by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Translation by Olena Bormashenko
Chicago Review Press, 2012
(Originally published 1972 in the USSR)
[ Challenge # 34: A book by more than one author. ]
Roadside Picnic is an SF classic. Originally published in the USSR at the height of the Cold War — and Communist censorship – it received an English translation and publication in the US in 1977. It was thought of then as an experimental novel, and it still is. The premise is this: Four alien ships have visited Earth for a brief time and left behind a bunch of trash and strange effects in the areas they’ve visited, some of which are harmful to humans so those areas have been closed off for safety and further study. But people still sneak in to steal the alien technology, for which there’s a thriving black market. The novel is about one these stalkers, as they are called, nicknamed Red. It’s not a bang-up adventure tale ala Michael Crichton, though there are exciting parts when Red enters “The Zone” to find alien tchotchkes. It’s more about his interior life and how the alien visit has affected the rest of humanity, which ranges from scientists to black market dealers to housewives.
Actually I think the book IS a parody of the Russian black market for Western goods as it existed in the early 1970s. The characters one meets in the book could have been selling rock LPs and blue jeans. But there’s a philosophical aspect too, in the idea that even if aliens have visited the Earth, humanity might never understand them, or they, us.
This is one of those rare books I would give five stars. Despite the often awkward language I was really into it by the end, which describes Red’s colorful but tension-filled trip through a bizarre alien-damaged quarry in search of the “Golden Sphere” — a legendary alien artifact which has the power to grant wishes. There’s a good amount of cosmic horror too. We never see an alien, only the strange effects their visit has caused, which ranges from “bug traps” – areas of increased gravity, that squash anything that enters them into pancakes – to poisonous hell slime, free-roaming invisible heat storms, and momentary time warps that resuscitate corpses. That these are all described so colloquially and off-handedly adds to the strangeness and horror of it all. It was very different from anything I’ve ever read.
The book is divided into one prologue in which the alien visit is nicely introduced and four chapters. The first of them is a first person present monologue by Red as he visits The Zone with two companions. It’s one of the rare first person present POVs that gets it right. The other sections are in close third, also from Red, which felt like first person POV; as writer, I felt the authors were showing me two different ways to handle the same voice. Both were valid, and both worked.
On the downside, the roles of women were stereotypical: Wife and Mother vs. Spoiled Teenage Whore. There were no female scientists, stalkers, or black market dealers. There’s only one mention of a woman even having a job, and that’s as a stenographer who has to fend off the attentions of the boss. Well, it was written in the early 1970s after all, by two Russians with only clandestine knowledge of the West, which is where the story is set. Unlike the Russia of the time, where women were regarded as comrades working alongside the men, women of the West in the 1960s were still expected to hold minor jobs at best until they got married.
The story’s setting adds to the absurdist nature of it, making it more like magic realism than a Western SF novel of the time that set out to predict a plausible future. The imaginary town of Harmont where the visit occurred is English-speaking and could have been American or Canadian, yet, the characters are Russian through and through in their personalities and mannerisms. There’s a lot of drinking and smoking that goes on, and there’s even a bar called The Borscht. Colloquialisms that were originally in Russian sound odd when translated to English equivalents, like “mug” for example, for a criminal-looking face. Which might have suited the early 1970s time frame, but sounds odd today, in the 2020s. But that’s also what made it so interesting to read.
So, don’t be intimidated by this book in spite of its academic pedigree. (There’s a scholarly introduction by Ursula K. LeGuin, in fact.) You’re in for a good time. There’s even been a video game based on it.