces. Almost immediately, the aliens are gone, without having made even the most preliminary gestures toward communication, without hinting at the reason they have come. Bits of technology, inexplicable forces, and toxins, spilled across the six “Zones” where the aliens touched down, are all that remain.

For Red Schuhart, Richard Noonan, Kirill Panov, and the other residents of the Zone-side town of Harmont (the novel’s setting), living on the doorstep of an extraterrestrial dumping ground has catastrophic, personal consequences. In the years following the Visit, the Zone breeds plagues that rival the Biblical curses of Egypt in their capacity for psychological torment. The dead rise from Harmont’s cemeteries, mindless but animated by some kind of slow, insistent muscle memory that drives them to their former homes. Natural disasters and widespread death inexplicably accompany anyone who attempts to leave Harmont. Atavistic genetic mutations are rife among the children of those that frequent the Zone. This is true for Red (one of the novel’s main protagonists), whose daughter is covered in golden fur from birth and slowly grows from a garrulous child into a fearful, speechless ape.

While scientists flock to the Zone, plucking out alien trinkets and struggling, fruitlessly, to extract great technological blessings from their inscrutable mechanisms, the ordinary residents of Harmont know that the Zone is cursed. Stalkers, the men who illegally enter the Zone to drag out “swag” for sale on the black market, have experienced firsthand the oppressiveness and unpredictable hostility of the objects and forces contained within the Zone itself. Glowing “hell slime” turns flesh and bone into gelatin on contact but has the relative advantage of being easy to spot. Invisible “bug traps” are strong enough to flatten helicopters against the earth. The imperceptible grinder can wring a body like a soft cloth. Red, one of the more successful stalkers, is able to avoid the Zone’s fatal dangers, but he cannot avoid the visceral discomforts of its landscape. He must endure sinking up to his neck in a field of ooze, “warm and sticky, like pus.” As he moves across a field of grass that crumbles and squeaks underfoot like cornstarch, a wave of heat inexplicably descends and sears his prostrate body.

Navigating the Zone successfully exacts an enormous physical and mental toll, its many dangers defying earthly reason. As Ursula K. Le Guin explains in her introduction to the most recent English edition, Roadside Picnic was remarkable at its time for exploring the limits of the human mind against the backdrop of an alien intellect so incompatible and superior to our own as to break what Stanisław Lem called the “myth of our cognitive universalism.” Faced with phenomena that the Zone’s best scientists cannot understand, stalkers survive only by adopting a near-superstitious wariness of even the most mundane objects. In the Zone, Red operates on instinct, with his thoughts often teetering toward babbling incoherence under the strain of sustained fear and paranoia. In one of the most poignant moments, Red finds he simply cannot move in a certain direction, which appears safe. Even thinking about going in that direction fills him with monstrous dread. Forces, no doubt capable of intruding and possessing the mind, also haunt the Zone. The curse and violence of the Zone is sometimes death and sometimes, much worse, the slow disintegration of what seemed to be whole and inviolable.

Though it does not share the novel’s plot, Tarkovsky’s better-known film adaptation, Stalker, develops the theme of humanity’s confrontation with the unknowable as an experience that exposes the frailty of the human mind. The film, however, omits the rich discussions about the external alien causes of the Zone. This omission allows for a narrative much more tightly centered on the complexities of hope, faith, and redemption that appear through contact with a mystical, if threatening, Zone. It leaves out, however, the question that lingers over each scene of the novel: what did the aliens hope to gain by subjecting Harmont to the Zone’s torments?

Richard Noonan, unlike Red, is an affable and somewhat bumbling character, but he is capable of real, if fleeting, moments of insight and empathy, and he is acutely aware of the dehumanizing influence of the Zone. In a memorable episode, Noonan corners one of the Zone’s leading physicists, Dr. Pillman, at a bar and forces him to divulge what he believes was the purpose of the Visit. Feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of Harmont’s suffering, Noonan is desperate to attach a reason, a purpose, to the Zone’s pervasive violence and degradation. Pillman answers reluctantly:

A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras…A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. 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? And oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about…Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp… and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow…

Noonan finds this answer deeply unsatisfactory, insulting even. “Damn you scientists! Where do you get this disdain for man?” he exclaims. To placate him, Pillman offers two other possible explanations much more in line with traditional science fiction canon: the aliens are still in the Zones, waiting for their moment to take over the Earth, or the aliens have left their technology to prepare us for their return. Noonan likes these answers better; even if the aliens are out to harm or conquer Harmont, at least these scenarios presuppose communication or direct contact of some kind, if not understanding. With these answers, at least, there is the dignity of recognition.

