In 1967, during her tenure as director of the Tape Music Center at Mills College, the composer Pauline Oliveros found herself drawn to a frog pond located outside the centre. Influenced by the sounds of the frogs emanating from the pond, she created a piece of music, which she called Alien Bog. Made on one of the first synthesizers, the new Buchla Box 100, Alien Bog is a beautiful piece that sounds both alien and familiar, artificial and natural, as if trying to simultaneously create and understand a new language previously unknown, or unheard. As she acknowledged the influence of the frogs on her new piece she was lamenting the fact that the pond would soon give way to a new building as the Tape Music Center expanded. “It will no doubt be haunted by ghost frogs!”, she later wrote.
Now let's visit another haunted site.
“[Imagine] a picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car 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? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. And of course, the usual mess—apple cores,
candy wrappers, charred remains of the camp fire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s pen knife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”
This is how one character describes the area that is at the centre of brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине). In the Strugatskys' book earth has been the subject of a series of “visitations” from aliens. The aliens themselves have never been observed, they have come and gone unseen. Absolutely nothing is known about them, except that wherever their landings took place, they left behind “zones” of altered landscapes. These zones are marked by a number of objects left behind by the aliens, as well as a series of obscure environmental changes, thus the parallel drawn to a roadside picnic.
The story takes place in and around one of these zones, all of which have been cordoned off and are guarded by police and UN-military. Only officially sanctioned scientists are allowed in for research and nothing is allowed to leave the zone or the research facilities. However, there is a host of illegal black market activity going on, with so called “stalkers” entering the zone to smuggle out objects that they sell to collectors. Going into a zone, especially on an “unauthorised” trip, is extremely dangerous work. Not only do you risk imprisonment, or being shot by the military guards, but first and foremost the zone is full of hazards and as a result few stalkers live long lives. The dangers encountered are all phenomena incomprehensible to science, for instance areas of sudden violently extreme gravity and a floating material that dissolves everything it sticks to. The objects found in the zones are for the most part equally mysterious. One type, “empties.” consists of two discs with nothing in between, yet they cannot be pulled apart, while other objects include “hoops” in perpetual motion, “shriekers” making sounds and “black sprays” emitting light. The “black sprays,” sold to collectors and worn as jewellery, might in fact be pieces of highly advanced technology, and it seems likely that the use of the objects by humans is like “trying to use a nuclear reactor for a hammer.” Even more incomprehensible is how the effects of the zone extend beyond the zone itself. Random deathly accidents occur in the places outside it where people who move away from the affected areas settle down, and children born to anyone who has been in the zone are affected, too. We never really know exactly what is different about these children, but as they grow older they seem to grow less and less human.
However, despite all the risks and dangers involved and despite, or more likely because of all the unknowns, the zone is the eye of a storm of life, a whole new human eco(nomic)-system living off it. A system of science, politics and businesses, official and black markets, interlinking with myths of fear and hope. Haunted by the ghosts of aliens about whom we know nothing, this alien bog is a world that cannot be grasped, existing outside all reason, logic and human comprehension. Roadside Picnic is a book that confronts humanity with something truly alien and watches its reaction. Confronted with an “other” is it possible to make sense of what is essentially “non-sense”? Or is what we see and how we act when confronted with an other in the end only a reflection of ourselves? A reflection of our societies, of our beliefs, dreams and desires and if so, is the reading of the novel itself a similar reflection? Roadside Picnic was first published as a series in the literary magazine Avrora in 1972. Due to censorship, this original Russian version was not published in full in book form until the 1990s, although it had in the meantime been translated into a host of other languages. Because of the official ban on parts of the book it has been seen as an example of dissident literature and the story can certainly be interpreted as a political allegory for an official state apparatus closing off zones of the irrational, of that which cannot be ordered and thus cannot be controlled. It seems however that the censorship was actually due to graphic language, stylistically reminiscent of Raymond Chandler's hardboiled noir. In the spirit of the novel, a political reading remains wide open. Depending on one's point of view, it can just as easily be seen as dissident critique as it can be read as a critique of a corrupt capitalism that institutes the gross commercialisation of everything and ruins the people in its path. Or why not both?
The afterword to the Polish edition from 1977 was written by Stanislaw Lem, a writer who was also concerned with questions relating to the possibility, or impossibility, of understanding that which is not ourself. In books such as His Master’s Voice, Fiasco and, most famously, Solaris he repeatedly returned to this theme. His enthusiasm for the Strugatsky brothers’ book shows in that he wrote a 35-page afterword discussing it in some detail (the book itself is only 150 pages long). Lem took science fiction very seriously, insisting on science fiction, fiction as a way of research into philosophy, linguistics, applied sciences and so forth. Thus, as theory, it must be realistic within its own parameters and as a thesis. He makes clear that he finds Roadside Picnic an extraordinary work, but then spends large parts of the afterword taking issue with some details in the book not being realistic. Serious business indeed.1
Lem’s Solaris, published in 1961, is the story of psychologist Kris Kelvin and his two fellow scientists on a space station circling the planet Solaris.
