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  • emilywhitebread


Updated: Jan 9, 2023

Us, we now are the present. And we are all living in the Zone. The Zone is our current globally capitalized situation. The Zone has a stretched sense of time. The Zone contains many fantastical technological devices left by the alien Visitors.

My Zone is here, yours might be elsewhere. But our Zones are located on Planet Earth. A big planet, with lots of people which I can't even comprehend. But think about how small our planet is compared to the rest of the universe?

My Zone creates a sense of abandonment and the threat of being annihilated. Wiped out by forces much bigger than myself; National Health Service cuts, climate change, nuclear weapons, big business and unsympathetic governments. My Zone is place which has been harnessed by others and in which I am contained.

My response to ‘the People can reveal’ is the Zone and Golden Sphere. I see them as two imaginary media apparatuses, which can be used to illuminate the unfolding present and reignite my desire for a radically different future through thinking about possible alternatives to the existing social-political order.

Imaginary media apparatuses stem from media archaeology a field that attempts to understand new and emerging media through close examination of the past, and critical scrutiny of popular commercial media. An offshoot of this theory is concerned with the relationship between media fantasies and technological development, especially the ways in which ideas about imaginary or speculative media affect the media that actually emerge.

The Zone and Golden Sphere originate from Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic, 1972. This fictional place and object have now been transformed into tools to think about my utopian ideology research and how I could use them to rethink our future. But not the future that is distant and far away but a future that is happening tomorrow.

The Zone in Roadside Picnic is a place where Visitors have discarded artefacts and various extraterrestrial phenomena. These Visitors have suddenly departed and do not seem to be returning. This Zone has become a restricted area. At the start of the novel the government runs it; by the end both the government and a private company are excavating the site. Much of the local population has abandoned the Zone and emigrated, whilst others have remained.

Roadside Picnics’ Zone has many legends connect to it and like anything that is forbidden arouses curiosity. There are Stalkers who attempt to penetrate it for the black market demand for objects retrieved from the Zone. Most of the artifacts have no known function either because they were broken and discarded by the Visitors as trash or because their purpose is too advanced to be understood by humans.

Stalkers are commissioned to reach and guide others through the Zone because, reportedly, in its centre there is a place where one can count on fulfilling one's innermost wish; the Golden Sphere. The Golden Sphere is the Zone’s most desired and legendary artifact, which is rumored to have the power to make any wish come true, but is located deep inside the Zone and surrounded by such deadly 'traps' that no one knows how to reach it.

The Zone and Golden Sphere are important not only as exercises of imagination but as entry-points to the wider unconscious surrounding our present political, social and cultural situation. These imaginary media apparatuses become ways to look at how technological assemblages are embedded in hopes, desires and imaginaries of mediation.

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… (Strugatsky, 2012, p.83)

Some strange and very new sensation was slowly filling him. He realized that this sensation wasn’t actually new, that it had long been hiding somewhere inside him, but he only now became aware of it, and everything fell into place. (Strugatsky, 2012, p.164)

There are a number of objects for which we have found applications. We use them, although almost certainly not in the ways that the aliens intended. I’m absolutely convinced that in the vast majority of cases we’re using sledgehammers to crack nuts. (Strugatsky, 2012, p.136)

Man is born to think (Strugatsky, 2012, p.191)

The Zone can be viewed as a utopian space. It is a space where social and cultural innovation takes place. It is a space where life has to be remade and where the previous order of things has been revoked. The Zone is a utopian space that discloses endless vistas to those who choose to enter it. It has created a new desire for comprehension that has forced humanity from outside the comfort of scientific truth and into the unknown. The Zone is unidentified and unknown. It is a place where the rules of nature no longer operate. The Zone frightens many. Many scientific unknowns exist within the Zone, the technologies of which are exotic and dangerous to the uninitiated. It is an inner world, a meditative space full of symptomatic debris. The Zone is the archetypal blueprint of every media apparatus that leaves the laboratory and enters our outside world.

“The Golden Sphere is a legend,” he reported in a flat tone. “A mythical object in the Zone, which appears in the form of a certain golden sphere and which is rumoured to grant human wishes.” (Strugatsky, 2012, p.113)

There was nothing about it to disappoint or raise doubts, but there was also nothing in it to inspire hope. Somehow, it immediately gave the impression that it was hollow and must be very hot to the touch–the sun had heated it up. It clearly wasn’t radiating light, and it clearly wasn’t capable of floating in the air and dancing around, the way it often happened in the legends about it. It lay where it had fallen. It might have tumbled out of some huge pocket or gotten lost, rolling away, during a game between some giants–it hadn’t been place here, it was lying around, just like all the empties, bracelets, batteries, and other junk left over from the Visit. (Strugatsky, 2012, p.188)

But at the same time, there was something about it, and the longer Redrick looked at it, the clearer it became that looking at it was enjoyable, that he’d like to approach it, that he’d like to touch it or even to stroke it. And for some reason, it suddenly occurred to him that it’d probably be nice to sit next to it and, even better, to lean against it, to throw his head back, close his eyes, and think things over, reminisce, or maybe simply doze, resting… (Strugatsky, 2012, p.189)

Digital media can be seen as the primary fantasy objects of the new capitalist economy. The Golden Sphere is an object of resistance to an economically driven, narrow appropriation of media technologies. The Golden Sphere is a capsule that causes wonder and frustration through its promise of granting wishes. It is used to demonstrate the nature of human behaviour in the presence of superhuman power – the compulsion for infectious euphoria. It reveals internal visions hidden within us humans, what it means to make a truthful wish. Our wish is for the ideal society, not to be perpetuated as hopeless individuals.

