Review: Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic
Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, trans by Olena Bormashenko
Chicago Review Press, 2012

I had previously tried to read the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic novel Roadside Picnic but could never manage to get into it. Oddly neither Amazon or Goodreads lists translator prominently on their site, a serious omission, but the most recent translation of Roadside Picnic by Olena Bormashenko, released by Chicago Review Press, is a serious improvement over the Gollancz edition and well worth a look by science fiction fans. My interest in this novel while fueled by a desire to read more “classic” science fiction is of course tied to my enjoyment of the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the film adaptation Stalker (the book even uses one of the films many striking images for its cover). Both game and film offer wildly different interpretations of the Strugatsky’s world and are there own unique entities.

Roadside Picnic is a novel centered on a simple concept: what if aliens (or some other super advanced beings) visited our planet and left behind things. How would the ripples of this visitation effect society and how might we approach acquiring and studying these artifacts. The novel is vaguely centered on a “stalker” named Red Schuhart who makes the bulk of his living by venturing into the dangerous “zone” littered with the leftovers of the alien’s visitation (hence the title). My experience with the novel is colored by my experiences with both the video game and film. Particularly worth noting as that both the movie and video game choose to focus on different aspects of the novel, accentuating those things to create something almost entirely new. While Stalker definitely stays closer to the core of Roadside Picnic neither game nor film equals the scope of the Strugatsky’s novel.

The central conceit, or perhaps one of several conceits, of the novel is the notion that humanity has absolutely no idea how any of the artifacts found in the Zone work. This allows the Strugatsky’s extraordinary creative leeway in describing the effects of these objects without burdening them with the need to explain the science behind them. Roadside Picnic is about science as a concept rather than science as a fact. Humanity’s inexorable drive for progress and the desperate need for survival are entwined in every aspect of the novel and focused their strongest in the character of Red.

What is beautiful about Roadside Picnic is that while it is a novel about a big concept it is also a rather intimate examination of Red’s character. Red’s relationship with the Zone is one of the more fascinating things in a novel chock full of fascinating things. The Strugatsky’s are careful to craft Red’s relationship to the Zone as one of both lover and enemy. The Zone is a constant threat and a constant draw and Red is inexorably tied to the Zone even as its presence sends ripples of change throughout his life and society as a whole.

Somewhat unspoken, though strongly hinted at in the novel, is the change perpetuated by the Zone in society at large and how little that change has effected those who live in the Zone’s shadow. Progress has come but it seems to have changed little for those who live close to the Zone. There is a bit a subtext here given the somewhat capitalist motivations attributed to those funding the excursions into the Zone. It is somewhat impressive that it is the Government in Roadside Picnic which rails and attempts to impede Red’s journey’s into the Zone and less official entities that provide a reward for his work in acquiring artifacts. There is a certain element of subversion to Red’s character that is wholly surprising for a novel written in early 70s Russia.

This new translation of Roadside Picnic finally makes the novel a bit more approachable than the previous endeavors. The afterward by Boris Strugatsky is an insightful look at the strange world of publishing at height of the Communist regime and by itself worth the purchase of the novel. Roadside Picnic is an artifact of its time that somehow manages to bridge the gap of years to create a surprisingly relevant read for today’s audience.


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