Fiction Reviews

Roadside Picnic

(1969 / 2007) Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Gollancz, pbk, 6.99, 145 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07978-6
(1969 / 2012) Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Chicago Review Press, pbk, US$15.99 / 10.99, ix+209 pp, ISBN 978-1-613-74341-6


This is an SF gem. More than this, this is a non-Anglophone SF gem (the Strugatski brothers are Russian) that deserves to be treasured. Set in the near future (which is actually the end of the twentieth century but then the story was (I guess) written in the 1960s), a number of mysterious zones appear on the Earth. These zones were originally normal areas, be they towns, countryside or whatever, but now they have been strangely altered. For example when zone manifested within part of an industrial town, the people panicked and fled, and then, later, they died as if of a plague. Today the zones are all deserted for within them there are pockets of danger. There are mysterious forces such as small spots where gravity works differently, and then there are the artefacts. Nobody knows exactly where these artefacts came from and they are as mysterious as the zones themselves. For example one class of artefact are nicknamed 'empties'. Empties are two parallel copper discs each a quarter of an inch thick and the size of a saucer with about a foot and a half between them. There is nothing between them and you can even pass your hand in the space. However something keeps the plates parallel and fixed relative to one another.

These artefacts are valuable and scientists are desperate to study them. Yet the deserted zones are dangerous places. So it takes a special kind of person who is prepared to risk everything to go into these zones to retrieve these artefacts. Such people are 'stalkers'. Red Schuhart is one such stalker. Roadside Picnic is his tale and in it he goes into the very centre of one such zone.

So why is such a tale called 'Roadside Picnic'? Well there are several ideas as to how the zones came into being. But one of the most favoured is that the Earth received some sort of 'visitation' by aliens who were simply passing through. They paused on Earth in their journey to wherever and had, almost literally, a roadside picnic just as a human traveller might. Then, when these aliens left, the places they had been to had been altered in strange alien ways, and these beings also left behind the detritus of their picnic.

Roadside Picnic is one of the classics of SF and indeed we (Tony and I) found that it fell within our strict criteria of fan popularity for inclusion in Essential SF: A Concise Guide. This came about by a rather circuitous route. Our supplementary survey of Eastern European fans overwhelmingly nominated Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker as one of the top SF films of all-time as indeed did our main UK fan based poll included it (albeit lower) in the top 30 SF films. Anyway, this film Stalker is based on Roadside Picnic. Having said all that the Stalker film is not a personal favourite of mine as I find Tarkovsky's films plod a little and tend to be overly long. I mention this in case you have seen the film but were unaware of the book. However by contrast to this overdrawn film the Strugatsky brothers' novel, Roadside Picnic, is short and to the point. It not only oozes sense of wonder but merges this with a sense of human greed: the sometimes grubby aspects of human nature whereby folk will do almost anything to make money. It therefore is not only a glimpse into the unknown but also one into part of that aspect of our own make-up we all too often choose to ignore. Brilliant.

Fair enough so far. However, even if our strict quantified criteria of SF enthusiast support for this story for inclusion in Essential SF as an SF classic is not enough for you then you may care to know that the book was in 1978 a runner up for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (as distinct from the John Campbell Award). Of course the book was written in the original Russian before then though I have conflicting dates as to when this was, but the earliest I have is 1969 (though Wikipedia accessed Feb 2007 says 1972). My understanding is that Macmillan got the rights to the novel in 1977, which was the year it was first published in the US. Gollancz published it in the UK in 1978 and Penguin in 1979 (with an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon (dated 1976)). The translator was Antonina Bouis. Now (2007) Gollancz have re-issued it as part of their excellent SF Masterwork series (but without the Sturgeon introduction (which is fair enough) or translator acknowledgement (which is not)).

OK, so I call Roadside Picnic an SF gem. Gollancz call it an SF Masterwork. And fans in our surveys ensured that the book was included in Essential SF, so it must be 'essential'. Taken together I gently suggest -- and this is only a suggestion mind you -- that this is probably a bit of a hint that you should calmly and quietly rush to get this novel lest this opportunity pass for goodness knows how many decades... This is only a gentle suggestion now.

Jonathan Cowie

Addendum: The 2012 edition from Chicago Review Press is a new translation by Antoniana W. Bouis. It also has a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky.

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