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Novel Review: Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Roadside Picnic cover - fair use thumbnail

A strange book this, but one I personally liked a lot, though I’d hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. Cinemaphiles may know it as the source material for Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker, but the Strugatsky brothers’ novel is a very different prospect. It reads more like crime fiction, with a savage abruptness that seems, somehow, very Russian, and a grimness of tone that sets it apart from other works that have approached similar subjects (Pohl’s Gateway, for example, or Clarke’s Rama series).

Red Schuhart is a stalker–a treasure hunter in the Zone, an area of earth transformed by unexplained alien intervention and left inhospitable and incredibly dangerous but littered with extraterrestrial valuables. Red’s also, for the most part, a complete son of a bitch, a criminal who never stops to question the rightness of his actions. He speaks in stalker slang, describing the hazards and prizes of the Zone in his own incomprehensible terminology. As a viewpoint character he doesn’t give much away, making much of the first two thirds difficult to follow.

Probably this will put a lot of readers off, but Roadside Picnic does reward the effort in its own way. The penultimate section, (which explains amongst other things the unusual title), is devastating in its plausibly cynical view of what a contact with alien life would really be like. Although we’re presented with more information towards the end, it becomes clear that we’re not really meant to understand. Like Red and the other characters, like humanity itself, we’re totally out of our depth.

Often in science-fiction, the alien is described so clearly that even if we don’t understand it, it at least becomes familiar. The Strugatskys don’t make that concession, instead forcing us to imagine being confronted with things that are totally beyond our ability to comprehend. As such, Roadside Picnic isn’t an easy or a fun read. More often it’s frustrating and brutal, and that’s nowhere truer than in the last few pages. But if you bear with it, with its angry proletarian antihero and its believably harsh and derelict reality, it’s also a powerful and distinctive work.