Roadside Picnic By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
|Book Name||Roadside Picnic|
|Author||Arkady and Boris Strugatsky|
|Item Weight||11.2 ounces|
|Product Dimensions||5.5 x 0.51 x 8.5 inches|
|Publisher||Chicago Review Press; Reprint Edition (May 1, 2012)|
|Best Sellers Rank||#21,630 in Books|
|#2,861 in Science Fiction|
The novel is set in a post-visitation world where there are now six zones known on Earth that are full of unexplained phenomena and where strange happenings have briefly occurred, assumed to have been visitations by aliens. Governments and the UN, fearful of unforeseen consequences, try to keep tight control over them to prevent leakage of artifacts from the Zones. A subculture of stalkers, scavengers who go into the zones to steal the artifacts for profit, has evolved around the zones. The novel is set in and around a specific zone in Harmont, a fictitious town in a fictitious country (loosely resembling Canada), and follows the protagonist over the course of eight years.
The introduction is a live radio interview with Dr. Pilman who is credited with the discovery that the six Visitation Zones’ locations were not random. He explains it so: “Imagine that you spin a huge globe and you start firing bullets into it. The bullet holes would lie on the surface in a smooth curve. The whole point (is that) all six Visitation Zones are situated on the surface of our planet as though someone had taken six shots at Earth from a pistol located somewhere along the Earth–Deneb line. Deneb is the alpha star in Cygnus.”
The story revolves around Redrick “Red” Schuhart, a tough and experienced young stalker who regularly enters the Zone illegally at night in search of valuable artifacts for profit. Trying to clean up his act, he becomes employed as a lab assistant at the International Institute, which studies the Zone. To help the career of his boss, whom he considers a friend, he goes into the Zone with him on an official expedition to recover a unique artifact (a full “empty”), which leads to his friend’s death later on. This comes as a great shock when the news reaches Redrick, drunk in a bar, and he blames himself for his friend’s fate. While Redrick is at the bar, a police force enters looking for stalkers. Redrick is forced to use a “shrieker” to make a hasty getaway. Red’s girlfriend Guta is pregnant and decides to keep the baby no matter what. It is widely rumored that incursions into the Zone by stalkers carry high risk of mutations in their children, even though no radiation or other mutagens had been detected in the area. They decide to marry.
Disillusioned Redrick returns to stalking. In the course of his joint expedition into the Zone with a fellow stalker named Burbridge The Vulture, the latter steps into a substance known as “hell slime,” which slowly dissolves his leg bones. Amputation must be urgently performed to avoid certain death. Redrick pulls Burbridge out of the Zone and drops him off at a surgeon, avoiding the patrols. Later on Redrick is confronted by Burbridge’s daughter, who gets angry at him for saving her father. Guta has given birth to a happy and intelligent daughter, fully normal but for having short, light full body hair and black eyes. They lovingly call her “Monkey.”
Redrick meets with his clients in a posh hotel, selling them a fresh portion of the Zone artifacts, but what they are really after is “hell slime”. It is hinted that they want it for military research. Redrick claims he does not have it yet and leaves. Shortly afterward Redrick is arrested, but escapes. He then contacts his clients, telling them where he hid the “slime” sample that he had smuggled out previously. Redrick insists that all the proceeds from the sale be sent to Guta. He realizes that the “slime” will be used for some kind of weapon of mass destruction, but decides he has to provide for his family. He then gives himself up to the police.
Redrick’s old friend Richard Noonan (a supply contractor with offices inside the Institute), is revealed as a covert operative of an unnamed, presumably governmental, secret organization working to stop the contraband outflow of artifacts from the Zone. Believing that he’s nearing the successful completion of his multi-year assignment, he is confronted and scolded by his boss, who reveals to him that the flow is stronger than ever, and is tasked with finding who is responsible and how they operate. It is revealed that the stalkers are now organized under the cover of the “weekend picnics-for-tourists” business set up by Burbridge.
They jokingly refer to the setup as “Sunday school”. Noonan meets with Dr. Valentine Pilman for lunch and they have an in-depth discussion of the Visitation and humanity in general. This is where the idea of “Visitation as a roadside picnic” is articulated. Redrick is home again, having served his time. Burbridge visits him regularly, trying to entice him into some secret project, but Redrick declines. Guta is depressed because their daughter has nearly lost her humanity and ability to speak, resembling a monkey more and more. Redrick’s dead father is also present, having had come home from the cemetery inside the Zone, as other very slowly-moving (and completely harmless) reanimated dead are now returning to their homes all around town. They are usually destroyed by the authorities as soon as they are discovered; Redrick, however, had forcibly managed to defend his father from being taken away. Together Redrick’s father and daughter symbolize the complete inhumanity of the Zone.
Redrick goes into the Zone one last time in order to reach the wish-granting “Golden Sphere.” He has a map, given to him by Burbridge, whose son Arthur joins him on the expedition. Redrick knows one of them has to die in order to temporarily deactivate a phenomenon known as the “meatgrinder” in order for the other to reach the sphere, but he keeps this a secret from Arthur, whom he intends to sacrifice to it in order to make a wish to turn his daughter back to normal. After they get to the location, surviving many obstacles, Arthur rushes towards the sphere shouting out selfless wishes for a better world, only to be savagely dispatched by the meatgrinder. With the “Golden Sphere” in front of him, an exhausted Redrick looks back in confusion and bitterness on his whole life of desperate survival in a harsh world and finds that he cannot articulate what he actually wants from the sphere. In the end, after much-unaccustomed introspection, Red comes to realize that despite his earlier contempt for the boy’s apparent naivety, he wants nothing other than the same thing Arthur did: “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND MAY NO ONE BE LEFT BEHIND!”
“[A] vivid new translation… it has survived triumphantly as a classic.” —Publishers Weekly
“The story is carried out with a controlled fierceness that doesn’t waver for a minute.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Brilliantly and beautifully written . . . a truly superb work of science fiction.” —Infinity Plus
“No doubt: a powerful, classic work of science fiction. Certainly recommended.” —The Complete Review
“Amazing. . . . The Strugatskys’ deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness [produces] a truly superb tale. . . . You won’t forget it.” —Theodore Sturgeon
“Go read Roadside Picnic. It’s a phenomenal book.” —SF Signal
“If you’re going to read just one Soviet-era Russian science fiction novel, it should be Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s dark, ambiguous Roadside Picnic.” —io9
“Lively, racy, and likable . . . complex in event, imaginative in detail, ethically and intellectually sophisticated.” —Ursula K. Le Guin
“[T]his is a fantastic book. One of my favorite recommendations of the year.” —Boing Boing
“The Strugatskys’ worldview remains both uniquely cutting and replete with humanity . . . The characters’ conflicted views of their troubled world make for a read that still feels fresh today. It’s also a book that’s bound to make you feel a little less sure of humanity’s place in the universe.” —Discover
About the Author
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are the most famous and popular Russian writers of science fiction, and the authors of over 25 novels and novellas. Their books have been widely translated and have been made into a number of films. Arkady Strugatsky died in 1991. Boris Strugatsky died in November 2012. Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and other science-fiction classics.