REVIEW: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fantastic, character-driven story of alien contact.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Years after Earth is visited by an alien presence, individuals known as Stalkers move in and out of the Zones to illegally collect artifacts left behind. Red Schuhart is one of these Stalkers, and encounters many strange things over his years of collecting.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Fantastic and plausible conceptualization of the nature of alien contact, with vividly drawn characters.
CONS: Pacing wasn’t to my liking.
BOTTOM LINE: A brilliant, thought-provoking novel.

I’ll confess that I’d never heard of Roadside Picnic before it was re-released recently by the Chicago Review Press earlier this year. This new edition is the preferred text, following a dramatic history with Soviet censors when it was first published in the 1970s. This edition has a particularly good introduction by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Roadside Picnic takes place some time after Earth was visited by some alien presence that leaves a number of ‘zones’ across the planet. They came, they saw, and they left. The book’s title comes from the idea posited early on in the novel that these aliens came and went like vacationing picnickers, failing to notice the ants that watch from the sidelines, and come out to inspect whatever trash was left behind. This central premise is brilliant in its recognition, where much of the catalog of alien contact stories is centered around our own issues, as though they are our protectors. Here, humanity barely rates as anything worthy of a space faring intelligence’s attention! It’s a troubling and humbling realization, one that makes this book something different in the genre.

Where the alien contact element is an important part here, it’s a second candle to the human story that the Strugatsky brothers put together. Like the characters, we never quite learn why the aliens have arrived, or what the various pieces of technology left behind really do. This might be frustrating for some readers, but it’s never really the point of the story. That’s reserved for what happens to the people in the areas around one particular zone, as they come to grapple with the nature of the strange places next to them: the dead come back to life, people die in horrible ways in the zones, all while people are persuaded to move away by various officials. On top of all that, the Zones have bad effects on the people around them: Red’s daughter is a girl affectionately known as ‘The Monkey’ for her fur, and who is increasingly withdrawn from the world around her. We follow Red as he descends into a sort of cynical state that brings about very difficult scarifies, from prison to outright murder, before a sort of redemption.

Roadside Picnic is a bit of an offbeat book, and it took me a little while to really sink into it, but once I did, I devoured it, soaking in a fantastic story. Troubling, interesting and one-of-a-kind, this is a book is a book that deserves far wider attention than it has received.

14 thoughts on “REVIEW: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky”

  1. I was extremely confused, years ago, trying to read this book. I might do better with it today, but at the time I might not have had the depth of experience to really appreciate the themes.

    It’s also possible this was a translation thing.

      1. A friend of mine who is big into the Scandinavian LARP scene bought it and demoed it for us. (He’s one of the editors of this book on roleplaying games: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-6834-8 )

        I’m not sure how widely available it is in the US (I see it is available as a PDF through DriveThru RPG), though it apparently has quite a following in its native Finland.

        It’s interesting… we only played a 3 hour demo of the game, so I can’t attest to how well it holds up over time, but it was certainly enjoyable. (It was also my first game with diceless mechanics. Again, I’m not sure how that would play over time.)

    1. I’ve just finished reading the latest translation, and have been looking for this adaption. Wonderful and amazing novel, and I’m hoping the movie is in the same class. Oh — and my thanks for the link! :-)

  2. I tried reading the old translation a few years ago & I didn’t make it past 20 pages. The new translation is like night and day. You can understand what’s happening. The slang is comprehensible. Tone, atmosphere and characterization come through, like cleaning the grime off a clouded lens.

    As for the story itself, it is mostly a lot of existential bitching about the general lousiness of life. Very understandable coming from 1971 Soviet Russia. And it works pretty well as a science fiction setting and it is pretty convincing. Even though it is a little wearing and repetitive.

    The structure of the novel is flawed. It hops from action sequences, to existential reflection, to “outsider” perspectives, to nostalgia. But there isn’t much justification for the hopping; it doesn’t really serve the story. It’s pretty random and a little frustrating to plow through.

    But the book is worth reading, for all the reasons Andrew said. Maybe it’s not a classic as some people claim, but it is memorable and unique.

  3. I’m hoping this one does well enough so that other books by the Brothers S. get retranslated and republished.

    I’d like to try to re-read Snail on the Slope and Tale of the Troika.

    1. I think further translations are in the works, although I don’t believe the ones you mention are next in line.

  4. I wonder how much of the recent (last few years) upsurge in interest aroudn this book is due to the stalker videogame series.. I’ve no clue where any actual stats might be gotten from, butthis could be a neat case for inter-media mingling and cross-beneficiality.

  5. This is an excellent story and possibly their most palatable piece for the western reader. Like many of their contemporary Russian SF writers the style can feel convoluted, almost grotesque. No doubt to elude the censors as very often the writings are deeply allegorical and provide very moving insight when contextualized in the reality of the Soviet state. This is Social SF with human condition at its core. I hope that some semblance of the above is not lost in the new translation.

    My recommended reading would be:
    Beetle in the Anthill
    Snail on the Slope
    Tale of the Troika
    Monday Begins on Saturday

    As a side note if you like the above have a look at Kir Bulychev – especially his Gusliar stories.

    Sadly the English translations may be hard to come by.

Comments are closed.