Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 210 p (+ v page introduction by Ursula Le Guin.) © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 1972. Translated from the Russian Piknik na obochine by Olena Bormashenko.

This novel is apparently the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based. Not that I’ve ever seen it, I don’t go out of my way to view SF in its moving picture formats, either in film or television.

 Roadside Picnic cover

Aliens have come – and gone; their landing sites spaced over the Earth in a perfect curve. Each of those Zones is deserted, a repository of hell slime, death lamps, shriekers, black sparks, lobster eyes, rattling napkins and strange containers known as empties; not to mention the elusive Golden Sphere, said to grant human wishes. Stalkers illegally brave the dangers to retrieve Zone artefacts for the money they will bring. Scientific institutes study these to try to find uses for them – or even what they are. The scientists studying it are more scared than the rest of the populace because they understand how much they don’t understand. As one of the characters points out, such attempts to gain insight suffer from the flawed assumption that an alien race would be psychologically human. We don’t know what intelligence is; it can’t be defined. In the same conversation the possibility is raised of the stuff in the zone being just detritus, left behind after the aliens merely stopped for a picnic.

Yet the Zone has effects beyond itself. Despite there being no detectable radiation nor mutagens in the Zones, Stalker’s children have weird mutations, emigrants from the areas that became the Zones seem to cause disasters of various sorts in their new locations; corpses are reanimated, the dead return to their homes.

The book follows the evolution of stalking over a few years from an individual – or perhaps team – pursuit to remote probing by robots mainly through the experiences of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker in Harmont, which seems to be in the USA (a father aspires for his son to be President one day.) In our first foray into the Zone the descriptions of its outer edge are eerily premonitory of Chernobyl, its strangeness also prefigures the event site in M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In the concluding section Schuhart muses while finally seeking out the Golden Sphere, “What man is born for I have no idea.”

There is a temptation either – as according to Ursula Le Guin’s introduction many US SF writers did – to consider any Soviet era fiction to be ideologically based or else to see it as critiquing the system in which it originated. (US writers of course could not possibly be subject to either of these strictures themselves.)

In an afterword Boris Strugatsky says of the brothers’ battles with Soviet editors that (the editors) thought language had to be as colourless, smooth and glassy as possible and certainly not coarse; that SF had to be fantastic and have nothing to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; the reader must be protected from reality. Unsurprisingly you might think, I’m with the Strugatskys on this one.

Roadside Picnic, even forty years after its conception, still stands out as a compelling piece of written SF, well worth its inclusion as a Masterwork. As I hinted earlier its influence can be traced down through the years but merely imagining this scenario as written by a US practitioner of the genre – where a military sensibility may have prevailed instead – underscores its subtlety.

The otherwise excellent translation is into a robust USian: fair enough given its apparent setting but a few infelicities intruded:- “had probably stuck his freckled mug inside, frowned, and went off.” “(His face) hurt. His nose was swollen but his eyebrows and eyebrows were intact.” A “lighting” bolt.

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