Otherworlds and Underworlds: Filthy Futures in Roadside Picnic and Neuromancer

More often than not, science fiction depicting the future on Earth conjures up spick-and-span cityscapes: gleaming streets and towers, an ordered and efficient environment, and hidden danger disguised as benign societal mechanisms. What’s seen less often are chaotic, dirty, bucket-of-bolts futures where menace lurks around every corner and people spill out, swearing, from grungy dives. These filthy worlds represent a vision of the future that is not idealized into utopia, nor even slicked back into dystopia. These stories envision a situation similar to our current lives, realistic in its corruption, no matter the fantastic elements included.

Two important examples of this type of filthy future were produced in the late Cold War period, a timeRoadside Picnic, Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Chicago Review Press, 2012 when idealistic visions of human advancement were poignantly colliding with a grim everyday reality. Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s popular novel Roadside Picnic, first published in 1972, reflects certain Eastern Bloc experiences. Its portrayal of Harmont, a Canadian town that was the site of an alien landing years previous, set a standard followed by many subsequent works, in particular, in William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.

Unlike much media produced at the time, these novels were not explicit reactions to the Cold War; however, the historical environment profoundly and subtly affected these works. Increasingly used by world powers for propaganda, espionage, and psychological warfare, the nuclear arms and the space races bled into the feel and the message of these novels to produce foul underworlds and otherworlds. Both depict soiled environments in three ways: by means of plebian antihero protagonists, broken and dirty environments, and lastly, dangerous otherworlds, which form the core of both stories.

Roadside Picnic follows Redrick Schuhart, a man who lives in Harmont and is a stalker, an individual who illegally enters an alien visitation site—a Zone—and brings out swag, refuse left behind by aliens, which is then pawned off to crime bosses and fences. Each Zone is dangerous and lucrative, full of unexplained phenomena and horrifying ecology, such as hell slime and burning fuzz. More often than not, the people who go in do not come out, and it is also heavily policed, making it especially difficult to execute runs. Large amounts of money can be made off of the swag brought out, though, and the objects are often simply lying around for the taking.

A very similar setup is to be found in Neuromancer, although cybernetics take the place of alien detritus in this environment.

A very similar setup is to be found in Neuromancer, although cybernetics take the place of alien detritus in this environment. Henry Dorsett Case is a cyber cowboy, a super-hacker who jacks into cyberspace and steals data for hire. This cyberspace, called the matrix, is full of opportunity and menace, like its counterpart the Zone. To steal from a place so heavily guarded could mean brain-death to the jacked-in cowboy, an affliction called flatlining. Cross the wrong employers in the real world and one ends up faltlined. This is how we meet Case, a suicidal junkie who is unable to jack in because an employer that he kept stolen goods from damaged his nerves with a mycotoxin.

Red and Case are both extreme antiheroes. Both thieves, they are crude, apathetic, and prone to substance abuse, a far cry from the traditional science fiction archetype of the pedigreed scientific intellectual who commands the spaceship or leads the mission. Red has spent time in jail, and even after trying to stay away from stalking by securing a job as a research assistant at the Institute, which studies the Zone, he cannot keep himself out. He hates and needs stalking, and usually deals with his experiences with copious liquor, as demonstrated by this scene, occurring directly after a successful trip:

“I lock myself in the stall, take out a flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech…my soul is empty, gulping down the hard stuff like water…The Zone let me out. the damned hag. my lifeblood. Traitorous bitch. Alive. The novices can’t understand this.
No one but a stalker can understand.” (Strugatsky, 33)

Red spends a lot of time at the local bar, the Borscht, which is tended by Ernest, a local benefactor of the stalkers who also buys swag under the table. Case also drinks at a bar, the Chat, tended by Ratz, who has a grubby pink prosthetic arm and “teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay” (Gibson, 3). The Chat is situated in the underworld of Chiba City, in Japan. It is dark, dirty, metallic, and full of expatriates from many nations, drawn by its seamy opportunities. In some ways, it is similar to Harmont, which attracts would-be stalkers from all around and hotels, brothels, and other establishments that profit off of these newcomers. “Where did all this shit come from?” asks Red at one point in Roadside Picnic. “So much shit…it’s mind-boggling how much shit is here in one place, there’s shit here from all over the world” (Strugatsky, 180). This sentiment could just as easily be voiced by Case in regards to his world.