Neither Noonan, nor the novel, can forget the roadside picnic, though. The picnic returns repeatedly—in the title, in the echo of another (human) picnic that is central to the plot, and in Noonan’s thoughts. “Still, I hope you go to hell,” he tells the aliens many pages later. “You couldn’t have had your picnic somewhere else. On the moon, say. Or on Mars.” Noonan, at least, does not believe that the aliens are waiting in Harmont, or testing the capacities of its residents. Like the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, these aliens might have gone gliding past. The Visit was random, and the alien’s casual disregard of humanity remains imbued in the Zone’s senseless violations of human bodies, beings, and futures.

* * *

Science fiction has a long history of depicting visiting aliens as conquerors after land and spoils. H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel The War of the Worlds was one of the first to depict extraterrestrials as settler colonists who “regarded this earth with envious eyes.” Later works explore a vast array of possible invasion scenarios and motivations. Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, Annihilation, for example, features an Area X similar to the Zone of Roadside Picnic in many respects, and plays with colonization in the fungal and infectious senses, as well as the danger of alien intrusion. The narrator repeatedly refers to the aspects of the landscape as “colonizing” her, and the end reveals that Area X is steadily advancing, taking ever more territory into itself, although its reasons are unknown.

The trash heap is part of colonial history too. In their book Pollution Is Colonialism, Max Liboiron sets out to include pollution as a conceptual component of colonialism by focusing on Land and the relationships that people have to it. Their goal is not to deny in any way the incredible violence and genocide through which colonialism accomplishes its goals, but to create a definition that is capable of holding more subtle forms of violence and violation that flow from the colonial worldview. In fact, their definition of Land is not strictly geographic territory, but the Zone-like complex of relationships between mineral, vegetable, animal, and human that a certain territory holds. They write:

Colonialism, first, foremost, and always, is about Land […] The focus on Land—what it could be, what it might become, what it is for—does not always mean accessing Land as property for settlement, though it often does. […] It can mean using Land as a Resource, a practice that may generate pollution through pipelines, landfills, and recycling plants, or as a sink to store or process waste. […] It means imagining things for land in ways that align with colonial or settler goals. (emphasis mine)

Liboiron is concerned with establishing the colonialist roots of contemporary pollution, which is to say, not organic waste but plastics and enduring toxins, which humanity must sequester indefinitely after use for its own health. Colonialist attitudes toward Land, which assume unfettered access to all territory, are what allow for the creation of pollution, first by granting space and resources for its creation, but most importantly by allowing polluters to assume the right to secure and sacrifice Land for its disposal. Without these dumps, colonialist societies would likely be far more loathe to produce the volumes of pollution that they do.

The purpose that a colonizer assigns to the Land that will become a dump is different from that assigned to Land that the settler is reserving to live on, or the resource-rich Land designated for a mine, but the guiding relationship is the same across these cases. Liboiron calls the land relations of colonialism “Resource relations,” in which Land is imagined to exist solely in order to bestow its benefits and blessings on the colonist: “In this unidirectional relation, value flows in one direction, from the Resource to the user, rather than being reciprocal.”

While resource relations guide the actions of colonialist society, they also animate its desiring heart. Washed into an idealized form, they permeate the aspirations of the would-be colonist and act as a lodestar for the colonist’s fantasies. In the first half of the 19th century, a Scottish con artist named Gregor MacGregor took advantage of this colonial fantasy, inventing a fictitious Central American country that wholly embodied the ideal of the Resource relation. Under a pseudonym, MacGregor laid out the submissive country of Poyais in a pamphlet designed to coax would-be colonists to purchase land and other investments from him. Describing a land that would yield immediately to their wants, MacGregor conned an entire boatful of settlers and sent them out to sea. Upon reaching Poyais, the hapless victims of MacGregor’s scheme found only a barren stretch of coast in what is now Honduras, inhospitable, useless, and empty.

The Poyais that the settlers were expecting to find, the one promised by MacGregor’s pamphlet, is a country of eternally temperate climate teeming with natural resources ready for extraction and an attractive Indigenous population eager to assist with that goal. Poyais’s most remarkable feature, however, may be the universal abundance of the nourishment it holds. Nearly every animal and plant is edible, delicious, and healing. The sections of the pamphlet on flora and fauna read like a tantalizing menu. Take, for example, the Manati, whose flesh

is particularly admired, and thought equal to the finest veal. The tail, which forms the most valuable part of the Manati, after having laid some days in a pickle prepared for it with spices, &c., and eaten cold, is a discovery of which Apicus might have been proud, and which the discriminating palate of Heliogabalus would have thought justly entitled “to the most distinguished award.”

