Translated from the Russian by Olena Bormashenko
Chicago Review Press, Chicago, 2012
Written in 1971, finally published in 1980.
I’ve been drawn to reading mysteries,fantasy and science fiction of late. Not sure where I first heard of this one, but a foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin and a film by Andrei Tarkovsky based on this novel written in 1971 convinced me I had somehow missed a science fiction classic.
Alien visitors have come and gone, without so much as a “hello”. They left stuff behind, just like a family who stops by the roadside for a picnic lunch and fails to pick up their trash. The Zones where they landed are filled with strange artifacts coveted by the authorities. They are also the stuff of a thriving black market. We’ve figured out how to put some of these things to good use. Others, as well as certain areas in the Zones, have proven to be deadly. That doesn’t stop the stalkers.
Redrick Schuhart is a stalker, driven to enter the Zone and collect the mysterious objects left scattered between the bug traps and the slime. Written like a noir thriller, Roadside Picnic is a portrait of humans in thrall to possibility of unending power and wealth. Greed, loyalty and despair are presented without a political agenda, this from authors writing in Russia in the years before perestroika and glasnost. Ursula LeGuin puts it best in her Foreword.
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. A writer may have to be as blatantly critical of utopia as Zamyatin in WE to bring the censor down on him. The Strugatsky brothers were not blatant, and never (to my limited knowledge) directly critical of their government’s policies. What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology–something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing. They wrote as free men write. From the Foreword to the new edition, page vi.
Boris Strugatsky’s Afterword is a fine description of the struggle he and Arkady went through to get Roadside Picnic published.
I really enjoyed this novel. It is powerful, controlled and parts of it are truly creepy. My only quibble is the presentation of women as cooks, maids and sex toys, typical for the time period. I had hoped that kind of gender imaging was changing, but with the retro-fifties Mad Men backlash and the 50 Shades fiasco maybe I’m wrong. The Tarkovsky film can be seen here. There is also a series of video games inspired by the novel.