Just when you think that all of the possible science fiction plots have been written, you come across a book like ‘Roadside Picnic’ that makes you realize how varied and diverse this genre can be. This is an alien visitation novel without the aliens, a first contact story without the ‘contact,’ and a story of strange and wondrous possibilities that only seem to lead to death and despair. The heroes in the book aren’t noble scientists trying to understand an advanced culture for the benefit of humanity, they’re working class stiffs just trying to survive and provide for their families. And while some have tried to ascribe various political themes to the novel based on its unique publication history and censorship from the Soviet Government, the reality is that it’s actually more about the psychological and sociological implications of contact with advanced technology than any sort of political manifesto. While it may not be the type of novel that most readers are used to, this is a gripping little novel that poses some unsettling questions about human nature and offers few reassuring answers.
The novel begins 30 years after what is known as “The Visitation” – an event in which extraterrestrials landed on Earth in six different locations (known as the “Zones”) and then left before contact was made. In the aftermath of the visit, humans discovered that these Zones now contained strange (and in some cases extremely dangerous) phenomena and artifacts left by the aliens. In order to study these “supernatural” artifacts and prevent them getting into the wrong hands, the Zones were walled off and can only be legally entered by scientific personnel designated by the UN and world governments. While the exact location of each of the Zones isn’t revealed, the story centers on one Zone in particular – somewhere in Soviet Russia.
When we first meet him, Redrick “Red” Schuhart is a 23 year old “Stalker” – an outlaw who travels into the Zone in order to retrieve alien artifacts and sell them on the black market. While he has a part-time job as working as a lab assistant for the institute studying the zone, the real money is in venturing into the Zone and bringing out these strange artifacts, which go by descriptive names such as Sponges, Black Sprays, Pins, Bracelets, Rattling Napkins and (my favorite) Death Lamps. In most cases, the purposes of these objects is unknown, although there are some (such as the Batteries which seem to be an unlimited power source) that may have real benefits. But getting these artifacts out of the Zone isn’t a walk in the park. As we follow Red on an expedition into the Zone (and hear stories about the horrible deaths of other Stalkers), we soon realize that the Zones are hotbeds of dangerous phenomena that can cause horrific injuries, mutilations and death. These ‘phenomena’ have great names too, such as Witches Jelly, Burning Fluff, Exploding Rainbows and the Meat Grinder. We also learn that the offspring of Stalkers often have severe generic mutations.
As the book progresses, we follow Red as he loses friends in the Zone, gets married and has a daughter (who he lovingly refers to as “The Monkey” due to the layer of hair that covers her body), deals with various authority figures who are trying to clamp down on the illegal trading of artifacts, gets busted, gets out of jail and tries to rehabilitate himself. But seeing as though there’s no real industry in the area (and residents are forbidden to emigrate due to their exposure to the Zone), Red is forced to continue going back into the Zone in order to pay the bills. And while Red is a rough and tumble kind of guy, we also see that he is a good man with good intentions who is fiercely loyal – even to a fault. The only thing that seems to offer any possibility of salvation is a mythical artifact known as the ”Golden Sphere” that supposedly grants wishes to whoever is standing in front of it. And it’s the hope of finding the Golden Sphere which compels Red to go back into the Zone one last time.
Apart from the human drama and the sympathy that we feel for Red as he struggles to survive and provide for his family amidst a collection of shady politicians, greedy black marketers and double-crossing Stalkers, there’s also the compelling mystery and intrigue surrounding the Zones, the reasons for the Alien’s visit, the purpose of the artifacts and the potential for both positive and negative effects on humanity as a whole. What I loved about the Strugatsky brothers approach is that they rarely explain the artifacts and phenomena in any real detail, instead leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to determine how they look and what they’re used for. And their ability to ratchet up the tension and suspense during Red’s trips into the Zone make this a gripping ride throughout. If you’re looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, I think that you’ll enjoy Roadside Picnic as much as I did.