In truth, MacGregor modeled his descriptions of Poyais on accounts of real, if heavily idealized, lands written during an earlier era of Western colonization. As Jefferson Dillman discusses in Colonizing Paradise, the colonial imagination of the late 16th century was rife with paradisiacal imagery. The “Drake Manuscript,” or Histoire naturelle des Indes, from Francis Drake’s voyage to the Americas amply highlights “the theme of the Edenic in the Indies” and describes a world that is as universally edible and healthful as Poyais: “Even the caiman, generally a terrifying creature, yields perfume from its musk glands and stones from its head which aid in the passage of painful kidney gravel.”

Poyais and its counterparts are earthly paradises, lands of absolute physical enjoyment, brimming with blessings. They are the Cockaigne of medieval myth, where food forms all aspects of the terrain, sexual abandon reigns, and there are no obstacles to pleasure. Even threats, like the caiman, melt away and yield up great benefit. In constructing Poyais, MacGregor seemed to understand that at the basest and most libidinal level the dream animating settler colonialism was about the land yielding to the colonist’s every desire, opening unfettered access to its every blessing, and erasing all want through the Resource relations’ unilateral flow of value. The idealized Resource relation is one in which the colonizer has total mastery over the land, consumes it completely without fear and without owing it or its inhabitants any obligation or consideration. By this definition, the Garden of Eden, though it serves as the template for these visions, is not a true paradise; it has a forbidden, dangerous fruit haunting its center.

* * *

When value flows only in one direction, when it amasses with one party, then there is bound to be an accretion of want and of waste, of objects sucked clean of their value, of brutalized land, of violence, and of unfulfilled obligations. In Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, when the main character, Shevek, first leaves his anarchist society for a capitalist one seemingly founded on Resource relations, the supple yielding of everything around him overwhelms him to the point of sexual arousal. Such overstimulating luxury is unthinkable in his society. Later, though, he discovers the obverse: a reeling destitution, also unthinkable on his planet, but without which the luxury of this planet could not exist.

The Zone of Roadside Picnic is also a land cursed by an accumulation of absence. The aliens are gone, having left items that were used up or forgotten. “Empties,” a type of extraterrestrial container consisting of two large metallic discs held at a set distance from each other by an invisible, intangible, and unbreakable force, are ubiquitous within the Zone. “Junk,” as Red repeatedly calls them, they are a symbol of the Zone itself, a mesmerizing, incomprehensible lack. Early in the novel, Red and Kirill enter the Zone together to pull out a “full empty” that Red has just discovered. This empty is filled with a blue swirling instead of blank air, and to Kirill, a scientist, who has spent futile years studying the empties, it seems to offer the promise of a great breakthrough into understanding. Although they successfully retrieve the object, the Zone takes something back, and the hope of uncovering meaning shrivels up as the expedition ends in Kirill’s death.

Outside of Poyais and other fictional paradises, colonialism requires a measure of violence to achieve, albeit imperfectly, the unilateral flow of value that defines Resource relations. Resource extraction splits the ore and discards the broken rock. Settler colonialism takes Land and scrapes it clean of its previous purposes and relationships so that it can become a new home to the colonist, a production site, or a dump. Pollution is, as Liboiron points out, born of bad relations. In all its forms, colonialism dissolves the obligations that flow against its interests, from the colonist to the Land, from the colonist to other people, or more broadly, from the colonist to other beings. Colonial lack of responsibility is apparent in the trash heap, an accumulation of objects and substances to which people have relinquished their obligation. Stripped of the value, purposes, and relationships they held when in use, these discarded items—broken glass and leaky batteries—take on dangerous potentials.

Roadside Picnic does not imagine a typical settler colonial vision of first contact through alien invasion; rather, it dramatizes the afterlife of land afflicted by the leftovers of colonialist Resource relations. The Zone’s alien waste cleaves to the land, haunting it with a many-sided emptiness that is the obverse of paradise’s over-abundant generosity. Whereas paradise gives blessings freely, the Zone takes savagely, drawing value towards itself as toward a vacuum. It eats away at a person. In her critical exploration of colonialism, The Black Shoals, Tiffany Lethabo King writes, “Genocide—and the making of the Native body as less than human, or flesh—remains the focus and distinguishing feature of settler colonialism.” The polluted landscape replicates this act even in the absence of the colonizer, stripping the humanity of any who come into it and reducing them to porous vulnerability. As the ghost in a folktale might endlessly repeat the brutalities that ended its life, as if attempting to reclaim its missing self, the Zone endlessly repeats the colonial violence of the Visit.