Case came to Chiba City to see if he could get a “black clinic” to reverse the damage done by the mycotoxins, but to no avail. He now hustles drugs and moonlights as a contract killer, driven to extremely dangerous work as a way to get money and endorphins, and to flirt with death, which he desires in no small part. Both Case and Red are unemployable in clean professions: touched by otherworlds (the Zone, the matrix), they consign themselves to underworlds.

The subcultures they live in, or “outlaw zones” as Case puts it (Gibson, 11), are easily on display in the slang used by Red and Case and the people around them. Red deals with people with names like the Butcher (an underworld doctor), Hamfist Kitty (a brawny lackey), and Vulture Burbridge (a wealthy stalker/mentor). Case’s cast of characters includes Molly Millions, a razorgirl, Dixie Flatline, a cowboy, and Lady 3Jane, an aristocrat. Red contends with Satan’s blossom, the meat grinder, and bug traps. Case deals in dex, simstim, and joeboys. While their worlds are very different, they are both cut from the same cloth, recognizable as grimy subscapes.

Technology takes on new connotations in these filthy futures. As some fans of Neuromancer have put it, Red and Case are “high tech low lifes.”

Technology takes on new connotations in these filthy futures. As some fans of Neuromancer have put it, Red and Case are “high tech low lifes.” Neil Easterbrook analyzes how certain usages makes technology into anything but shiny and good, writing “this metamorphic, transformational technology is paradoxical in that it simultaneously provides the vehicle of subversion for groups marginalized or repressed by corporate culture…Molly, Case, [others]…are all characters with working class or underclass backgrounds, characters who exploit the threshold technologies escape” (Easterbrook, 379). The same can be said for Red and the other stalkers. Certainly, in Harmont technology is snatched and sold more than utilized, but its presence serves to illustrate the same purpose that the future isn’t brighter. It’s just like now, and maybe even darker, because it has new tools, and new dangers.

Neuromancer, William Gibson, Ace Books, 1984In addition, the future isn’t about the Bourgeoisie and the Strugatskys, and Gibson makes this clear. The future is about the people, and because the future is like the present, then the statement is manifold—the present is about the people, too. Science fiction often functions as a portrait of the current world, perhaps extrapolated, but at its core possessing the same elements. The future is such a rich place to set a story because it lends itself to logic: this is the way things are because of the way things were. Stanisław Lem makes this point explicitly in his essay about Roadside Picnic, writing,

“The dreadful fate of the ‘stalkers’ in Roadside Picnic, I should add, does not represent an extraordinary deviation brought about by the cosmic landing, but is precisely the rule of decisive moments in history—a rule that distinctly points up the constant and inevitable connection between ‘picturesque’ greatness and horrifying misery.” (Lem, 322)

Stalkers do not exist and suffer because aliens arrived. Cowboys are drawn to the underworld without the means of extraterrestrials. The Strugatskys and Gibson have created filthy futures with high-tech low-lifes to show that technological advancement tides, not a glorious utopia, but a turpid underworld.

The most important aspect of these portrayals is the otherworlds. These are distinctly non-human places, separate from what constitutes normal reality around them. They are full of danger, as well as gain, and are irresistible to a certain type of person, one who can’t make it in an office and who craves endorphin highs.

Roadside Picnic’s otherworld, the Zone, is carefully delineated. Red notes how the grass stops and black brambles begin and how it looks “almost mowed,” marking “clear bounds” across which even the burning fuzz does not travel (Strugatsky, 21). When people enter the Zone, strange things happen to them. Red, a hardened veteran, gets chills every time. Many people start babbling and are unable to stop. The Zone is a different place from Earth, created by non-Earthly beings, and under non-Earthly laws.

Neuromancer’s underworld is less corporeal, which makes it even easier to set apart. The only way to enter the matrix is to jack in, literally hooking up to a machine and entering a vast virtual reality dataspace. In Neuromancer, Case is picked up by a shadowy figure named Armitage who heals him from the mycotoxin in order to hack an AI (artificial intelligence). The scene in which he first jacks in describes well the perfectly inhuman world of the matrix:

“In the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information…flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity.” (Gibson, 52)

The matrix may have been built by people, but like the Zone, it runs on different rules and is shaped by non-humans. Programs populate the place, the most powerful of all being AIs.

Another sign of an otherworld is the passage of time. Both Case and Red remark on how hours pass differently when they are in their underworlds.

