by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
"'Imagine a picnic----'
Noonan jumped. 'What did you say?'
'A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. . .
'I get it,' said Noonan. 'A roadside picnic.'
'Exactly. A picnic by the side of some space road. And you ask me whether they'll come back . . .'" (pp 129-30)
When we meet Redrick Schuhart, the protagonist of this story, he is working as a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. But he is also a "stalker", only twenty-three when the book begins, and already an expert in the dangers and possibilities of The Zone. The Zone is one of several areas created from the remains of a brief alien visitation. Now gone, the aliens left in their wake both advanced items of technology and areas where the laws of physics no longer apply, or where strange substances and forms instantly kill or disable any human that comes into contact with them.
We learn in the prologue through an interview with the Nobel laureate who discovered the source of the zones. humans have set up an institute that delves into the Zone in order to extract technology. It is the Zone that also attracts illegal Stalkers who venture into the Zone without the technological safeguards offered by the institute but for whom the potential rewards on the black market are far greater. As the story continues we follow Red as he first gets lured into the world of illegal Stalking and then, after a period in prison, as he prepares to venture deep into the Zone in search of a golden ball that is said to grant wishes.
The main setting of the novel is in Harmont, a town near one of the zones in an unnamed country. The setting seems contemporary but, lacking veridical landmarks it takes on a dream-like quality. Red describes Harmont:
"Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now, it's a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change your whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That's our hole for you. There's knowledge pouring through this hole. And when we figure it out, we'll make everyone rich, and we'll fly to the stars, and we'll go wherever we want. That's the kind of hole we have here . . ." (p 42)
These thoughts provide a somewhat idealistic patina for the dangers Red and his cohorts face. About a quarter of the way into the story the narration shifts from first to third person. This transition occurs smoothly and allows for a type of objectivity for the reader after having been inside the head of Redrick Schuhart. It also allows the author to present scenes that Red is not aware of and to discuss ideas that are raised by the events in the story. I found the questions raised thought-provoking. What were the aliens doing on Earth and why did they stop here? Did they notice the existence of human life or were they oblivious to it?
"'what if I turn out to be completely superfluous in their society?' He became more animated. 'What if we're all superfluous? . . . your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption---that an alien race would be psychologically human.'" (p 129)
There is implicit criticism of the scientific bureaucracy that rings true, but is not identified with a specific terrestrial culture. Along with this the issue of technological change is raised. One wonders what effect dramatic overnight changes in technology might have on our culture. Should we be protected from those changes? Entry to the zones is prohibited to all but a few.
Red has his entire life determined by the Zone. As the book begins, he is defined by his superior knowledge of the Zone's dangers; later he acquires a wife and a daughter as a result of the affairs that he has while living the Stalker's life. Red and his fellow "stalkers" choose to ignore the prohibition risking incarceration at the least and, more importantly, the possibility of death. The denouement of this short novel leaves the reader wondering if this choice is worth the risk.
Roadside Picnic is a thrilling and beautifully written novel. In the opening part Red Schuhart almost comes across as a hard-boiled narrator but less cynical; later, he remains a curious protagonist throughout the narrative. This is a surreal, tense story that threw out the rules found in a ‘first contact’ novel and ended up redefining the genre. It is an exciting science fiction adventure that blends cultural criticism and philosophical speculation.
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