Solaris is more than a regular rock in space though. The planet is covered by an ocean that is seemingly a being in itself, one massive consciousness. Upon arrival at the space station Kelvin is surprised and saddened to learn about the recent suicide of his colleague and old teacher, and he quickly becomes mystified by the behaviour of the two scientists left. They seem oddly stressed out, reluctant to even leave their rooms, as if they are hiding something. Something which Kelvin is soon to find himself faced with. The men are all confronted with a person from their past appearing on the space station, not as a hallucination or dream but in real life. In Kelvin’s case it is his ex-girlfriend Rheya, who killed herself ten years earlier. Neither Kelvin nor the reader ever quite see who the two other men are “visited,” or haunted, by, but judging from their behaviour it is also fairly traumatising. Kelvin is at first horrified at the appearance of Rheya, partly due to old trauma, but obviously first and foremost since he knows her to be dead. Thus whatever this manifestation is, it cannot be the “real” Rheya, even if she looks like her and shares Kelvin's knowledge of their time together.
What these visits mean or how they are possible is not clear to the men, except that they must have to do with Solaris. Years of scientific research have established that the ocean is seemingly a consciousness with capabilities far beyond human imagination, but very little else has been understood. It now seems that it is communicating with them, probing their minds and finding the strongest and deepest embedded feelings and memories, and making them appear in flesh and blood. At least that is the theory, but the men can only speculate. They have no way of knowing if Solaris is deliberately trying to hurt them, or the opposite, trying to give something of the greatest importance to them. Or if, which is much more likely, it doesn't have a clue what it is doing in a human emotional sense, but is repeating patterns it finds in the “message” it receives in the form of the men's consciousnesses. Perhaps trying to establish base communications, perhaps as pure play or perhaps as a random reflex. The book alters between discussions among the crew members and the relationship between Kelvin and Rheya, with whom Kelvin is falling in love. It would be tempting to say “falling in love again,” but that would clearly be wrong, as the visitor he is falling in love with is the Rheya of his own memories.
Solaris is interspersed with descriptions of the planet itself. Reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges, Lem establishes this world through readings of libraries of dictionaries and journals. This takes the form of long descriptions of the shape and form of the ocean mixed with visions of familiar images as Solaris occasionally mimes images from the minds of the human visitors. However, as has been made clear, no one has managed to establish any motive, rationale or logic to the ocean, so the scientific literature consists solely of speculative theories and descriptive passages like those of a gigantic moving abstract sculpture. Like you would imagine written descriptions of the liquid light work projections of artist Tony Martin. Works Martin started making while at the San Fransisco Tape Music Center, founded in the same year Solaris was written, and where, as it happens, Pauline Oliveros was also a co-founding member. In Solaris there are long sequences of descriptions of abstract shapes. Looking for meaning among abstract shapes and a feedback of visions created from your own subconsciousness. Probably not unlike looking at Martin's psychedelic light shows.
Solaris is a story about many things. Communication, knowledge, science, literature, art, psychology, trauma, memory, love and loss. By making humans confront a non-human entity, it explores exactly what it means to be human. An alien, and alienating, ocean confronting us with an “other,” each other and ourselves. It is a story about how to communicate with no way of knowing the intentions and workings of the other being and raising the question if you can ever really know an-other, even the ones closest to you. Seeing how Solaris seems to react to the men's subconscious thoughts, not even their own communication to Solaris can be considered remotely rational. In one attempt at more controlled communication, the men map Kelvin's brain and send this neurological map of information down into the ocean as x-rays. It is most likely a vain attempt, even Kelvin cannot actually know all of what the message (his brain) contains, and they have no way of knowing if it has any effect, makes any sense or indeed what it does to Solaris. Bombarding it with x-rays might in principle also damage or pollute it. It truly is difficult to communicate with an-other, but it's even harder not to try. That, at the end of the day, is a very human story.
