Seeking the Ineffable in Otherside Picnic

When I set out to write up Otherside Picnic’s first volume, I figured it’d be best to first investigate the story’s formal predecessors: the original novel Roadside Picnic by brothers Arkadis and Boris Strugatsky, as well as its acclaimed film adaptation, Stalker. The context seemed vital for really digging into Otherside Picnic’s approach, but more importantly, both Roadside Picnic and Stalker are beloved works of fiction, and fit squarely within my own preferred genres. I’ve read countless works of weird and speculative fiction, forever captivated by stories of humanity at the fraying edge of reality, meaning it was only a matter of time before I dug into the Strugatskys’ vision on my own time.

What I discovered, unsurprisingly, is that good things are good. The Strugatskys’ novel is sparse and angular, a riveting portrait of a world touched by something from beyond. The roadside picnic of the title refers to one scientist’s description of the “Visitation,” wherein extraterrestrial beings touched down on earth for just two days, leaving uniquely altered landscapes and impossible scraps of technology in their wake. The scientist’s phrasing emphasizes our insignificance to such beings; we are the ants milling about their blankets and baskets, our eyes too small and heads too low to construct meaning from their refuse. Upon this sobering premise of existential insignificance, the Strugatskys present a bleak personal story, detailing the life of one man who harvests the debris of the gods from visitation zones. A connection is thus established between the whims of the visitors and the wheels of capitalism; even on the verge of the sublime, our systems of alienation make worker ants of us all.

Stalker abandons Roadside Picnic’s political thrust, as well as a good portion of its page-turning thrills, in order to meditate more fully on man’s contact with the ineffable. The Zone of Tarkovsky’s film is a place of myth as much as science, a fairy tale whose core grants your heart’s desire. As two visitors and their guide navigate towards the heart of this place, the invisible threats of the Zone are complemented by the party’s own demons. Our heroes are philosophies as much as characters; the Writer with his need for applause, the Professor demanding clarity in life, and their guide, the Stalker, who seems to have made a religion of this unforgiving place. Between them, none are truly capable of crossing the event horizon, and glimpsing what lies in their heart of hearts.

I bring up the merits of Otherside Picnic’s predecessors so we can most cleanly address the elephant in the room: as a text in its own right, Otherside Picnic isn’t executed at a professional level, and can’t reward the sort of robust textual analysis that its predecessors invite. The Strugatskys’ prose is lean yet rich with character voice, a workman’s dialogue that occasionally erupts into melodious pandemonium, as our guide turns a corner and “Suddenly, he seemed to be in another world. A million smells assaulted him at once – smells that were sharp, sweet, metallic; dangerous, caressing, disturbing; as immense as houses, as tiny as dust particles, as rough as cobblestones, and as delicate and intricate as watch gears. The air turned hard, it appeared to have surfaces, corners, edges, as if space had been filled with huge coarse spheres, polished pyramids, and gigantic prickly crystals, and he was forced to make his way through all this, as if in a dream, pushing through a dark antique shop full of ancient misshapen furniture…”

Otherside Picnic has no such moments of terrifying transcendence. The environmental descriptions are functional but graceless, creating little sense of space or atmosphere. The exposition is sprawling and largely redundant, and there is a great deal of phrase repetition; a properly ruthless editor would likely cut the text’s overall volume by half. The author lacks the confidence to ever imply anything; each new variable must be sized up and triple-underlined, leaving no room for ambiguity, no dialogue between author and audience. References to other media are not so much interwoven as jammed in full cloth, and though there are attempts at character voice, the emergent identity we discover is ultimately a photograph of a photograph. Otherside Picnic doesn’t possess strengths so much as saving graces, and thus my investigation will mostly concern the distance between what it is and what it might potentially be.

Horror Versus Exposition

Otherside Picnic’s premise takes the Zone of its predecessors and frames it as another reality, loosely fitted over our own, with cubbyhole entrances perforating our mundane world. Though this approach abandons the existential horror of the original Visitation premise, it’s a fine enough take on the material, particularly for Otherside’s more folk horror-oriented priorities. The bizarre, arbitrary spatial anomalies of the original are thus complemented by ghost stories and creepypastas, bringing a modern horror twist to the concept. There is abundant room for an effective spin on the material here, particularly once the author raises the idea of memetic stories and fear itself as vectors for interspecies communication.

Unfortunately, the inherent allure of this horror-fantasy fusion is largely squandered by the author’s presentation of her monsters. Horror lives in implication and suspense, in dark corners and unexplained noises, in the things we cannot see but imagine all too well. The key to horror is what you don’t show, what you leave the reader to summon from their own nightmares. Sadly, Otherside Picnic cannot help but explain its every variable within moments of its appearance. A monster will appear, the heroine will gasp, and then we get an entire paragraph description of the internet’s creepy woman ghost, or torii gate ghost, or time-space man.

The convention of formalized, almost gamified exposition endemic to light novels is simply incompatible with the base form and function of horror writing. A great horror story or alluring weird tale can build an entire alienating universe out of one not-quite-right element, one loose thread of reality followed back to the seam. In contrast, Otherside Picnic is practically overflowing with horror ideas that are barely explored at all, merely explained and tossed aside, with no dramatic significance, mystery, or lingering sense of danger.

