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Roadside Picnic
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Victor Gollancz, 160 pages

Roadside Picnic
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Arkady Strugatsky (1925-1991) and his brother Boris (1931- ) were born and raised in the former Soviet Union. Arkady worked as a technical translator and editor, while Boris was a computer mathematician at the Pulkovo astronomical observatory. In the early 50s, they began collaborating on a number of utopian future history stories and came to be regarded as the top Soviet science fiction authors of the late 20th century. Some of their works include:
The "Dead Mountaineer" Hotel (no English publication)
originally as "Otel' 'U pogibshchego alpinista'", 1970
adapted to film as Otel' "U pogibshchego alpinista" (Tallinnfilm, USSR, 90 min, Dir. Grigori Kromarov, 1979
Hard to be a God transl. from German by Wendayne Ackerman (1973)
originally as Trudno byt' bogom, 1964
adapted to film as Trudno byt' bogom (Dovzhenko Studio/Halleluya Film GMBH/VO Sovexportfilm, USSR, 120 min, Dir. Peter Fleischmann, 1989)
Roadside Picnic transl. from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (1977)
originally as Piknik na obochine, 1972
adapted to film as Stalker (Mosfilm, USSR, 161 min, Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
The Snail on the Slope transl. Alan Myers, 1980
"Ulitka na sklone" (1966) and "Baikal" (1968)
Tale of the Troika transl. Antonina W. Bouis, 1977
originally as Skazka o troike, 1968

ISFDB Bibliography: Boris Strugatsky
ISFDB Bibliography: Arkady Strugatsky
BIBLIO in German
TRIBUTE SITE-1, Mirror 1
TRIBUTE SITE-1, Mirror 2
TRIBUTE SITE-1, Mirror 3
TRIBUTE SITE-1, in Russian with extra stuff not on English versions
BOOK REVIEW: The Roadside Picnic
BOOK REVIEW: Definitely Maybe
MOVIE: Stalker

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Roadside Picnic, like most science fiction from Eastern Europe, is very much unlike what one would associate with American or British science fiction. It isn't heavy on action or technology, but is much more a meditation on the sociological implications of advanced technology, in the context of the fascist politics and bureaucratically-stagnant world that existed behind the Iron Curtain. This all exists in the context of the protagonists saving themselves by developing their own aesthetic and ethical framework, and of coming to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the human condition. It is not technology or a superhero that is going to save them. As with Karel Capek's chemist Prokop in Krakatit (1927) or Stanislaw Lem's Ijon Tichy in The Futurological Congress (1974), the Strugatskys' main character in Roadside Picnic isn't some exceptional or particularly unusual human being, but just some guy getting by as best he can in peculiar circumstances. Also, very much unlike most Western science fiction, underneath all the deeper meaning one might wish to ascribe to their works, these authors have a great sense of humour, slyly poking fun at bureaucracy, and finding the humorous in the most mundane of everyday events.

In Roadside Picnic, Red Schuhart is a "stalker" (perhaps better translated as a "scout"), a veteran scavenger and black market dealer of the bizarre technological wonders to be found in the Zones. These areas, where the physics of matter are warped in mysterious and dangerous ways, are thought to be the trash piles of aliens who dropped by for a picnic and didn't clean up after themselves. Schuhart lives a criminal/outsider's life in the frontier city near the Zone trying to support his wife and strangely mutated child. After imprisonment for trafficking in looted alien products, Schuhart agrees to one last expedition to the very heart of the Zone where resides a Holy Grail-like sphere, capable of granting any wish to the one who reaches it.

Certainly the idea of localized areas where objects and events do not follow conventional physics and certain individuals are specialized in navigating the pitfalls and may be more or less physically or mentally transformed by their passages through the unstable regions isn't unique to Roadside Picnic. In Joan D. Vinge's World's End (1984) (the sequel to her Hugo-winning The Snow Queen), or more recently in Glenda Noramly's Havenstar (1999) these elements are repeated. However, in Roadside Picnic the Zone and its contents are the main factors molding the life of Red Schuhart. When he is ultimately successful in reaching the wish-granting coppery-golden sphere, where others have succumbed to the dangers of the Zone, he feels truly unworthy of the universe-shaping role that his wish will have. The words of an old friend shape his ultimate wish.

I must admit that I had to reread the last few pages on several occasions to try to figure out what the specific point the authors were trying to make was, and how the preceding events led logically to the outcome... and to a certain extent I still don't "get it." The book's last pages seem to suggest that even an individual reviled by and alienated from a society can take the moral high ground in the face of the indifference or corruption of people and/or the State. Up to that point, the story followed a fairly entertaining straightforward narrative of Schuhart's life and adventures, with some consideration of how his interaction with the Zone had shaped him and his relationships with others; then all of a sudden, what one must presume was the deeper meaning and culmination of the previous narrative is packed into the last couple of pages. While I have no objections to philosophizing about the human condition in a work of science fiction, it does bother me when I just don't get it (beyond the immediately obvious).

Roadside Picnic certainly doesn't fit the mold of the typical Western science fiction, having many of the hallmarks of Eastern European fiction. It is a book that, while entertaining in terms the events depicted, tries to do more than simply entertain. So if you're looking strictly for action of the Buck Rogers-Star Wars genre, this isn't for you. It is an important and influential book that probably needs to be read more than once to be fully appreciated and understood. Along with authors like Capek and Lem, this and other works of the Strugatsky brothers should certainly be read by anyone not wishing to be limited to the "Anglocentric Way" of most current science fiction.

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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