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.
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people around them: Red’s daughter is a girl affectionately known as ‘The Monkey’ for her fur, and who is increasingly withdrawn from the world around her.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.