Encounters with the paranormal generally seem less like genuine stories or experience, and more like reviews of some creature’s wikipedia article, with no sense of what it would be like to truly encounter these monsters. Full stories could be mined out of any one of this adventure’s paranormal phenomena (and many have – Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train is essentially one scene from the third chapter expanded into an entire world). But in this format, Otherside Picnic feels less like a work of horror and suspense in its own right, and more like the sensation of watching a movie next to someone who refuses to stop talking about how they’ve seen this scene before. Most stories are not original, but inspired execution can elevate even the most familiar of tales. By only engaging with its own material on the meta-level of trope recognition, Otherside Picnic undercuts its ability to satisfy as a genuine dramatic narrative.

Purposeful Variables Versus Pet Tropes

For everything you add to a story, you must first ask the question, “what essential purpose does this variable serve?” How does it further your story concept, how does it further your themes? Does it contrast gracefully against your existing structure, or perhaps create a useful friction for one of your protagonists? Even elements of discord are generally creating discord with purpose; the three men of Stalker are each essential poles for laying out the film’s philosophical disagreements, while the Strugatskys’ novel reduces an entire imagined reality to four or five incidents in the life of one man. The more you take away, the more each remaining variable rises in prominence and purposefulness; when every inessential thing is removed, your story is complete.

In contrast, the reasoning behind Otherside Picnic’s choices far too often seems to be “because that is a popular convention in the genre.” Why is the heroines’ research assistant a young woman who looks and acts like a tiny child? Because that is a popular convention in otaku media, and before it is a story in its own right, Otherside Picnic is a delivery vehicle for a broad and often drama-antagonistic set of audience conventions. When the theoretical demands of the story being told and the go-to assumptions of the wider genre collide, coherence of narrative or solidity of function are frequently abandoned. Time and again, Otherside Picnic embraces choices that remind you it is a work of indulgence before it is a work of art, drawing you out of its theoretical spell in the process.

This tendency’s most prominent and damaging incarnation is the story’s use of guns. Iori Miyazawa is clearly a big gun enthusiast, but Otherside Picnic’s focus on specific guns and their functionality never facilitates the story being told. The “purpose” such as it is is simply a celebration of another thing the author likes – while in practice, the authorial voice used for these descriptions always swerves away from any authentic characterization of the cast. And beyond that, the heavy emphasis on guns dramatically undercuts the story’s sense of fantasy, mystery, or threat. When the answer to every threat is “shoot it with a gun,” the sense of these creatures being unknowable supernatural threats dissipates entirely. This pushes beyond “inessential variable” and onward into “drama-undercutting indulgence” – when you compare it to the sparse economy of variables that collectively form Roadside Picnic or Stalker’s theses, the difference is obvious.

Characterization Versus Character Convention

In many stories, characters follow this same rule of purpose as any other variables: they are chosen and designed with clear intent, each identity fitting into a greater whole. So it goes in Stalker, whose three characters are each essential sounding boards for seeking true knowledge of the self. Other stories are fundamentally about characters, in that some particular human perspective is the driving vehicle for the whole. So it goes for Roadside Picnic, whose central dreamer Redrick offers a case study for man’s relationship with the unknowable. But there is also a third approach to character, one that Otherside Picnic unfortunately indulges: character as genre signifier, more convention than person.

The characters of Otherside Picnic are familiar from the moment they’re introduced – in fact, they seem to be designed as intentionally familiar, deducible to a few well-known variables. The tiny researcher with her little sister affectations is particularly egregious, but Otherside Picnic’s actual heroine is perhaps an even more common archetype. Insular, under-socialized, constantly comparing the world around her to her database of trope lore – she is the quintessential light novel protagonist, her very familiarity paradoxically making it that much harder to see her as an individual. When the design rules are so obvious, when the template is so clear, what mystery is there in getting to know her?

In spite of both Otherside Picnic leads theoretically being young adults, they each speak with the cadences of children, and the heroine’s mental state is that of a young girl being dazzled at making her first friend. This is common for anime-adjacent works, but “common” isn’t the same as “good,” or even “acceptable.” To audiences seeking authentic human interactions, who are not inculcated into the characterization Neverland of anime-adjacent writing, these characters do not scan as real. As a curious reader, I want to feel encouraged to learn more about a story’s cast – not to feel like I’ve measured the totality of their design limitations within our first meeting. Like so much else in this narrative, the approach to characterization frequently makes its world feel small and familiar, not vast beyond my imagining.

Worldbuilding Versus Wikipedia

That lingering feeling of smallness, the sense these parts are not purposefully contributing to a greater whole, is my prevailing takeaway from Otherside Picnic. Great stories contain strange and empty spaces, lingering ambiguities, roads not traveled by their particular narratives. When explanation is reduced, implication reigns, allowing the audience to believe there are mountains beyond what the eye can see. What is included and what is implied are both purposeful decisions, and make the difference between a collection of ideas, and a thing with substance beyond the purely tangible. In purity of function or richness of form, we can lose sight of the author entirely, surrendering to the holistic magic of great fiction. We can be surprised, moved, terrified, or perhaps even fundamentally altered. Like the stalkers themselves, we can brush against something that is truly, irreducibly foreign.

Such is the brilliance of a story carried to its end. Simply lining up a series of your favorite online anecdotes isn’t the same as instilling one concept with your own authorial voice. Ask always what can be reduced, what can be taken away, while still maintaining the integrity of the whole – for it is only once you’ve divined a story’s essence that you can truly tell it at all. Always leave your audience hungry for more, certain in the reality of your magic trick, desperate for a peek behind the curtain. Write with purpose, seek the heart unerringly, and leave others to criticize, catalog, or contain.

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