Another sign of an otherworld is the passage of time. Both Case and Red remark on how hours pass differently when they are in their underworlds “I take off my watch and look at it,” says Red. “My Lord, we were in the Zone for more than five hours!…Yes, my friends, there’s no such thing as time in the Zone.” He goes on to list spans of twelve hours, then two days, nights spent lying facedown in the dirt, waiting for dawn (Strugatsky, 33). Case notes almost the same experience, in which he’ll jack into the matrix and be unaware of time passing. In fact, more than once an AI flatlines him and speaks with him, telling him that the hours which pass within his consciousness will only be minutes to everyone else.

It is not only that time runs differently, but also that when in their underworlds, Case and Red lose sight of the outside world. Case “forgot to eat…Sometimes he resented having to leave the deck to use the chemical toilet they’d set up in a corner of the loft. Ice patterns formed and reformed on the screen as he probed for gaps, skirted the most obvious traps…He lost track of days” (Gibson, 59). The sense the reader gets is of an all-consuming foreign space, especially strange because it is in direct contrast to worlds that, though part of the future, are relatable to their present.

Eastern Bloc readers of Strugatsky’s work in the ’70s would recognize the dilapidated neighborhoods and isolated unease that emanates from Harmont. Equally, Western Bloc readers of Gibson’s work in the ’80s could easily imagine the dark, dangerous, and dirty streets of Chiba City. Red and Case live vacant lives surrounded by peeling wallpaper and flickering bulbs, set against the towering backdrops of huge scientific and technological organizations. The Cold War was a period on both sides of technological growth, yet products were often inferior to the propaganda that represented them. The otherworlds of Roadside Picnic and Neuromancer work so well because they are not set in deep space or unitary communes so popular in futuristic SF, but rather align with an emerging reality during this time of suboptimal cultural development.

Beyond their boundaries, otherworlds are marked by four major characteristics. The first is grotesqueness. In particular, otherworlds give rise to body modifications. In Roadside Picnic, these modifications are genetic, somehow brought on by time spent in the Zone. Stalkers sometimes degenerate, but the children of stalkers are actually born with odd deformities. Red’s child, lovingly nicknamed the Monkey, has soft golden fur all over her body. She is otherwise a perfect child, kind and inquisitive. As she grows older, though, she becomes dull, mute, and covered in dark, coarse hair, transforming completely into an actual monkey. There are other grotesqueries as well. The dead who were buried in the Zone before the visit have become reanimated and slowly and messily begin to live again in their old homes, if those places still exist. And, in a nice expression of the mixed fortunes found in the zone, cars left parked there grow shinier and newer as the years pass, yet their gas tanks all rust completely off (Strugatsky, 26).

Neuromancer has its fair share of grotesqueness as well. Body modifications abound in Chiba City. Cyber cowboys, of course, have modded themselves in order to jack in. Molly, hired by Armitage to work alongside Case as the muscle of the operation, is heavily augmented. She is called a razorgirl on account of the retractable blades under her fingernails. She also has had mirrored lenses surgically sealed over her eyes, which enhance her vision. Other characters have modifications that allow them to project holographs, and others regularly undergo rejuvenation operations. Most of the numerous modifications are functional, for use in navigating the underworld and the otherworld. Another grotesque aspect is that of simstim, a method that allows the user to inhabit the experiences of another via manipulation of the mind and nervous system. There is also a form of prostitution that disables a person’s consciousness by means of a chip and renders him or her a “doll,” which can be used sexually at the purchaser’s will. All these creations have been made possible by the technology represented by the matrix. Easterbrook argues that they are a sign of Gibson’s “recuperation of Romanticism’s alternating fascination and horror with technology itself,” (Easterbrook, 379), and this sets it apart from other sci-fi, which usually goes only so far as to establish advanced technology as “quotidian.”

The second characteristic of otherworlds is the dominance of an unknown power.

The second characteristic of otherworlds is the dominance of an unknown power. AIs have the ability to be more intelligent than humans, and to live in, create, and traverse cyberspace much more facilely. The Turing Registry, a sort of police force, exists in The Neuromancer to make sure that no AI breaks rules that would cause it to become too powerful. Wintermute is an AI which has hired Armitage to assemble a team to help it break these rules by manipulating the matrix, the real world, and everyone in it in order to unite with its other half and become a super-AI entity. Wintermute can use any robot for its own will, opening magnetic locks and using gardening robots as assassins. It also hacks holographics to speak to people impersonating figures from their memories. For Case, it simply appears in the Matrix as people he knows, taking whole memories of his and altering them to prove points or give orders. Not only is Wintermute powerful, but no one knows just how much it can do, and for most of the novel, even its presence is unknown.