In 1977, the year that Lem wrote his afterword to Roadside Picnic, the book was also published in English with a foreword by the American writer Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon was an early pioneer in using the alien space of science fiction to discuss very human questions of gender, complex social identities and structures of society, and as such he was an important influence on a following generation of science fiction writers such as Samuel R. Delany and Ursula Le Guin. In 1958, he wrote a novel called The Cosmic Rape, a title that was later changed to the less brutal sounding To Marry Medusa. At the beginning of this novel we are introduced to Gurlick, a drunkard, lowlife and outcast. Looking through a pile of trash for something to eat, Gurlick finds an old half-eaten hamburger, which—by chance and unknown to him—contains a seed of Medusa. Medusa is a hive mind of collective universal consciousness, spreading across galaxies, like a plant sending out spores. Once a seed is planted in a new intelligent being, that entire race becomes a part of the hive mind, or so it has always been up to this point. As Gurlick eats the hamburger, the hive mind enters him, but cannot connect to the rest of humanity as it expected. Medusa has no experience with individual consciousness. Through thousands of galaxies and all known species of the universe, it has never encountered any intelligence formed of individual minds. Thus it can only assume that the reason human minds are not collective is that something has “broken,” resulting in them being split. Medusa is an immensely superior mind, but it has no way of knowing the radically different individual consciousness and for the first time it experiences fear, because for Medusa, an isolated mind that cannot expand beyond itself is equal to death.
Gurlick, while conscious of himself, can do nothing as Medusa takes control of his actions, seeking a way to connect the minds of humanity.
Medusa, in the shape of Gurlick, starts by asking the people it meets the very literal question: “How can we get together again?” This unsurprisingly leads to no end of misunderstandings, where people either laugh Gurlick off as a crazy drunk, react violently to what they consider a rude suggestion or think that he is a preacher of peace or communism, leaving him even more alone and isolated. Eventually, Medusa / Gurlick come across a neurologist and gain the knowledge needed to build a sort of mobile network with the capacity to connect all human minds. However, unexpectedly for Medusa, instead of becoming part of the hive mind, the individual minds of humanity in a sense take over the network. Remaining individual consciousnesses, but forming a universal network where each mind's individual feelings and experiences are known to all others.
The novel at the outset is bleak. We are introduced to a gallery of people, who do not represent a particularly pretty view of humanity. Stories of men's violence and rape attempts run parallel to Medusa’s attempt to enter and “rape” humanity. (Medusa's name itself is of course that of a mythical figure that has been defined by rape, punished for being the victim). It's a world of isolation, insecurity, fear and violence. However the book ends at the polar opposite, as the individual minds of humanity are connected with each other and with the universal consciousness. “We” and “I” are joined. If someone has experienced a fear, an uncertainty or a happiness, then everyone else has complete empathy. In this world insecurities towards “others” don’t exist, as individuals share and understand every experience, thought and feeling, and thus have nothing to fear of each other. It is the struggle of knowing the other from Roadside Picnic and Solaris, solved. To Marry Medusa shares their interest in how to know or understand the “other,” but it differs greatly from them in offering a utopian dream of togetherness, and that is perhaps the let-down, because ultimately such a final conclusion tends to be far less interesting, not to mention less convincing. What to do if we don't find universal understanding and acceptance in an old hamburger thrown in a pile of trash? Through all the alienness of Roadside Picnic and Solaris they are at the end of the day very realistic, because there is no magic way out. No irrational cop-outs to “solve” the problem of the “irrational other,” or rather there are, but they are individual and psychological cop-outs. Learning from these alien encounters with an “other”—a pond of frogs, an ocean of difference or the leftovers of something truly alien(ating)—the only thing we can be sure to learn about from such meetings is ourself. Alien bog indeed! Still that is of course no small thing, but rather the pre-requisite for any attempts at understanding any thing, any one or any body, and even if we are in a sense bound to fail and cannot meet one another without imposing our own logic, that does not mean there’s no use trying. It’s all we can do.
To end where we started, with Oliveros.
“I was deeply impressed by the sounds from the frog pond outside the studio window at Mills. I loved the accompaniment as I worked on my pieces. Though I never recorded the frogs I was of course influenced by their music.”
1) For someone capable of writings of great beauty as well as deep irony and humour, Stanislaw Lem does seem like a bit of a killjoy, or at the very least a stern believer in tough love. In another afterword, for a book of stories by Jorge Luis Borges, he praises four of Borges’ stories as masterpieces, then proceeds to explain why everything else Borges wrote was really not that great.
Lem even goes as far as to note how Borges started as a librarian and that in fact this is what he still is.
A not at all subtle dig at Borges’ being a library director, and, to Lem, a gatekeeper of archaic knowledge without the imagination to create something new. He does call him a brilliant librarian though. Lem was also highly critical of most science fiction and especially American science fiction, which he found populist, simple and not science fiction at all. The one honourable exception to him was Philip K. Dick, who however, according to a somewhat sad anec-dote, didn't appreciate this high praise. In fact he—having had a major religious awakening/suffered a major psychological breakdown and being rather paranoid from years of drug abuse—thought that Stanislaw Lem was not a real person but a KGB construct, a communist committee out to infiltrate American science fiction. Dick even wrote a letter to the FBI informing them of this.
Jakob Kolding is a Berlin based artist. He is a regular columnist for Starship since 2014 writing on books of his interest, and this time also referring to our thematic proposal of the waste dystopia that the original plastic island constitutes.