Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, ROADSIDE PICNIC
Gollancz SF Masterworks, pp145, 6.99 ISBN-13 9780575079786
(Translated by Antonina W. Bouis*)

Reviewed by L. J. Hurst


 

The Strugatsky brothers' ROADSIDE PICNIC appeared in English translation in 1977 (the Russian original was published in 1972). Set in Canada in the near present the title only becomes clear in the second half of the book when a character explains that the strange, radiant, deadly regions scattered around the planet are the places where visiting aliens stopped for a moment and left their rubbish like the sandwich wrappers or oil-slick left by earthly picnickers. Just as our picnickers are careless of the environment perhaps the aliens have been similarly regardless of our planet; a lack of care carrying the corollary that they did not find us worth contacting during their halt.

Round the edge of the regions, which the authorities have closed off, live the survivors of what was initially a disaster. Now these towns house roughnecks such as Redrick Schuhart, a "stalker": a man who knows how to find his way into and through "The Zone". He makes a living by bringing out gewgaws, familiar objects that have become bejewelled and selling them unlawfully (today's equivalent would be "blood" or Illicit Diamond Buying). In addition to the jewels there are strange foreign objects such as anti-gravity rings, for which there is a market, yet no official use. "The Zone" is not safe, though, and Schuhart returns carrying his companion, Buzzard Burbridge, whose legs have been deboned by the alien "witches' jelly".

Schuhart tries to drink to relieve the horror of his life, but he is too responsible to drink to excess since he has a wife and young daughter, Maria, to keep. Maria was born after the visitation and is sightless, her eyes totally white. When the authorities finally send Schuhart to prison he has enough power and wealth to ensure that his family are kept in good health. When he emerges seven years later he finds that some of the items from The Zone, like the "so-sos" which act as key and power unit in a car, have been put to use, but he discoverers, too, that Maria, who has always been nicknamed "Monkey", is now fur-covered. If she is an example of the post-Visitation generations then the future must be different from anything Schuhart or the authorities know, expect or plan for. Schuhart cannot leave The Zone alone and returns with Burbridge's son, during which journey it becomes clear that Burbridge junior has become a believer in the miraculous within The Zone, and who believes that a Golden Ball left by aliens can grant any wish, including the return of his father's legs. Schuhart sinks further into despair at this hopeless aspiration but not to the degree that he cannot himself make a wish, "Happiness for everybody, free". "Free" because, of course, what has come out of The Zone at that point has come with tremendous social and moral cost. Nor has anyone any idea whether they will make sense of The Zone or the Visitation, they are still "hammering nails with microscopes".

Within a few years of publication there were a number of ways of seeing ROADSIDE PICNIC: the brothers used it as the basis of their screenplay for Andrei Tarkovsky's film STALKER, though they reduced the science fictional elements while keeping the alien artefacts and the mutating child. Not long after that, though, when the zone around Chernobyl became just as interdicted, yet just as much the result of so much promise of which nothing good could be made, ROADSIDE PICNIC proved itself another example of sf's horribly ironic prescience and therefore deserving its place in the ranks of SF Masterworks.



 

Note:

* detail omitted from anywhere on this edition.

A reprint of the previous Macmillan US/Gollancz/Penguin edition, this time the editors have managed to miss saying it is a translation and completely omitted the translator's name. There was also an introduction by Theordore Sturgeon which has also been reduced to seven words on the cover.

In 600 words I had to miss references to other visitation literature, or even one of Joyce Grenfell's monologues. Not one of her schoolteacher ("George, don't do that") monologues - it is one where she talks about "her" party going for a drive and stopping for a roadside picnic, unintentionally revealing all the damage they are doing, and the damage they are seeing (the foam on the river from the chemicals in it, for example). Typical of the unexamined life in the 'fifties. But comparable to the underlying theme of the Strugatskys, I think.


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This review first appeared in VECTOR The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

© L J Hurst 2007