Imagine an overgrowing patch of ground by the side of a quiet country road, surrounded by beautiful scenery yet far from the constant thrumming of the city and the choking fumes of its attendant freeways. What a perfect spot for taking a break, stretching your legs and having a mid-journey picnic. You wind down, recharge your concentration and hit the road again, doing your best to be a conscientious traveller but inevitably neglecting to pick up the odd carton, dead battery, cigarette lighter, stray set of headphones and other debris. Imagine now some kind of sentient hedgerow-dweller stumbling across these items. What could it possibly make of them? Even if it could somehow divine their purpose could it ever manage to use or misuse them?
The Strugatsky brothers ask this very question in Roadside Picnic, their most famous novel. In a future past, the late 20th century, six mysterious Zones have been discovered in various parts of the world. Though seemingly unrelated in location they share two common elements: a surfeit of bizarre artefacts, some inert though others possessed of properties which defy our current understanding of science; and a tendency to gruesomely kill anyone who strays inside without exercising extreme caution. The only ones brave or foolish enough to enter the Zones are known as stalkers, risking their lives to get their hands on the treasure they contain and sell them off to the research institutes which have sprung up around them. Stalking, although technically illegal due to the extreme and unpredictable danger, is the only means for eager scientists to examine these clearly alien objects and unravel the physics-warping secrets they conceal.
One such stalker is Red Schuhart, an old hand at stalking the Canadian Zone and a veritable oracle regarding its traps and snares, is wearying of his profession when he is betrayed by his colleagues and imprisoned. On his release a former rival and stalker approaches him with one last mission. Red is to venture once more into the Zone and retrieve a mysterious golden orb reputed to grant the wishes of its owner, an intergalactic genie. With a family to provide for in a world slowly going to hell around him he has little choice but to strap on his boots and get to work.
Hailing as they do from the former Soviet Union the brothers Strugatsky bring a unique flavour to Roadside Picnic, a refreshing change from the comfortable Western sci-fi in which I’ve recently been ensconced. No sprawling space operas or cosmic battlezones, rather an intellectually satisfying rumination on the nature of mankind, scientific progress and our place in the universe.
In the notoriously censorious USSR it was nigh-on impossible to criticise the regime but the Strugatskys seem to have achieved this through subterfuge. One of the central themes in Roadside Picnic seems at first to be the iconic Soviet struggle of the everyman against the sprawling powers of Western government and capitalist policies, Red’s engagements with law enforcement and institutional red tape being a prime example. However, lurking under the surface seems to be a suggestion that this is more about a potential utopia squandering its resources and betraying its citizens. The devices steadily pouring out of the Zone are initially viewed with awe and wonder but are soon merely commodities to be hoarded and traded. Likewise the USSR started off with heady ideals but these were soon subverted in the name of power and prestige. Like the former Soviet government, the Zone conspires to entangle itself in every aspect of his life, down to the form of his only daughter, controlling his destiny in every way. Maybe I’m reading it wrong but there seemed to be a lot written between the lines in this book.
Even disregarding the political angle there is still a lot here to chew on itself. The Zones are works of artistic wonder, haunting in a manner resembling a David Lynch movie written by Burroughs and scored by Aphex Twin on bad drugs. Stalkers must contend with ‘mosquito mange’, patches of almost invisible supergravity lying ready to crush any trespassers to a pulp, and ‘witches’ jelly’, whose luminous strands will reduce the human form to boneless jelly. The wonders hidden there range from self-contained gravity jars to perpetual motion devices but are far outweighed by the eclectic horrors on display. Combined with the Strugastkys’ stark literary stylings, this lends a creeping, sinister atmosphere to the novel, blending perfectly with the desperation of its characters.
The passage in which the titular Roadside Picnic concept is discussed is pure sci-fi manna. How could we ever know if we were being visited by galactic neighbours? Could we ever communicate with them, let alone recognise their existence? The question brings to mind Arthur C Clarke’s famous rumination that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Compared to our cosmic cousins we may be the roadside insects marvelling at the movements of a watch’s hands. That such technical and philosophical prose reads so smoothly and naturally is a testament to the quality of this translation.
Weighing in at only 160 pages, Roadside Picnic is not a demanding read but it’s one that will keep your brain running in high gear for the duration. Ideas and inspiration pop out of every page, leaving you wondering why the hell we ever read Western authors at all.