When people talk about the "special" feel of Russian literature, I tend to shrug it away as yet another point of confusion "Westerners" have with anything Slavic.
But when I tried to explain the feeling this book evoked in me to a few "Westerners" I startlingly realized that "it just *feels* so essentially Russian" may indeed be a valid description that encompasses the soul-searching ambiguity, the pursuit of deeper truths shrouded in light sadness, the frustrating but yet revealing lack of answers to the clear divide between right and wrong, and the heart shattering "scream of soul".
This is a story of the aftermath of the aliens' visit to our planet. Well, a visit may be too grand of a word. It seems dishearteningly likely that the space visitors made little notice of us; that their visit here was little but a "roadside picnic" - a quick stop in the middle of nowhere, a break after which they left to never be seen again, leaving only a bit of waste behind them - the relics worth quite a bit of money, and a toxic area - the Zone¹ - where humans cannot survive, where the invisible effects of something inside it inflict permanent scars (mental and physical) on those brave (or foolish) enough to venture inside it.
¹It was hard for me to believe that this book was written years before the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station - an explosion that left a "Zone" full of deadly invisible poison affecting those in it or near it, with ghost city that once was full of people and now is just a shell of a disaster.
No wonder that in popular culture Chernobyl and Strugatsky's "stalker" became intertwined.
The disheartening insignificance of the contact goes well against the well-established rules of science fiction. There was no communication, no contact, nothing. It appears that despite the hopes of all the sci-fi writers over decades, we were not that interesting to the other intelligence - actually, we probably weren't even worth noticing. Just a matter-of-fact quick purposeless roadstop and a bunch of refuse - which still proceeds to affect the lives of people around the mysterious Zones.
“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out 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? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... 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.”
Echoing the insignificance of humanity is the insignificance of the main character. Red Schuhart is a "stalker" - a "riffraff" taking frequent quick forays into the Zone to smuggle out the alien artifacts that are valued on the black market, undeterred by having to live on the outside of the law, always at risk of horrific side effects or death inside and imprisonment outside. He does what he does not for any noble purpose but simply because there's little else to do. He is a common guy, ordinary, inconsequential, average, hard-hit by life. His goals are not noble - just survival. In life, he is a bottomfeeder. It's underscored many times how inconsequential Red is - and maybe it's precisely why his plight has such an appeal to us.After all, despite the bravado, most of us carry no illusions of our own significance in the grand scheme of things.
The visits to the Zone that we undertake with Red and his less cynical, more wide-eyed companions - first ill-fated Kirill, then just as ill-fated Arthur - are harrowing in a peculiarly surreal fashion. It's not about what's happening - it's about the possibility of something unknown yet dreadful happening, the nerves set completely on the edge, the uneasiness of tense anticipation. You can feel the characters on the verge of snapping, and the uneasy feeling is omnipresent.
And yes, in the true Russian and Soviet fashion, the politics are very much in the background of this story even if it's written as though it's seemingly apolitical. The idea of little people affected by the "bigger things" that are out of their reach. The caution of us unable to understand and come to grasp with even the refuse of the outside civilization. The endless corruption that always seen to almost spontaneously spring into being. The mundane drone hopelessness of being just cogs in the machine. The hollowness of the society. The bitterness of a small person when faced with something larger - be it other worlds, or the government, or the powers that we do not understand, or humanity itself.
And yet there is something akin to hope in the end - or, on the other thought, maybe there is not. Redrick's semi-delusional soliloquy at the end of the book, in the sight of the mysterious Golden Sphere - the feverish, desperate, pleading semi-rational painful revelation as he with horror realizes that "My whole life I haven't had a single thought!", that "... they've cheated me, left me voiceless..." in the semi-delirious haze -- is his final scream-of-soul speech a fierce ray of hope for us or is it another lost, desperate, delusional scream into the void? Maybe there's no answer, after all.
And he was no longer trying to think. He just kept repeating to himself in despair, like a prayer, "I'm an animal, you can see that I'm an animal. I have no words, they haven't taught me the words; 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!"