Book Review: Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

Sep 3, 2018

Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.

First published in 1972, Roadside Picnic is still widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels, despite the fact that it has been out of print in the United States for almost thirty years. This authoritative new translation corrects many errors and omissions and has been supplemented with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and a new afterword by Boris Strugatsky explaining the strange history of the novel’s publication in Russia.

Recently I’ve been reading more science fiction. I don’t know how accurate that statement is because, really, I’ve just been reading a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin and John Wyndham. Both authors approach science fiction in a way that appeals to me. They focus less on the flashy technology and the science but more on the daily and surprisingly human interactions between foreign entities, whether it be the subtleties between races on a planet or humans on a journey to a planet over the span of generations. Discovering new cultures or experiencing what-if scenarios of how humans would react to certain events is what I really appreciate in science fiction.

For some reason, I was a little dubious about Roadside Picnic. A friend of mine recommended this to me and it seemed like we were on the same page when it came to science fiction. I was a little skeptical when I learned that one of their favourite games, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was based on this book. I’m not someone really interested in shooters or high-risk treasure hunts. I gave it a shot anyway since the Strugatsky brothers are quite prolific and the premise seemed interesting. When I got my copy of the book and saw that Le Guin had written the foreword to Roadside Picnic, I was delighted. If my friend with good taste and my number one favourite science fiction author approved of it, it must be good, right?

As predicted, I was not disappointed!

First, let me gush about Le Guin’s foreword for a second. Le Guin mentions the context that this novel was written in. Censorship was rampant during this time in the Soviet Union. In the afterword, Boris Strugatsky recounts many of the violations Roadside Picnic managed to accumulate, ranging from acts of violence to crude language to immoral behaviour. Le Guin so succinctly observes that science fiction (in Russia) is a way to write without ideology (in this case, Party ideology). More concisely, “They wrote as free men write.” That really hyped me for this book.

The universe of Roadside Picnic is soaked with subtle details of the daily lives of stalkers and the collateral damage they leave behind. The concept of the novel is somewhat simple: aliens visited Earth and humans go into those locations to grab whatever the aliens left behind for research, profit, or both. The tales that spin off from this premise are very compelling.

For example, one of the details I really appreciated was watching how Harmont, a regular small town near one of the alien visitation zones, changed and transformed over the years. Initially, the town attracted young people seeking adventure and get rich quick schemes. However, once the allure was ruined by the danger and the infeasibility of such dreams, the young people left or turned to less exciting ventures such as bussing.

While Roadside Picnic explores narratives from several characters, the character in the spotlight the most is Rederick Schuhart or as he is more known by, Red. By far, he is the most interesting character out of all them. When the point of view shifted to other characters, I was a bit bored (bar the one philosophical conversation that I found extremely intriguing). However, the Strugatsky brothers accomplished something in that although I was bored, the content was still important in contributing to the story.

Going back to the philosophical conversation, I love the analogy of the aliens taking a roadside picnic on Earth. The came as quickly as they left, leaving behind garbage that altered the lives of humans and generations after. Sounds familiar? It’s just like when we go out in a hike and unintentionally disturb nature with our footprints, our waste, and our alien presence.

This book, overall, was a lot of fun. It is a quick read and although it took me a week to get through it, I found myself flipping pages frantically. I did not want to put it down (it doesn’t help that when I read, I usually read on the commute and I can’t stay on a train forever).

Another interesting thing that I really liked about this novel was just how Russian it is. When I think dystopian, I think of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, who is coincidentally also Russian. I remember reading a review of Roadside Picnic that compares the two. They are entirely different but they both are extremely Russian. I don’t know what it is, but Russian authors have such a distinct voice that I am completely enamoured with. From Nabokov to Bulgakov to Dostoyevsky… I think I can now add the Strugatsky brothers to my list of Russian authors that I admire.