Posts Tagged ‘Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’

‘Roadside Picnic’ by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – The Aftermath of a Space Alien Visit

 

‘Roadside Picnic’ by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972) – 193 pages     Translated from the Russian by Olena Bormashenko

“What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?” – Ursula K. Le Guin

I was looking for a change of pace, something totally different from what I normally read, and I found it.

I don’t usually read science fiction, but ‘Roadside Picnic’ has a strong recommendation from Ursula K. Le Guin and a number of others so I read it.

This is down-to-earth working man’s science fiction. The men in town smoke all the time, get drunk, and pick up women. ‘Roadside Picnic’ details small town life – the small cafes, the town bars, the local police – so well that we almost believe it when they introduce reanimated corpses and a Golden Sphere that grants human wishes. Almost.

Space alien creatures landed in six different zones on Earth and stayed for several weeks and then just took off and left. For them, Earth was just a roadside picnic ground. One zone is in a fifty mile wide area just outside the Canadian town of Harmont. The Canadians sent in a military unit to deal with the aliens, but the aliens killed them all. Then the aliens left, and they left behind a treasure trove of objects, things never before found on Earth and have properties no Earth items have. These items are eerie, mysterious, and dangerous. They are also very valuable, and some men risk their lives to go into the Zone and get these items and sell them on the black market. These men are called stalkers. They get top dollar for these items but working in the Zone is extremely dangerous, and many stalkers have been killed or severely injured there. And the police are vigilant in arresting known stalkers.

He didn’t know the driver, a pimply beaked kid, one of the thousands who had recently flocked to Harmont looking for hair-raising adventures, untold riches, international fame, or some special religion; they came in droves but ended up as taxi drivers, waiters, construction workers, and bouncers in brothels – yearning, untalented, tormented by nebulous desires, angry at the whole world, horribly disappointed, and convinced that here, too, they had been cheated.”

At the center of ‘Roadside Picnic’ is one of these stalkers named Redrick Schuhart, called Red. Originally Red worked for the Harmont Branch of the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures but after his best friend gets killed in the Zone he quits and becomes a stalker. He now lives a comfortable life with his wife Guta and their daughter Monkey who has some mystifying qualities which may be a result of Red’s line of work.

Red keeps in touch with the scientists at the Institute. In fact one of the scientists, Noonan, is involved with the item bootlegging himself. I found some of the conversations among the scientists quite interesting.

At its core is a flawed assumption – that an alien race would be psychologically human.”

Why flawed?” asked Noonan.

Because biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals, I note.”

Just a second,” said Noonan. “That’s totally different. We’re talking about the psychology of intelligent beings.”

True, and that would be just fine, if we knew what intelligence was.”

And we don’t?” asked Noonan in surprise.

Believe it or not, we don’t.”

What makes ‘Roadside Picnic’ a winning novel for me is that it is not at all cold or antiseptic or remote like science fiction sometimes tends to be, but rather it is coarse and sometimes crude and deals with real people. 

And compared to what is happening these days, ‘Roadside Picnic’ does not seem all that outlandish or strange.

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

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