The highest praise I give any book or movie is that it sucks you in. Some classics you read so you can appreciate a property’s contribution to its genre or to try to understand a perspective far removed from your own. I was expecting this latter reaction when I started in on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 novel Roadside Picnic (original title: Пикник на обочине).
Written in the USSR in a world and culture as alien to me as the world described in the novel, Roadside Picnic is one of numerous science fiction works penned by Soviet authors at the time. Only a handful have been translated from Russian to English until recently, and the quality of some of these translations have been reportedly questionable.
I read the 2012 edition translated by Olena Bormashenko with a forward by Ursala Le Guin and an afterward by Boris Strugatsky. The language is crisp. There’s nothing to distract from the story, and no obvious indicators that the writing wasn’t originally in English.
Roadside Picnic wastes no time getting into the action as we follow Redrick “Red” Schuhart in his extralegal journey into the Zone, one of several areas of the Earth affected by a mysterious alien visitation. The nature of this visitation is the backdrop of the novel, as it is unknown as to what exactly happened during this visitation and whether the alien objects and anomalies left behind carry some purpose or if they are in fact just debris cast off by some untidy visitors who stopped by Earth for a picnic without thinking or caring about the consequences.
Red is a stalker who visits the Zone to recover various artifacts and to act as a guide for others, all for profits in exchange for the tremendous risk. The zone is dangerous. Touching the wrong thing or stepping in the wrong direction can mean death. Yet Red continues to reenter the Zone to put food on the table, even though the Zone extracts a price on Red’s health, his family’s well-being, and even Red’s sanity. Only slightly less dangerous is navigating the world that is around the Zone, where authorities seek to stop stalkers like Red and shady characters try to exploit them by sending them further into danger for large rewards. Red also has to contend with fellow stalkers who alternate between cooperation and treacherously trying to protect their own stake in the Zone and its secrets.
Red himself is an interesting anti-hero, entering the Zone voluntarily yet hating the place with his every breath. He resents the need to continue to put himself in harm’s way and literally curses, threatens, and beats those he guides for the smallest infractions. Is Red paranoid, psychotic, or justified in his fear of what the Zone can do?
The story briefly changes pace in the middle where we have an expository discussion as to what the Zone is and why it’s there. This is where the book gets its title as one possible explanation for the purpose of the alien visit. But soon enough we return to Red for another quest into the zone, this time farther than he has gone before, a possible last mission that might grant his literal wishes.
The afterwards by Boris Strugatsky is both engaging and educational. Roadside Picnic was held back from publication for a number of reasons that I would never have guessed. I hope to talk about the authors’ efforts to get their novel published next.