Book Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
When the aliens landed, they ignored humanity. Stopping briefly on their way somewhere else. Leaving behind mysterious random detritus, much like the remains left behind a roadside picnic. Redrick happened to live in one of the towns visited, and as a result has become a stalker. He sneaks into the Zone to gather alien artifacts to sell on the black market. Soon his whole life–and those of everyone in the town–becomes dominated by the Zone.
When I saw that this was Russian scifi from the Soviet era, I knew that I needed to pick it up, if for no other reason than that I’d never seen any before. This new print has been returned to the authors’ original vision, with the heavy edits (really, censorship) removed. It also starts with an introduction by Ursula K. LeGuin. I want to highlight one thing she says about scifi that I think truly illuminates its power.
Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind. (location 22)
Scifi provides an opportunity for writers and readers to remove the shackles of whatever society they are currently living in and imagine the other. I think that’s a very powerful tool, and I commend the Strugatsky brothers for utilizing it in such a way from behind the Iron Curtain. They had to fight for years to get some version of this book published, in spite of being well-known and respected authors. That is a commitment to their art that is truly admirable. Now, on to the review of the actual book.
The germ of the idea is truly brilliant and is immediately clear. This idea of an alien race stopping by for a picnic, essentially, and ignoring humanity like so many ants. It’s so different from the more egotistical interpretation of alien visitations that we usually see. The book was worth the read for that alone. The early scenes are vivid and clearly establish this post-visitation situation where the Zone the aliens landed in is uninhabitable, and the government and scientists are trying to study it while stalkers sneak in (at great risk to their lives) to extract artifacts for the black market. Similarly, the artifacts that the stalkers (and government) find and bring out of the Zone are wonderfully imagined. It is easy to see that the authors probably knew exactly what the aliens used the items for whereas the characters in the book are clueless. Trying to find any use they can for them.
The book though is truly about Redrick. It uses the scifi setting to explore this man who really just wants to escape the rat race and have a comfortable life with his family. He chooses to attempt to be his own boss by being a stalker in the Zone and is repeatedly thrown in prison for it. We never really see him as a whole man, since we only saw him after the Zone. It is as if the presence of the Zone gave him hope, and the repeated failures slowly rob him of his life energy.
My whole life I’ve been dragged by the nose, I kept bragging like an idiot that I do as I like, and you bastards would just nod, then you’d wink at each other and lead me by the nose, dragging me, hauling, me, through shit, through jails, through bars…Enough! (location 2295)
In spite of this excellent set-up and interesting character arc, the book didn’t fully satisfy me. I found Redrick difficult to sympathize with. He thinks he is a slave to the system, but really he is choosing to be a slave to money. He could have left the town and the Zone behind multiple times to go live a life with his family, but he doesn’t. I understand others might interpret his freedom of movement differently from me, but that is how I saw his situation. It seems most of his problems come from a love of not just money but a love of wealth. So although I periodically sympathized with what he was saying, I didn’t ultimately sympathize with him.
What I truly found disappointing though was the ending. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that while the rest of the book was realistic scifi, couched in darkness and despair, the ending was surprisingly positive in a deus ex machina manner. It felt like a real cop-out, particularly compared to the rest of the book. Whereas most everything else was innovative, this was generic, ho-hum, and disappointing. While I was still glad to have experienced Redrick’s world, the ending kept the book from truly grasping me or blowing my mind.
Overall, then, this book is an important piece of both Russian and scifi literature. It has enough uniqueness of setting to it to keep the well-versed reader of both genres interested but beware that the main character might not be entirely sympathetic, and the ending is a bit disappointing. Recommended to fans of Russian or scifi literature.
3.5 out of 5 stars