I have recently been on a big Russian science fiction kick these past few months (We, Omon Ra, Night Watch etc), and discovered that this book inspired a video game I like, so I figured that I should pick it up. The game in question, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl“, is not really a remake of this book, but after reading the story – it borrows many plot points. It’s weird to know how old this book is (1972) and to see how it predicted the way people would treat an exclusion zone that folks try to sneak into. Granted, Chernobyl was a huge nuclear disaster, and the incident that creates tension in this book is a low-key alien encounter.
It seems that, years prior, an alien invasion of some sort occurred. These aliens, thinking that we were basically ants to them, ignored us completely, left a bunch of trash everywhere, then simply left. A comparison is made that it was like a situation where humans have a Roadside Picnic and leave garbage everywhere – animals would be scared and confused, and have no idea what we left behind. Their trash, however, isn’t just regular trash, it’s so bad that the areas affected end up called “zones”. These areas exhibit strange and dangerous phenomena not understood by humans, and contain artifacts with inexplicable, seemingly supernatural properties. Of course, a huge black market pops up to take advantage and folks start making a career out of sneaking in and stealing this stuff.
I really enjoyed Roadside Picnic, but it wasn’t perfect. It seems so short and has a somewhat unsatisfying open-ended finale. One can surmise what happens at the end, but you never really know. If you want to read something a bit different, this is a decent quick read that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
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Lately I’ve been mostly concentrating on extremely recent science fiction to talk about and write reviews for, but not this week. This week, we will be looking at the Grand Daddy of ALL British science fiction on Television, the program that started it all a DECADE before Doctor Who. Of course I am speaking of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Experiment. It’s a while before we really kick into the Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebrations, but the seemingly forgotten SIXTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Quatermass is even closer, July to be precise. So, in order to kick off “Quatermass Week” on this blog, let’s talk about parts 1 and two of the 1953 serial The Quatermass Experiment.
Originally shown in six parts, The Quatermass Experiment is a miracle of pure luck. I won’t write about any of the BBC’s pre-1980’s archival practices as I could do an entire article solely on that subject; many have written books on it to be precise. But I will point out that Quatermass is a victim of the worst idea the BBC ever had just like Doctor Who. We are truly lucky to have any of the episodes remaining at all, much less two of them. This was the infancy of TV, and things like home video were laughable to BBC executives at the time; in fact the show itself was broadcast live, making things like preservation a lot harder. There was an effort to record the footage directly from a monitor showing the live broadcast, but the results were quite poor, even a fly on the lens can famously be seen throughout a large portion of episode two!
I have been unable to obtain the DVD collection that the Doctor Who restoration team worked on; a set that seems awesome based on stills I’ve come across. I, sadly, had to find this on a popular video streaming site, and deal with visuals that I assume came from a VHS tape. While perfectly watchable, the version I watched was noticeably blurry in places and suffered from all the maladies that one would imagine having come from a camera recording off of a TV screen.
“you massage the rocket like this…”
From the initial marvelous seconds of The Quatermass Experiment, I knew I was in for a treat as the pumping brass of Gustav Holt’s The Planets– Mars, The Bringer of War filled my ears. What an awesome choice for the theme of a show like this. Smoke rolls past a title card that says “The Quatermass Experiment” – simple but effective. The plot follows the ground crew of the first manned flight into space. Headed by Bernard Quatermass, The British Experimental Rocket group is on pins and needles, as communications with the first astronauts has been severed for over two days. It seems that the vessel drifted out of its planned orbit, and began soaring out into space. The ship does eventually crash back to earth near Wimbledon, but not all is okay. One of the three crew members remains, and he is acting weird.It seems “something else” may have also come back with the ship:
One thing that really sticks out to me with this storyline is its realism. Many science fiction stories of this time were largely of the space opera variety. By that I don’t mean the modern sense of that genre, but the sort that lead to the genre being almost a pejorative term until the 1970’s. Keep in mind that this was done a few years before Sputnik ever launched, and there honestly isn’t much futurist shenanigans to see. No Ray-guns, no winged helmets, no dashing hero on Mars, just realistic hard-science fiction. Aside from the shape of the rocket being rather silly, one would assume that this show was made during the “space race”.
Quatermass is another of those great “smart heroes” that persist in UK genre fiction. Rather than being a dashing hulking action hero, Quatermass is a no-nonsense man that seems to know more than everyone around him. Reginald Tate does a fine job of portraying Bernard, and it’s sad that he only did one serial as him. He sadly passed away before Quatermass II was set to film. People today aren’t really used to seeing the heroic scientist archetype in action outside of video games (Half-life for instance) which is a shame. It was a trope that persisted in much of early science fiction, but was pushed to the side by the John Carter character model. The closest thing I can relate to Quatermass is older iterations of “The Doctor” from Doctor Who. In fact, Nigel Kneale was not a fan of the show because he felt it ripped off Quatermass. While the ending doesn’t exist on this serial, I do plan to watch the other versions of this drama (the 1955 Hammer film and the 2005 remake) to see the final conflict between Quatermass and the creature. I know they duke it out, but I’m not sure how everything leads up to that.
I’m glad real space suits didn’t look like this
So there we have it, the original British science fiction hero! Not only did The Quatermass Experiment show that adults could enjoy science fiction stories just as much as kids, but it laid the way for sixty years of British science fiction afterwards. If you watch any serious science fiction drama such as A for Andromeda or Day of the Triffids, you can see little hints of Kneale’s masterpiece. Whether it be the dark nature of the play, or the completely realistic way in which it is told, I think this drama holds up to today’s standards (much like most old TV, as opposed to old movies) and everyone should check it out. In America, we sadly can only get the Hammer films of the series and the later 1970’s serial, but one can import the Quatermass Collection set from England, just consult my handy guide on region-free DVD players on tips to do that. As I stated, I found this serial “by other means”. Some of these older serials, Like Quatermass II, are in the public domain, so they can easily be found on video sharing sites, so us Yankees aren’t completely in the dark.