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Roadside Picnic (Rediscovered Classics) Paperback – May 1, 2012
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About the Author
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are the most famous and popular Russian writers of science fiction, and the authors of over 25 novels and novellas. Their books have been widely translated and have been made into a number of films. Arkady Strugatsky died in 1991. Boris Strugatsky died in November 2012. Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and other science-fiction classics.
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The set up is simple and brilliant: aliens visited the earth some years prior -- possibly on a picnic -- and left behind a messy zone swirling with dangerous, unpredictable areas that run counter to the laws of physics but riddled with artifacts (possibly trash, but light years ahead of our technology). Under an authoritarian military and scientific presence, a community of stalkers — people who risk it all to sneak into the dangerous “zone” to secure the strange items and sell them on the black market — thrives, but at great physical and emotional risk.
What he manages to do with that setting is amazing. First, reading about the strange technology and how unwitting humans would interact with it is nothing short of miraculous. It felt so real, and yet so completely, well, alien. Second, the character development, imbued with the Russian soul of long-suffering pragmatism, was remarkable. Third, and most impressive, is literary depth of this slender work — the insanely nuanced commentary on life under communism, the subversive critiques of capitalism and science and the deep insights into the human condition and our unease with our place in the universe.
Loved lines like this: “Austin isn’t a bad guy, he’s got the right mix of courage and cowardice.” And, “I’m not proud, I just don’t like counting pennies, that’s all.” And, “I think and think, can’t think of a thing, and decide not to give a damn.”
While this may be a science fiction novel, taking place a number of years after first contact that involved no contact at all, the narrative is more akin to horror than anything else.
Aliens arrived on Earth, landing in a handful of seemingly random locations and then left shortly thereafter without any attempt to interact with us. What they left behind in their landing locations were bizarre, hazardous, and toxic zones where people like our protagonist would illegally venture with the purpose of risking their lives to collect items of alien manufacture that could be sold to scientific institutes for study or private collectors for bragging rights. The odds of surviving these trips into the zone were slim and anyone who made it out was changed by the experience.
This is where the novel begins, the context surrounding a story that is equal parts inspirational and terrifying, disorienting and straightforward. This book should be considered not only a fantastic sample of Cold War era Russian science fiction but also an example of surreal horror at its finest.
The premise of Roadside Picnic is that the earth has been visited by aliens. In six areas of the world, they have come and gone, leaving only their debris or garbage behind. Five of these areas are on land. By the end of the day of the visit, the Zones are declared off limits. Eventually, world scientific organizations set up on the borders of the Zones and begin to study the visible and invisible. Some of the items in the Zone are powerful energy sources. Some of the areas of intense gravity that crush men and vehicles flat. There are also organic life forms that cannot be studied because they kill all who get near them. Thirteen years later they are still being studied.
No one except scientists are allowed into the Zones. The trade in the black market for items smuggled out of the Zone is huge. The money to be made makes it worth the risk for these smugglers or "stalkers" to enter the Zone at night risking their lives. They are also risking more. Stalkers who frequently run the risk of the Zones find they have severe mutations in their children born after they begin venturing into the Zone. The book prefigured many of the issues surrounding the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
It really is an amazing book that really must be read. Or even better, listened to. Robert Forster does a great job narrating the book. Roadside Picnic, although written by two Russian brothers, takes place in Canada. Forster keeps his voice in somewhat of a neutral accent but he conveys the toughness of the main character, Red. Red's frustration with the problems of living with the Zone and the issues it causes comes through very well in the narration.
Roadside Picnic is a great book. It has all the tension of a thriller, all the science of a science fiction, all the character development of a great literary novel and it is an exciting audiobook. The Forward by Ms. Le Guin is really important to listen to before the book itself. It helps put the importance of the novel in the listener's mind as they hear the incredible story of Stalkers and the risks they take to provide for their families.