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