Years ago in an event known as the Visitation aliens visited six sites on Earth. They left just as quickly as the arrived but left a lasting legacy. The areas surrounding the landing sites turned into strange abandoned landscapes, places where remnants of the alien visitation turn the site into an incredibly dangerous environment, where the laws of physics don't seem to apply. One step in the wrong direction can be your last. The artefacts that can be found in these areas, the one described in the book is known as the Zone, are very useful and extremely valuable from both the scientific and monetary perspective. The Zones are closed off from the outside world by the authorities and the area is studied by an army of scientists. Men like Redrick Schuhart, Red for short, still find their way into the Zone to hunt for alien artefacts and sell them on the black market. The people making a living this way are known as Stalkers. It is a highly dangerous profession with a staggering mortality rate. Dangerous it may be, it is also highly profitable and the ultimate prize, an artefact known as the Golden Sphere rumored to be capable of granting wishes, is still out there to be taken.
This book is a translation from Russian of course. Although my vocabulary in that language does not exceed half a dozen words (two of which are out of fashion) I thought the text itself read very well. Alastair Reynolds once mentioned to be "...fascinated by the texture of translated prose, especially that cool, icy detachment that seems to hover around prose that's been translated from a genuinely foreign language..." It's something I've seen in some translations as well but not so much in this one. Naturally I was curious to find out who did the translation. Nowhere in this edition is the translator credited and that is something the publisher ought to be ashamed of. I found an earlier Gollancz edition translated by Antonina W. Bouis and if I were to venture a guess, they probably used that translation for the SF Masterworks edition.
At 145 pages in this edition Roadside Picnic is a fairly short novel and I thought it was pretty stripped down to the bare essentials. The mystery of the alien visitations stays just that. Throughout the books bits and pieces of what people think to have learnt about these aliens surface, none of them appear to be much more than theories. One of the more interesting ones, from a literary point of view is the comparison that gives the novel it's name. When asked what he thinks about the alien visitations Dr. Valentine Pillman replies as follows.
“My pleasure, imagine a picnic."
“What did you say?”
"A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess - apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow." The nervous animals in this analogy are the humans who venture forth after the Visitors left, discovering items and anomalies which are ordinary to those who discarded them, but incomprehensible or deadly to those who find them.”
“I see, a roadside picnic.”
“Precisely, a roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos. And you ask if they will come back.”
Noonan isn’t convinced and neither was I but it sure is an interesting image.
Noonan and Pillman are not the core of the story however. Most of the novel focusses on Red and his illegal exploits in the Zone. The authors are very careful about what they choose to show us of Red’s activities. Right from the start it is impressed on the reader that the Zone is deadly but we don’t actually get to see much of it early on in the story. They authors build up to exposing the full horror of the place on the ultimate trip into the Zone Red takes. Early on in the book he’s much more occupied by taking care of his family and struggling with he authorities and their futile attempts at keeping the Zone closed off. The Strugatsky brothers didn’t seem to think an state-sponsored research facility would be up to the task of exploiting the zone to the benefit of all people. Sounds like a dangerous bit of criticism in the Brezhnev era Soviet Union.
There’s a huge contradiction between the way Red cares for his family and saves the life of a fellow stalker and his illegal activities and what he ultimately must do to survive his final trip into the Zone. It is easy to let yourself be distracted about all the seemingly impossible things that artefacts found in the Zone can do but the real mystery is that of Red’s motivations. Sometimes I think he is not even sure himself. His ethical framework certainly give the reader something to puzzle over as Red is pictured as caring, loving and concerned in one scene and ruthless, violent and criminal in the next. It’s a puzzle the authors leave to the reader to solve. To add to the confusion the ending does not provide any answers as to whether Red’s expedition was worth it. Throughout the book Red is hesitant to explore his own wishes and seems to fear that the wish the artefact will force him to admit about himself. Or at least that is one possible interpretation of it. I’m pretty sure this ambiguous ending will put more than a few readers of.
I thought Roadside Picnic is an intriguing read but not one for a lazy reader. With the story so stripped down and the authors being intentionally ambiguous about several aspects of the book, it forces the reader to carefully consider what has just been read. It’s a book that will most likely yield something new on every reread and I must admit that after one reading I feel there are things I missed. When I had just finished this book I wondered for a moment what Hans had gotten me into but upon reflection I feel he did me a favour by suggesting it. If you want to sample to non-anglophone science fiction you could do worse than Roadside Picnic.
Title: Roadside Picnic
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1972