In Roadside Picnic, the unknown nature of the powerful is even more profoundly unknown. The aliens who visited Earth are never described, implying that they were probably never seen. Lem even postulates that they never visited Earth, but rather parts of their ships crashed to Earth. Whatever the case, the five Zones touched by the aliens are now places of mystery and immensely powerful objects that are not understood.

Within the novel, the scientist Valentine Pillman uses the metaphor of a roadside picnic to explain his theory of what the Zones are. In the metaphor, the aliens are picnickers who have made a stop at a campground and continued on their way, and humans are the woodland animals that pick up whatever trash has been left behind. The Zone is the campground. “An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about…the wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp,” Pillman says (Strugatsky, 132). The enormity of the aliens’ power and the scale of our incomprehension is made clear by this analogy. The hell slime, the death lamps, the burning fuzz, even the spacells—self-multiplying endless energy sources used as car batteries by humans—are castoffs from the greater entities who have left them left behind, entities who did not even deign to make contact with us, just as we would not attempt to make contact with ants. Their presence created the otherworld of the Zones, and their refuse constitutes the great wealth and danger found there.

The third characteristic of the otherworlds is violence. Countless ventures into the Zone have proved lethal. Kirill Panov, a scientist and Red’s friend, was touched by a “cobweb” and had a heart attack hours later. Others walk into bug traps, called graviconcentrates by the scientists, which instantly crush any object that enters to a pulp. Still others are sacrificed to the meat grinder, and others are hit by the searing heat of jolly ghosts. As Red puts it, “That’s the Zone for you: come back with swag, a miracle; come back alive, success; come back with a patrol bullet in your ass, good luck; and everything else—that’s fate” (Strugatsky, 17). The Zone embodies violence.

In the matrix, there is a similar violence, that of flatlining. Outside the matrix, but as a direct result of the power it holds, violence is to be found among the hitmen who wait around corners of underworlds. Some are ninjas who will wait years so that “you’ll have more to lose when they take [life] away” (Gibson, 177). Others are simply street killers, sent to hit those who owe a drug lord too much. Either way, this violence is ever-present, because near the matrix the stakes are high.

Danger of death is omnipresent, but there is also the danger of punishment and similarly of retribution.

Closely related to the third is the fourth and ultimate characteristic: danger. Danger of death is omnipresent, but there is also the danger of punishment and similarly of retribution. Cops lurk around the borders of the Zone, looking to shoot on sight anyone unauthorized to enter. They also set up traps and informers in order to shut down smuggling rings, posing as buyers and then arresting the stalkers. Turing Registry officers function similarly around the matrix, tracking down and arresting people who try to steal data or work with or against AIs in illegal ways. These are the vehicles of punishment. Retribution is meted out by assassins and bodyguards in the underworld of Chiba City, as well as in similar locations in Neuromancer such as the Sprawl and Freeside. In Harmont, old allies who have sold out and smugglers who haven’t gotten what they were promised fulfill the same role.

In these four ways are otherworlds formed. The violence, danger, grotesqueness, and unknown dominating power of otherworlds join diverse, ugly urban underworlds and uncultured, antiheroic thieves to build visions of the future that are far from idealized. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s post-visit world, largely unchanged but for small, contained areas of horror and lucre, sets a strong precedent for future works. It looks at humanity not through the lens of a fantastic parable, but through a relatable domain nudged into example by way of small extraordinary shifts.

William Gibson may or may not have been directly influenced by Roadside Picnic in writing Neuromancer. Either way, the similarities between the two works show an indirect influence from the changing ideas of the sci-fi community at large which was reacting to conditions of the late Cold War period. The idea that the fantastic elements of the future—represented by monsters like super-intelligent aliens and computers—are not clean, but dirty, was established in sci-fi. Joining this idea was the use of interactions with these worlds wrought by these monsters not by specialists, as in the past, but by scroungers, by real, non-pedigreed people. Humanity does not disappear as the future appears, these books say. A perspective on humanity that was appreciated in ’70s Russia via the Strugatskys was enjoyed as much in ’80s Canada and America via Gibson, and their vision of the filthy future endures.

This spring we’re looking back at the Cold War through games, movies, comics and books. Check out the rest of our series here.

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Leila Selchaif

Leila Selchaif

Leila Selchaif is just another New York City kid who got scolded during playdates for reading books instead of playing. She loves explosions, sharks, magical realism, digital humanities, and lists. All of her time not spent reading is spent playing ultimate frisbee. If you like questionable sexual innuendos and dessert items in the same place, follow her on instagram @dessertdoxy.