Understanding Alien Life in this Week’s Readings

In last week’s Solaris, Stanislaw Lem first introduced the theme that, in understanding alien cultures, human beings necessarily impose an anthropocentric framework onto decidedly unearthly creatures and societies. In Solaris, it was the mysterious ocean’s transmission of humanoid visitors to Kelvin and crew that violated both the characters’ and the reader’s assumptions about the nature of extraterrestrial existence. Lem’s repudiation of human-centered explanations for alien events, however, was not unique to Solaris. In Tuesday’s reading of the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic, after aliens briefly appear on Earth, so-called “stalkers” sneak into the Zone where the aliens landed illegally and gather the artifacts left from their visit. These bizarre (and sometimes scientifically inexplicable) materials are soon deployed and revolutionize the technology of the region, though doubt remains as to whether the items are being used for their intended purpose. In fact, one scientist even suggests that items, such as the inexhaustible spacell batteries that have completely reinvented electrical powering, were just waste deposited by the aliens as they passed by Earth en route to another destination.

It is in this interpretation of the alien intentions that the novel gets its name. Dr. Valentine Pillman outlines the metaphor of the titular “Roadside Picnic”, wherein individuals stop on the side of the street, hold a picnic, and depart, leaving behind their garbage and never considering the aftermath of their actions. He explains, “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? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about” (Strugatsky, 132). Much like the woodland creatures witnessing a casual picnic, the inhabitants of Earth view only the aftermath of the alien “roadside picnic…by the side of some space road” (132). However, the humans perceive the litter as calculated, a reflection of the purposeful journey of the aliens to Earth. It is only through this lens that they can coherently piece together a narrative of an alien invasion; much like in Solaris, the characters of Roadside Picnic assign intentionality to non-human entities, even when these explanations of events do not necessarily indicate the reality of the situation. Red and the other stalkers so rarely stop to consider that the ostensibly valuable items for which they risk their lives are merely trash. This interpretation of the Zone contravenes their human assumptions about how occurrences like the Visit should be, and they thus find it hard to integrate this perspective into their understanding of the event itself. Similar to Kelvin’s construal of the ocean’s receding waves as a sign of its reaction to his outstretched hand, Red and company deem—perhaps erroneously—the Visit a deliberate attempt by aliens to make contact with humanity.

I noticed that this trope continued in Kirill Bulychëv’s short story “Snowmaiden.” When the unnamed protagonist encounters an alien girl next to a ship, he immediately accepts her because her physiognomy resembles human features. He notes, “We normally associate danger with creatures whose appearance is disturbing to us, […], To expect anything insidious from this slender girl, whose long eyelashes cast a shadow on her pale delicate cheeks, whose face stirred in each and everyone one of us an overwhelming desire to see the color of her eyes—to expect anything insidious from this girl, even in the form of viruses, would have seemed most unchivalrous” (Bulychëv, 105). Bulychëv again articulates what Lem and the Strugatskys both demonstrated: the human impulse to accept only phenomena that adhere with our expectations about how alien cultures must align with our own.

In addition, I wonder about how the use of the character of the Snowmaiden uniquely reflects this struggle between the drive to accept other cultures as alien and therefore inhuman and the desire to incorporate those societies into a humanistic model. The protagonist notes, “the comparison of the girl to the Snowmaiden of folklore—the girl made of snow who came to life only to melt under the rays of the sun—proved to be particularly apt” (105-106). Though I’m not particularly well versed in the tale of the Snowmaiden, I watched the film Snegurochka for another course and drew some interesting parallels between Bulychëv’s story and the plot of Snegurochka (which translates to Snow Maiden). In the movie, Snegurochka initially captivates a group of peasants with her ethereal, otherworldly charm, but she soon renounces her supernatural origins to assimilate into the village where she resides and better understand humanity as a whole. Therefore, I suspect that the Bulychëv version of the Snowmaiden is meant to mimic this folk tale in that, as the Snowmaiden grows closer and closer to the narrator, she simultaneously grows more and more human. Though she does not melt at the advent of Spring, as does Snegurochka, the Snowmaiden and the main character eventually reach a sort of temperature balance wherein he is finally able to touch her, an act which only makes her more human in his eyes. By drawing on the folk tale of Snegurochka, Bulychëv again echoes the themes of our previous authors about the ways in which aliens can only be understood and loved if they are consistent with an anthropocentric, inward-focused model of what “life” entails.