Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
A brief history of The Zone, the sci-fi idea that swallows everything

A brief history of The Zone, the sci-fi idea that swallows everything

Infinite Scroll is a series about the increasingly blurry lines between the internet, pop culture, and the real world.

The Zone, no matter how you enter it, is a pain in the ass. Sometimes it’s full of mutant animals, speaking in strangely familiar tongues. Sometimes there are gravitational anomalies, flinging you and whoever you’re with into the sky like ragdolls. Sometimes you stand in the ruins of a factory and head straight in one direction and stumble right back into the ruins you left. Sometimes there is a passage so unfriendly to visitors that it is simply called the Meat Grinder; perhaps your Destination, the very reason you entered the Zone, exists on the other side of said Meat Grinder. The point of the Zone is that these things are there, these absolutely glorious metaphysical pains in the ass, and that you are dealing with them, step by tremulous step. No matter what, there will be others like you—scavengers in search of god knows what. Maybe they, and you, will be called Stalkers.

That’s how most of us came to know the Zone. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker sits high in the pantheon of great art-house science fiction, transforming Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic into a characteristically heady and gorgeous meditation on the director’s pet themes: art, hope, fear, water, death, and so on. Tarkovsky claimed that he had only taken the words “Stalker” and “Zone” from the book, but the truth is that they have a lot in common. For example, in both, the Stalker is in search of some sort of wish-granting device deep within the Zone. In both, he has a daughter named Monkey, which makes a little more sense in the book (she appears to be turning into a monkey) than in the movie (she has no legs). The differences are largely ambient. The Strugatskys’ book features lots of pulply shit-talk, particularly among the various bureaucrats and hucksters etching a living off the Zone. The Zone, too, is a little less mysterious in the novel, described fairly clearly as the byproduct of some sort of superintelligence passing through the earth. The humans swarming it are compared to ants crawling over the leftovers of a roadside picnic—inconsequential, ill-equipped, and hungry.

But Tarkovsky’s claim is correct, at least in essence: the lure itself is the idea of the Zone, a cordoned-off area in which the basic laws of reality seem to be warped, and not by any coherent logic, thanks to some mysterious catastrophe. One consistent outgrowth of these time-space distortions is the production of artifacts with otherworldly properties, so valuable to outsiders that opportunistic Stalkers would willingly enter this nightmare. (The Strugatskys fill it with something called, righteously, Hell Slime.) Artists, too, keep re-entering the Zone; Tarkovsky’s interpretation of the Strugatskys’ initial vision would turn out to be just the first of many. As an idea, a meme in the classical sense, it is plague-like—resilient, mutating, dangerous.

Part of the reason for this is that, in 1986, the Zone came to terrible life: bursting out of the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl and manifesting in an actual 30-kilometer exclusion zone. Watching HBO’s gut-wrenching miniseries earlier this year, it was difficult not to think of the Strugatskys’ descriptions of invisible, flesh-melting anomalies, or of Tarkovsky’s imagery of scavengers spelunking through a post-industrial nightmare. In Stalker, there is a mysterious dog, seemingly at home within the Zone; in HBO’s miniseries, there are dogs, dozens of them, sliding out of a dump truck into a mass grave. These similarities are not lost on the young men who, to this day, lead curious visitors illegally through the exclusion zone. They call themselves Stalkers.

Photo: HBO

That Stalker, Roadside Picnic, and the Chernobyl disaster are all products of the late Soviet Union is no coincidence. The connection was made more explicit still in a trilogy of genre-defying games from the mid-2000s, each called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which situate the Zone explicitly in the shadow of Chernobyl. (The first game in the series is subtitled, tellingly, Shadow Of Chernobyl.) Equal parts shooter, survival horror, and role-playing game, they tap into the explicitly game-like elements of the original idea: that is, of a knowing, singular avatar traversing an unknown space. What could be more game-like? The alpha-male bravado of Strugatskys’ original protagonist comes to the fore in the games; you spend time picking over corpses for loot, gaining the uneasy trust of fellow Stalkers, cooling your heels in melancholy bars. There have been many Zones since in games: the Metro trilogy imagines an entire society formed in the tunnels beneath an uninhabitable Zone, while this year’s Mutant: Year Zero re-configures the entire world as the Zone, with a single oasis of stalkers making occasional forays out into it. This feels a bit like a stretch of the definition of a “zone,” but on the other hand, you get to play as a talking duck in it. It’s very good.

There are many more transformations. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. clones are almost a game genre unto themselves, and Jeff Vandermeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy of books, the first of which was adapted by Alex Garland as Annihilation, explored the idea of the Zone—here referred to as “The Shimmer”—reverently while also playfully subverting it. (Vandermeer, for example, is the first to send a group of women into the Zone.) What is it about this specific idea—the Stalker and the Zone—that has proven so robust? Part of it, certainly, is the narrative blank check it provides creators. It’s an elemental journey: man versus zone, if not quite man versus nature. You don’t need to explain anything; in fact, it’s better if you don’t. All Zone fiction is full of portentous exchanges in which one character simply… wonders. “It wasn’t destroying anything,” Natalie Portman says toward the end of Annihilation. “It was making everything new.” The scientist questioning her about her experience within The Shimmer pauses, then asks her: making what new? “I don’t know,” she responds. This is where you end the scene, in Zone fiction. No one ever knows.

