I will avoid spoilers here and request that any comments remain spoiler free as well.
The Russian scifi novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is one of those books that kept showing up on lists of recommended books but I kept putting it off for some reason. Recently, it kept showing up in references and cross-references so I finally decided to pick it up and read it.
When dealing with non-English scifi, there’s always the question of which version or translation should you read. Luckily for me, I found and discuss here is the 2012 Olena Bormashenko English translation which Boris refers to in his “Afterword” as “completely restored and returned to the author’s version” (209).
Roadside Picnic is about the aftermath of alien visits to Earth and what happens as people try to make sense of the things that get left behind after they leave. The title and concept is best described by one of the characters:
A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras… A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about… Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp… and of course, there are remains for the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow… (131-2).
Of course, in this description, the aliens are the picnickers and the humans are the ants.
Specifically, Roadside Picnic follows the story of Red Schuhart, a stalker, who goes intot he visitation zones and brings back artifacts to sell. The story is told over a sequence of four period’s of Red’s life and primarily deals with the actions and consequences of messing with things we don’t understand.
Other themes that stick out are: The irony of jobs and statuses. When Red works for scientific institutes, he’s a hero and paid employee; when he works for the benefit of his own family, he’s a criminal and punished. Mutations and the dead returned to life, but not in the zombie and monster sense, and the impact on the families involved And the moral dilemma faced by those who recover the artifacts weighed against the knowledge that they might be used for weapons.
This book should definitely be on your must read list if you’re a scifi fan, post-apocalyptic/dystopian fan, or have an interest in scifi that doesn’t originate from U.S. and U.K. origins. The fact that this book, published in the Soviet era of Russia, has messages for our modern world, should push this one closer to the top of your to-be-read list.
I again request that any comments remain spoiler free.