Roadside Picnic

Posted: June 18, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

It is the near future, and the world is living in the aftermath of what’s called The Visitation. Over a period of two days alien visitors landed at six locations around the Earth. No one saw the visitors, or even their means of arrival or departure. Within the six zones, each covering just a few kilometres, strange and dangerous phenomena are observed, and curious artefacts of great power have been left behind.

A subculture of scavengers, termed Stalkers, has grown up. These Stalkers illegally venture into the zones to forage for powerful artefacts which they then sell on the black-market. Meanwhile the government try to prevent the Stalkers entering the zones, while exploring them themselves to gain a technological advantage.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is one of the Stalkers who keeps returning to the Zone, even though he knows each trip might be his last.

An intriguing book, written in 1971 by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and the version of the book I had not only features a new translation, but also information about how the original story was heavily censored by the Soviet government.

It’s an interesting book, one I’d heard of in relation to the film version, Stalker, which was directed by Andrei ‘Solaris’ Tarkovsky. It’s a book that at once deals with weighty ideas, while at the same time retains a pulpy edge. The idea of the Visitations is a novel one, and where the titular notion of the roadside picnic comes from. One character theorises that the aliens had no grand plan, and didn’t even know humanity existed, they merely stopped for a rest, perhaps for a bite to eat, and left without knowing humanity even existed, leaving their litter and junk in their wake that humans chance upon like so many insects chancing upon discarded sweet wrappers and soda cans.

The concept that we don’t understand these artefacts, even the ones that are useful, is an intriguing one, and the effect the Zone has on those who enter it; mutating the children of Stalkers, bringing the dead back to life is also curious.

In the end the story doesn’t really go anywhere, because there isn’t really anywhere to go. There are no grand revelations, we don’t understand the aliens, and possibly never will, and that, I’m guessing, is the point.

An enjoyable read, and it’s always nice to try out new authors and I may try these brothers again.

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