These are the objects of our Utopias seen through the distorting mirror of alien eyes: what is the use of a transparent lunch tray, indeed what is a cafeteria tray in the first place? What is a chamber pot, let alone a gold one, or a low-power electric vehicle for moving in the woods? What are the machines of Bellamy’s new factories? No alien could figure it out; and we have similar problems with their Zone, which we can only conceptualize as a malevolent space in which, from time to time, we discover objects you can make a fortune with. (Jameson, 2007, p.73)

In his book Archaeologies of the Future Fredric Jameson raises the notion of wish-fulfilment in regards to utopian thinking. In the chapter titled How to Fulfil a Wish he analyzes Roadside Picnic, writing that the “Strugatskys give us Utopia as it were backwards, or from the other side of the mirror” (2007, p.73). Exploring the notion that utopias cannot be achieved, he argues that the wish for their fulfilment keeps the idea of them alive. This idea can be seen in the Golden Sphere.

Roadside Picnic’s main character, Redrick, wishes to find the Golden Sphere to cure his daughter. His original belief in the function of the Golden Sphere is a reflection of how technology is embedded in our mental constructs, or is constructed in a wider set of desires and dreams, but at the same time it is defined by the boundaries of our thoughts. This boundary is what can be defined as connected to a less poetic interpretation of imaginary media. However, as Redrick approaches the Golden Sphere, he finds himself motivated by more universal sympathies:

“I’m an animal, you can see that I’m an animal. I have no words, they haven’t taught me the words; I don’t know how to think, those bastards didn’t let me learn how to think. But if you really are–all powerful, all knowing, all understanding–figure it out! Look into my soul, I know–everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want–because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his–HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN.” (Strugatsky, 2012, p.193)

Redrick’s initial wish can be seen as our way of using the Golden Sphere as a way to protect others; but are limited by our social conditioning to only seek this protection for our immediate loved ones. The other artefacts in the Zone are our social conditioning that makes us typically unambitious when imagining alternative futures. But when Redrick comes into contact with the Golden Sphere this is singular view forgotten and becomes a universal desire for a better world for all this can be seen as an example of wish fulfillment as described by Jameson:

Wish fulfilments are after all by definition never real fulfilments of desire; and must presumably always be marked by the hollowness of absence or failure at the heart of their most dearly fantasized visions (a point Ernst Block never tried making). Even the process of wish fulfilment includes a kind of reality principle of its own, intent on not making things too easy for itself, accumulating the objections and the reality problems that stand in its way so as the more triumphantly and “realistically” to overcome them. (Jameson, 2007, p.83)

A wish fulfilment is a desire that is never fully realised and cannot ever be. Every time we imagine a fulfilment of our wishes we qualify it with a problematizing element in order to make this success seem attainable. Roadside Picnic ends on this particular note with “HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN.” We do not know if the Gold Sphere fulfils Redrick’s wish. By mapping The Zone as an imaginary media apparatus - as a place of practice and imagination - we are able to enact alternatives for our future world.

The Golden Sphere is the desire that is embedded in each new; media apparatus, campaign, report, review, expose. It is is hoped it will revolutionise the world. The next new thing inevitably comes with a problematizing element. However, this qualifying element undermines the utopian ideal itself. But if we were to reject the appropriation of bigger more powerful powers we would be able to answer all human wishes, something which holds the promise of eternal happiness for all humanity.

The desire called Utopia must be concrete and ongoing, without being defeatist or incapacitating; it might therefore be better to follow an aesthetic paradigm and to assert that not only the production of the unresolvable contradiction is the fundamental process, but that we must imagine some form of gratification inherent in this very confrontation with pessimism and the impossible. (Jameson, 2007, p.84)

We must go further than imagining alternative futures. We must think about the possibilities, the dream life of humanity. Not what humanity is or was, but what we believe or desire it to be. Jameson’s interpretation of Roadside Picnic suggests that the Zone can be seen as a blueprint for a better society. This is a desire that can never be obtained, it is our desire to desire that keeps us going. The Zone is the space between the thought and the action. As Russel Smith writes in his paper The Literary Destruction of Canberra: Utopia, Apocalypse and the National Capital “If utopias contain the seeds of their own failure, it is because utopias cannot by definition succeed, because their own success would silence the desire for utopia.” (2009, p.83)

The idea of ruins and breakdowns are a central part of utopian science fiction fantasy. Utopias cannot be realised in science fiction, they are allegorical stories that we should learn from. The Zone is not a place that keeps together our dreamworld of technology. It actually breaks them apart, not perhaps by way of deconstruction but by exaggeration. The purpose of the Zone’s existence is to make humans re-examine their attitudes towards life. The Zone contains relics of a passing modern age. The Zone is a creation of the times we live in now. The Golden Sphere can be seen as the salvation, the apparatus for wishes. The Golden Sphere is the apparatus for which we must enter the Zone to search, in order to realise our true wish for the improvement of our own society.



* Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist: Is there no alternative? UK: Zero Books.

* Hatherley, O. (2008) Militant Modernism. UK: Zero Books.

* Huhtamo, E. and Parikka, Jussi (2011) Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. USA: University of California Press.

* Jameson, F. (2007) Archaeologies of the Future. New York: Verso.

* Pandora’s Box: A is for Atom (1992) Directed by Adam Curtis [YouTube] Available at: (Accessed: 17 November 2012)

* Parikka, J. (2014) What Is Media Archaeology? UK: Polity Press.

* Parrinder, P. (2000) Learning From Other Worlds. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

* Smith, R. (2009) ‘The Literary Destruction of Canberra: Utopia, Apocalypse and the National Capital’, Australian Literary Studies, Vol.24, p.78-94.

* Strugatsky, A. & B. (2012) Roadside Picnic. Great Britain: Gollancz.

* Stalker (1979) Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky [Film]. Soviet Union: Mosfilm.

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