Short takes: ‘Anvil of Stars’ and ‘Roadside Picnic’

February 5, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 5, 2020

I generally try to avoid reading books that are part of a series, because I fear the time and effort it might take to finish the entire cycle. So when I checked out a digital copy of Anvil of Stars, the 1992 science-fiction novel by Greg Bear, it was without knowing that it was part of a duology. And I definitely didn’t realize that it was the back half of the pair.

There was certainly some back story, and presumably some resonance, that I missed due to not having read The Forge of God, the 1987 initial entry in what Fantastic Fiction dubs (simply enough) Bear’s Forge of God series. But I trust that I got enough of the information I needed, especially given that Anvil evidently executes a very different shift in setting and story.

From what I gather, the earlier book — set during or a short while into the future of the time the story was published — chronicled humanity’s first encounter with aliens. The visitors, who mostly take the form of self-replicating needle-shaped vehicles, turn out to be very mean; by the end of the volume, they’ve destroyed Earth.

Fortunately for us, another set of robots is nipping at the heels of the Killers. These represent a set of aliens known as the Benefactors, who save a relatively small group of survivors. Most of these (fortunate?) souls live aboard an Ark orbiting Mars as they wait for the planet to be terraformed into a hospitable environment.

The exceptions are 82 youngsters who have volunteered to undertake a mission. The Benefactors, you see, have a code of conduct for intelligent species, and it mandates the complete destruction of any sentient race that builds self-replicating killer devices. These brave teenagers have spent two years voyaging toward a possible point of origin of the Killers, although due to relativistic time dilation, more than half a century passes for every subjective year they travel at top speed, which is more than 99 percent of the speed of light.

Our protagonist is Martin, the leader — Pan, as they call him — of the so-called Lost Boys and Wendys who are journeying about the Dawn Treader. He and the crew (they still think of themselves as children) find themselves put to the test when they discover a planetary system that seems to be linked to the Killers. It’s safe to say that their initial attempt to claim vengeance doesn’t go according to plan.

As the story continues, the humans discover a ghost ship and encounter some potentially helpful aliens. These creatures, dubbed Brothers, are a fascinating creation, because an individual consists of intertwined snakelike “cords.” The cords can and do separate; these components act with limited autonomy in this state but lack the intelligence they demonstrate when they’ve combined into “braids.”

Bear throws other wild concepts at the reader. The humans attempt to discern whether planets inhabited by billions of creatures are what they seem or whether they’re part of a masquerade orchestrated by creatures with godlike abilities. What’s remarkable about many of these notions, especially that of aggregate or pack intelligences, is that they were also part of Vernor Vinge’s fantastic novel A Fire Upon the Deep, which was published the same year as Anvil of Stars. Maybe there was something in the air that year…?

On a more familiar level, Martin engages with the troubles that might afflict any ship of orphans. The crew experiences grief for lost families, friends and lovers; shows signs of dividing behind different leaders, including a self-styled religious prophet; and tentatively begins bonding with the Brothers, who are put off by humans’ capacity for violence.

Ultimately, the book is quite satisfying. It’s not on the level of A Fire Upon the Deep, and I have no immediate plans to read The Forge of the Gods, but even so, Anvil of Stars stands as a pretty good science-fiction read on its own.

The casual SF enthusiast could be forgiven for failing to recognize Roadside Picnic, the 1972 novel by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I’d describe myself as having slightly more knowledge of the genre than the average science-fiction reader, and yet I couldn’t have told you anything about this volume before borrowing up a digital copy of the 2012 Chicago Review Press edition, featuring a new translation by Olena Bormashenko.

The book was the basis of Stalker, a renowned 1979 movie from director Andrei Tarkovsky, which I have not seen. (Tarkovsky also directed a glacially paced 1972 adaptation of Solaris, the fascinating novel by the great Polish science-fiction author Stanislaw Lem.)

The story is set somewhere in Europe — perhaps an obscure precinct of England? — in the late 20th century. A handful of locations have been visited by mysterious aliens, who have since departed. The areas they left behind are called Zones, and they are extremely hazardous. Gravity works oddly in certain spots; deadly and mysterious substances lurk in others.

Access to Zones is tightly controlled by a multinational institute, but not just because these regions are deadly to the casual visitor. They also contain strange alien artifacts that scientists and industrialists alike hope can advance human technology. Naturally, a black market for extraterrestrial objects has arisen around the Zones. The market is fed by Stalkers, criminals who sneak into the Zones at night to retrieve exotic detritus. These are fenced to wealthy collectors, ambitious businesses and so forth.

One chapter is told from the point of view of one of the institute’s functionaries — or should that be one of its hustlers? But the Strugatskys’ protagonist is Red Schuhart, a Stalker who at the beginning of the tale actually works for the institute.

Over the course of several chapters, the book chronicles his exploits in and out of the Zone, some of which land him in jail. The cynical Schuhart becomes a family man over the course of the book, a development that is both wholesome and gruesome because of the way the Zone affects frequent visitors and otherwise manifests its strange powers.

The book often resembles a hard-boiled detective or espionage novel as various characters engage in political maneuvers, conduct interrogations, exchange blows and skulk around different locations. The visits to the Zone, however, read at once like traditional science fiction and like surrealistic literature.

There are also some detailed philosophical discussions in which the characters wonder about (if memory serves — my library loan has expired!) the place of Homo sapiens in the universe. It’s during one of these that someone compares the Zones to the aftermath of a roadside picnic — we, like animals, attempt with little success to discern just what was left behind.

The volume features two other items of note. There’s an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky, who died in 2012 at age 79. (His older brother died in 1991 at age 66.) The only thing I remember about the introduction — which I believe I failed to read in full — is that some of it was taken from Le Guin’s contemporaneous review of the novel.

Strugatsky’s document is rather lengthy and details the history of the creation and publication of the novel, which was hindered by various Soviet bureaucrats who feared the tale would be considered anti-communist. I found their fears ironic, because Schuhart doesn’t mention communism in any way that I caught, but he’s explicitly horrified by the notion of getting a nine-to-five job and becoming a capitalist drone.

Roadside Picnic is an absorbing and enjoyable book. It would be a good read for casual science-fiction fans and mystery and espionage devotees who are interested in crossing genres.

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