The American sci-fi writer R.A. Lafferty also has a strange story, a type of parable perhaps, about colonizer-haunted land. In this story, “Thieving Bear Planet,” the ghosts of colonizers rob from new colonizers with devastating effect, reversing the flow of value so that it goes back into the haunted land. At the beginning of the story, an expedition sets down on the titular planet to survey its resources and see if they can expel some of the mystery and inconsistencies surrounding the accounts of the “thieving bears.” These bears, which in fact resemble large flying squirrels, are remarkably good at violating spaces and bodies to take what they need. After taking magazines and other trivia, they go so far as to take the nutrients from the would-be colonists’ stomachs and the thoughts from their heads.

In time, a thunderstorm fills the ghosts with enough life force that they can talk with the expedition team, revealing that the bears are in fact a sort of “tumbleweed” that the ghosts of former colonists can inhabit. These ghosts haunt the resource-poor planet, continually luring in new victims to satisfy their insatiable hungers for metals and other valuable things. “We walk here a lot because we are always hungry and restless,” explains one ghost. “Ghosts in places that are richer in organics and metals and minerals stay well fed by a sort of osmosis, so they walk and stir very little.” Another, far more aggressive ghost, the leftover spirit of Manbreaker Crag, is blunter about the extent of the thieving bears’ appetite:

What we eat out of your minds are the most serious things that your minds are capable of holding. What we steal and eat out of your bodies are the tastiest things in your bodies. We come to table on you, and we feast on you. What we eat out of your ships and your stores are the most nourishing and sophisticated things you have brought, wotto metal, data gelatin, electronic reta, codified memories and processes. We eat these things because we are hungry. And I eat them more ravenously than do any of the others. I eat the essence of mind and leave gibbering idiocy in its place. I eat the bodies of whole people where they stand.

As is typical of Lafferty, the story’s funny and bizarrely light-hearted narrative style conceals a terrifying plot. By turning the new colonizers into resources, the loop of colonial violence and haunting on Thieving Bear Planet never ends.

The fate of the Zone in Roadside Picnic, and of Harmont, remains less clear. The last chapter of Roadside Picnic describes Red’s final voyage into the Zone in search of the Zone’s only real treasure, a mythical Golden Sphere, rumored to grant one’s “innermost wishes”—“the kind that, if they don’t come true, you’d be ready to jump off a bridge!” Red has a young man, Arthur, with him, new to the Zone and full of naïve hope about this paradisiacal promise in the wasteland. When they finally make their painful way to where the Sphere sits, resting heavily against the ground, it is evident that this expedition will recall the one to retrieve the full empty with Kirill. Despite its smooth surface and weight, the Sphere immediately gives Red “the impression that it [is] hollow.” The Sphere, it seems, is a similarly seductive, but ultimately empty, promise.

Nonetheless, Arthur, like Kirill, will die in pursuit of that hope. As if bound to fairytale logic, a sacrifice is required to reach the Sphere. An invisible, deadly grinder blocks their path, and Red has chosen the unwitting Arthur in advance as the victim he will use to deactivate it temporarily. Red is not a delicate man, but throughout the novel his acts reveal him to be incredibly loyal, and in his own way, kind. He risks himself to save even the worst of his companions. Leading Arthur to his death is a shocking act of cruelty for him. He is driven by a wish, his desire to reverse the curse the Zone has cast on his daughter, but he is also, it seems, fully consumed by the brutality that the territory engenders. Arthur shouts his own wish as he rushes toward the Sphere, only to be intercepted by the “transparent emptiness” of the grinder. Although the path is now clear, Red finds he cannot think. He is reduced to flesh, “an animal.” His wish is gone. Arthur’s last words—“Happiness for everyone! Free! As much happiness as you want!”—haunt the empty chaos of his mind.

Red is the character in the novel who knows the Zone the best. He has spent most of his adult life crawling through a garbage heap that is utterly hostile to his body and his mind. He has endured the degradations that come from inhabiting a landscape rendered completely alien to his being. Of all the characters, he has also been the least interested in interrogating the extraterrestrial reasons for his suffering. Now, thinking about Arthur’s wish for universal happiness, Red is troubled by the impasse inherent to the relationships he has known—relationships that have sprung up around the Zone’s influence, where happiness flows only in one direction. He silently agonizes: “If I’m happy, Burbridge is unhappy; if Burbridge is happy, Four-Eyes is unhappy.” Red desperately wants to realize his wish, but he can no longer reconcile the outline of his own desire. Similarly, he knows that the Zone has “to be destroyed”—but then what would be left other than “flat, bare earth”? At last, the Zone has taken everything from Red. He arrives at the Sphere, his great promise, devoid of hope and unable to imagine a different future.

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