“Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As many of you know, I’m a bit of a Russian literature nerd.  When I saw a new translation of “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatsky brothers on NetGalley, I requested it immediately.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote an excellent introduction, and I loved the following quotation from it:

Science fiction lends itself readily to imaginative subversion of any status quo.  Bureaucrats and politicians, who can’t afford to cultivate their imaginations, tend to assume it’s all ray-guns and nonsense, good for children.

Not that ray guns aren’t awesome, but you get the point.  This is a piece of Soviet sci-fi from the 70s, and one generally would expect anything that was published in Russia at the time to convey a certain ideological message.  “Roadside Picnic” doesn’t.  It feels almost radically non-political.  It examines both the darkness and hope inherent in the human condition, but it doesn’t even pretend to have any of the answers.

In “Roadside Picnic,” aliens visited Earth but left quickly, leaving behind several Zones filled with their trash.  Redrick Schubart, the protagonist, is a “Stalker”–someone who illegally enters the Zone to bring back alien technology to sell on the black market.  Humans are trying to use items from the Zone to further their own technological advancement, but nobody has any idea what anything in the Zone was intended for.  Nobody even knows why the aliens came or why they left.

The Zone is a dangerous place, and Stalkers tend to have mutant children.  Redrick’s own daughter is a furry creature referred to as the Monkey.  Schubart cares about his family and tries to do what’s best for them despite the danger and legal ramifications of his job.

If the term “Stalker” sounds familiar, it is because “Roadside Picnic” has had a major cultural impact.  It inspired a film adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the most famous Russian directors of all time.  The film then went on to inspire the video games “Stalker:  Shadows of Chernobyl” and its sequels, but in the games the Zone is the result of a nuclear disaster rather than an alien visit.  For anyone who’s played the game, a brief word of warning:  The book is nothing like it, even though some elements may be similar.  Don’t go in expecting gun fights and action.  That’s not the intended purpose of the novel, and if it’s what you’re expecting to see, you’ll be disappointed.

One of the things that I loved about this novel is how philosophical it is.  Redrick spends a lot of time drunkenly pondering his role as a Stalker and the implications of his own decisions.  He talks about the social impact of the Zone and how it created a black market that brings out the worst in humanity.  I also liked that it was told from the point of view of an average person struggling to make a living and provide for his family rather than from the perspective of someone in charge.  There’s no glory, just the gritty reality of life.

I enjoyed this book tremendously, and would highly recommend it.

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I read this book as part of the Speculative Fiction Challenge.

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Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on ““Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

  1. Pingback: May 2012: A Month in Review « Books Without Any Pictures

  2. Ah, there’s a new translation? I first heard of this one a while back but was worried it would be a case like Solaris, which is a brilliant book but poorly translated into English. While I was lucky enough to be able to read Solaris in a different translation, I knew I wouldn’t have that luxury with Roadside Picnic. Now it would appear I don’t have to worry! It sounds like a fascinating book, and I’m quite intrigued by the philosophical aspects.

    • I was very excited to see the new translation, as poor translations can completely ruin one’s reading experience. It’s definitely a neat book, and it was a lot different than what I expected. It seems to have a trace of that distinct feeling I get when I read stuff by the 19th century Russian greats, only turned on its head and put in a different context.

  3. I am going to read this mostly because it fits neatly under the heading of “ideas I wish to high heaven I had thought of first.”

  4. This one is really tempting!

  5. this sounds awesome! i will for sure check it out.

  6. This sounds awesome. I’ve never read Russian science fiction. I’m going to track this down.

    • I’ve read a lot of 19th century Russian literature, but this is the first newer (by comparison) Russian lit that I’ve read. It makes me curious about what other sci-fi Russian authors have written.

  7. The film is in my top 5 — glacial in pace (as with all Tarkovsky films) but rewarding…

    • Mhm. I watched it for a class a few years ago and enjoyed it a lot. His films are so good! I rather like the pacing… it’s something you don’t see much of anymore. Very artsy.

  8. I grew up on Russian literature, and I remember this book and the movie. As you mentioned, it had a great cultural impact. It would be interesting to read their books in English translation.

    • I think the scenes where Redrick is drinking/smoking and thinking and talking about life are so interesting. It reminds me a bit of the 19th century Russian classics that I love so much. That scene at the end of the movie too was so creepy… 😀

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