It works, though—pretty much all of it; all Zone fiction is cool—because of the way the creators cash those blank checks. None of these works is particularly easy to get through, whether because they are directed by Andrei Tarkovsky or because, as in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, dialing down the difficulty merely makes every bullet in the game, including your own, do less damage. You shrug all of this off, though, because the Zone, no matter how you enter it, is supposed to be a pain in the ass. The fewer answers the better. It is a place of instability. Garland, for example, intentionally adapted Vandermeer’s novel from his mere impressions and memories. Its changes feel less like the shifts and compromises standard in book-to-film adaptations than they do a reordering by the rules of the Zone, as if Vandermeer’s lighthouse and zombie bear and alien spores rearranged themselves on this entry. The ruined landscapes of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are still patrolled by role-players lured to their rusty megastructures and demonic pulses of red light. All sci-fi allows its creator a certain aesthetic free reign, but the Zone focuses it on a certain melancholy stretch of the subconscious mind. It’s proven alchemical; with each new adaptation, it transforms again, the pieces moving into new positions. It’s hard to grow tired of a place that’s impossible to map.

What remains static, then, is the trinity: the Stalker, the Zone, and the Destination, although that last one can get a little shaky. Everybody enters the Zone for their own reason, even if that only becomes clear after the metaphysical anomalies hit the fan. In Stalker, the writer pulls out a gun, then the professor pulls out a bomb. Neither go off. In Roadside Picnic, the Stalker takes the son of his deceased friend as an unwitting offering to feed the Meat Grinder, in hopes of securing his own desires. In Annihilation, the women are in search of a lighthouse for reasons they never quite grasp—in addition to the titular oblivion. In the games, your mission is whichever one you’re following on the map. The quests are ever-changing; the constant is that there is a quest, whatever it is. So the Stalker stalks toward it. In almost none of these stories do they reach their Destination, or find precisely what they’re looking for. Tidy resolutions are as unlikely in the Zone as proper names. It’s always “the biologist,” “the writer,” “Porcupine”: something procedurally generated, the Zone swallowing steady narrative footing and stretching the destination further away.

For the documentarian Adam Curtis, this sense of ontological drift is not only the unifying aesthetic effect of Zone fiction, but its actual, real-world impetus. His sprawling 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation returns Roadside Picnic and Stalker to their points of origin, when the Soviet economy had collapsed but politicians refused to acknowledge it. He paraphrases the theorist Alexei Yurchak: “You were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. The fakeness was hypernormal.” (The film was released just before that year’s U.S. presidential election, but written about everywhere just afterwards.) The Zone, like many great sci-fi ideas before it, transforms a real-world feeling into a hypothetical space, turning political and economic disenfranchisement amidst mass disinformation campaigns into a ruined wasteland full of space-time anomalies. The best one can hope for, like any of these Stalkers, is to make it from one solid spot to the next, tossing screws to verify the footing. Curtis loops back to Stalker later in the film, saying the political technologists behind the rise of Vladimir Putin had been “powerfully influenced by the science fiction of the Strugatsky brothers.” But rather than further its original countercultural message, he says, “they used it to manipulate the electorate on a vast scale. For them, reality was just something that can be manipulated and shaped into anything you want it to be.” This sort of citations-needed leap is common in Curtis’ documentary, but the rhetorical sweep is such that you barely notice it. What he is describing is a feeling that you can fact-check by reaching into your pocket.

Indeed, while Curtis’ political read is no doubt [Scrolls through Twitter, breathes into a bag for five minutes, returns.] accurate, it’s hard not to feel the Zone as a simulacrum for the internet itself in these late days of humanity: an increasingly cursed realm through which we willingly stalk, despite our certain knowledge of its very unreality. We know that, say, our Facebook friends are not our real friends, that “Like” doesn’t mean like, that an Instagram vacation doesn’t reflect the vacation had, that any video we see might be an algorithmic fake, that news sources have been bled free of their staff, and that the few fact-checkers left alive have become the last scattered acolytes of a dying cult. (If there was ever a metaphor from the depths of the Zone itself, it is the “bottomless Pinocchio.”) And yet, here we are—still! One of the most horrifying parts of 2016, the year Curtis released HyperNormalisation, was the way the internet’s id seemed to be crawling out into the real world, a phenomenon that has only increased, become more normal. Toward the end of Roadside Picnic, corpses start doddering out of the Zone, welcomed back into their old homes despite the godawful stench they give off. Think of this the next time you bump into an old friend who appears to be getting their politics from a YouTube algorithm.

Zone fiction can, at times, feel like a dark twin to the simulation-theory fiction that has proven so resilient since the dawn of the millennium. Both turn to sci-fi to explain the fundamental sense that reality has broken. But where simulation-theory stories almost always end in triumph, or at least acceptance—Neo breaking out of the Matrix, Truman leaving the studio, Cobb walking away from the top—Zone fiction ends in, well, annihilation. For Roadside Picnic, it’s a howl into gale-force winds; in Stalker, it’s spiritual desolation; in Annihilation, it’s turning into a dolphin, among other things. The Zone chews up narrative, often literally. The works themselves can seem cursed. Recent editions of Roadside Picnic end with an afterword in which Boris Strugatsky details the years-long censorship gauntlet the book survived to be published. The original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game spent the better part of a decade in development hell, and was ultimately released full of bugs, anomalies born out of its own troubled production. An enumerated sequel has been in the works for almost a decade. Tarkovsky lost half of his film when it was developed improperly, then re-shot it all. The film’s sound designer has speculated that the eerily similar deaths by lung cancer of the movie’s star, as well as Tarkovsky and, later, his wife, were the result of its toxic filming locations. This theory is impossible to fact check, but it feels right. It is repeated everywhere on the internet.

Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio.