Friday, June 11, 2010

Roadside Picnic - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

A while ago I asked all of you what I should read for my 100th Random Comments review. Unfortunately most of you rather shy about commenting so Hans, who's taste leans towards classic science fiction, got his wish. He suggested several titles so I picked to one I would be least likely to pick up without prompting. Thus I ended up with Roadside Picnic by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I've never read anything by these two gentlemen, in fact the names didn't ring a bell when Hans proposed it. It was first published in English in 1977 so I was afraid it might be difficult to find a copy. Fortunately, Gollancz' SF Masterworks picked this book up as one of the later titles in that series (number 68 to be exact). As far as I know this novel is the only translated work in the selection. I guess Gollancz has some work left to do, you'd expect Jules Verne and Stanislav Lem in that company at least.

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."
Noonan shuddered.
“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.

Book Details
Title: Roadside Picnic
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 145
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07978-6
First published: 1972


  1. Thanks for having reviewed this one and congratulations with the impressive nr 100, your review pace is incredibly high. I liked your review very much as well as your interpretation of Red's hesitation and fear. As always with your reviews you give away enough interesting elements so that the reader can decide himself whether the book is worth the read or not, independent from your own view. I like that. On the internet I indeed read that many readers were put of by the abrupt ending. I will take the test myself and read this book in it's Dutch translation which was communicated to me on the PF-forum. (BERMTOERISTEN
    1981, Utrecht: A.W. Bruna, Zwarte Beertjes 1943, 206pag., ISBN 90-229-1943-9
    vert.van: Piknik na obotsjin (1972), vert.door: Jean-A. Schalekamp)
    Thanks once more for having accepted my request, but I would maybe have been even more curious to know the requests and suggestions of other people!

  2. You're welcome :D

    Given the minimal response I wondered if I should have made it a poll but then I still would have had to pick the titles myself. Who knows, maybe when I hit 200 ;)

    Before someone mentioned in top Fantasy Realm I wasn't aware of a Dutch translation. It's a shame Bruna stopped translating SF, I hear those old pockets are still in demand. Might even be easier to get an English version.

  3. Roadside Picnic is freaking amazing. I don't know why but this book really struck a chord with me. The concept of hunting alien artifacts in a warped alien environment rocks so hard. I've been working on a SF novel that's inspired by this, although it's a very challenging concept to execute believably.

  4. Excellent review BTW. You know, I never really paid attention to how Red is loving in one scene and ruthless the next, and that's very interesting. I always thought he sort of loses it at the end, weighed down by all of the corruption and greed surrounding him. I think the end is definitely a slam against Communism.

  5. Thank you :D

    I guess this book works because it does not try to explain the how and why of the visitation or the artefacts left behind. What it doesn't say is as important as what is mentioned. It leaves quite a bit to your own imagination.

    I think this is one of those books that you can have a dozen different people read and end up with a dozen wildly varying opinions.

  6. Great review. You've just added another book to my reading list.

  7. Let us know what you think of it Dave. There aren't that many reviews out there of this particular book. It feels like a book that sparks very different reactions so a few more opinions would definitely be welcome ;)

  8. I love the brothers and this book in particular. It is pretty tough and heartbreaking reading, as almost everything they wrote. I also recommend their early book "Hard to be a god", which might seem a bit simpler but still striking, and "Beetle in the anthill". I've never been a big fan of sci-fi, but Strugatsky used this frame to question human's nature and this issue always fascinates me :)

  9. It keeps amazing me how many people have read this book. This review is about to become my most popular review ever.

    I'll have a look if these titles are still available, it's not that the to read stack isn't large enough already but I ought to read some more work by these two gentlemen ;)

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  11. I just finished the book in Russian, called "Piknik na Obochine." I like your take on it and the insights you got from the novel. : ) I've had a chance to compare the Russian and English translations and did notice a much colder, detached feel in the English. The Russian version I found packed with subtlety and subtext in the way the authors turn phrases and suggest meaning through seemingly simple language. It's a very understated book that definitely challenges the reader.
    I thought Red's final dilemma as he sits by the slope leading down the golden ball was genius. The pace of the entire book, of Red's entire life, comes to a terrifying halt as Red is faced with the realization that he has no clue who he is as a person. His entire life, he's cultivated spite and hatred towards others, towards the entire world, but as is evidenced by some of his inner monologue during the final trip through the zone, he has a strong hidden desire to see himself as a hero, a good person with pure intentions. Faced with a device/entity with the power to see into his soul, to reveal his true self, Red is tortured by the split between his convictions and the reality of how he's led his life. It's a heartbreaking sequence... the past, and the truth, catches up to him instantly, soundlessly. He berates and beats himself and scrambles for a way out, and then, aimlessly, he stumbles down to the quarry, asserting that he'd never sold his soul even as he prepares to give himself over completely to this omniscient device, begging it to decide his fate for him.

  12. It seems there are quite a few people who feel the translation leaves something to be desired. I understand a new translation will be published in the US in April 2012. Can't find much about it yet but it might be interesting to compare those two versions.

  13. It definitely deserves a translator who can interpret mood and meaning. It seems like you got quite a bit out of the current translation, though.

  14. No one has mentioned that this is the basis of the Tarkovsky film Stalker. I know it has quite a following, but I have never seen it. I have also never stayed awake for an entire Tarkovsky film. This one is just under three hours long, which might be how long it would take to read the book. Stalker, I have been assured, is the best entry point for Takovsky's work.

  15. Three hours seems a bit excessive given the length of the novel yes... I haven't seen it myself but I understand it is only loosely based on the novel.