Saturday, July 28, 2018

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky - Roadside Picnic

Beginning with an intriguing idea, this is a complex novel that will repay reading for a second time I suspect. It is set in the future, probably in the US, in a world transformed by a visitation by aliens. But, frustratingly for humankind, the aliens made no contact and left a series of zones which have been radically transformed in ways that humans simply cannot understand. The areas are rich with alien artefacts, some of which of marvels like unlimited power or potential weapons. But they are protected by, often invisible, threats that kill or maim those seeking to find these alien treasures. Frustratingly it is not apparent to explorers and scientists whether these threats are deliberate protections or other random leavings by the alien visitors.

A whole industry, official and unofficial, has developed around these zones. Scientists are desperate for more information and more artefacts. Other, less scrupulous, forces want to get their hands on the treasure for profit and power. The official expeditions into the zones are mirrored by illegal trips by "stalkers". One of these stalkers, Red Schuhart, has a dual life foraging the zone for illegal and legal purposes. Like many who lived near a zone during the visitation, his family has suffered as a result - unknown forces have mutated his daughter, and friends and other stalkers have died. He drowns his sorrow in alcohol, but he cannot escape the zone, returning again and again, in the hope of understanding its secrets and possibly finding salvation for his family.

The point of the book, however, is that no one can understand the zones, humans can only gain superficial knowledge and use from the alien leavings. The title derives from a analogy used by one of the scientists. The visitation was like a picnic visit to a field by a human party. They leave behind scraps of food and broken toys, radios or trinkets. These are incomprehensible to the insects and animals that live in the field, but are understood as wondrous creations. The humans finish their picnic and leave, not stopping to comprehend the impact on the roadside inhabitants.

The concept is clever, and was clever enough to encourage at least one successful film 1979's Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and with a screen play by the Strugatsky brothers. Its also been widely translated and my edition from the SF Masterworks series has a great introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky that looks at the tortuous publication history in the former USSR. The book isn't simply a critique (or commentary) on the old Soviet regime, though there are clear elements to that, not least in Red's final demand. But it certainly has elements of a critique of a commodity obsessed society that appears to be set in 1950s America. Many of the objects found, as Le Guin, points out might be being misused by their human scientists. For all their successful applications are humans using "Geiger counters as hand axes"?

A clever story with a brilliant setting, I feel that Roadside Picnic will improve with a second and third reading. It's not quite as good as the Strugatsky's Hard to be a God but it comes recommended.

Related Reviews

A & B Strugatsky - Hard to be a God
Morrow - Is this the Way the World Ends?

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