European science fiction is a geography of the genre not many readers in English speaking countries come in contact with, let alone Eastern European. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, and Stanislaw Lem’s oeuvre are known to some, but by in large Slavic forays into sci-fi, particularly Russian, go untranslated, and therefore unrecognized (see here). More often leaning toward ideas philosophical or ideological in nature rather than entertainment or whatever the zeitgeist of the period happens to be, theirs is the more literary side of the genre. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1977 Roadside Picnic is one such novel, and like a similar novel, Lem’s Solaris, is one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written.
Philosophical and affective, the Strugatskys capture existential sci-fi in a bottle with Roadside Picnic. Elusively cerebral, the simple storyline flowers into mind-opening and thought-provoking questions regarding the fundamentals of reality, the subjectivity of perception, and of the vast ontological mystery that is existence. Ideas turning over in the mind long after finishing the final page, that the storyline presents a wholly human existence without preaching or flaunting is the testament to the book’s literary qualities.
The story of Roadside Picnic is set in the fictional small town of Harmont after what is referred to as the Visitation. Extraterrestrials having briefly come to Earth at six different locations, of which Harmont is one, left behind are a smattering of strange objects, liquids, and phenomena that are difficult, even impossible to explain. The locations called “Zones”, the UN and other government organizations have swooped in trying to cordon off the area to prevent looting and protect people from the dangers residing there; not everyone who enters the Zone exits alive.
Redrick Schuhart is a stalker. One of the few daring enough to enter the Zone, he is a looter of the mysterious artifacts lying around the eerie, deceptively peaceful area. Able to locate empties, so-sos, witches jelly, and other objects and substances and sell them on the black market at a considerable price, by day he occupies an assistant’s position at a research institute, making formal, authorized forays into the Zone. Despite the money, Redrick is a troubled man. A heavy drinker and gambler, his time in and around the Zone has taken its toll on his spirit. Full of anxiety, paranoia, and what Sartre would call nausea, life burns a hole in him. Mental faculties threatening to snap each time he or his stalker friends enter the Zone, a complete breakdown is put off one drink and one cigarette at a time. An interesting parallel to the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Redrick’s attempts to cope with existence are as affective as they are classic.
The premise of the Zone offers a brilliant opportunity for the exploration of ideas more intellectual in nature, and the Strugatskys take full advantage. The cosmological questions, the irrational happenings, the existential dealing with uncertainties, and the unknown purpose of life are concepts upon which the novel is built. As a whole humans want understanding. We want to know the greater reason for existence—explanations for phenomena otherwise inexplicable, to personalize the universe and fit it into a nice, easily explainable box. Meaning assigned by estimate, logic gaps bridged by faith, irrational explanations proffered to soothe the soul—these are common methods for handling the unknown. But what of those who don’t take such steps? Those who wait for a revelation? Those who refuse to see what they want to see? Or, those who think that life is driverless, careering out of control? Redrick capturing this anxiety perfectly, Roadside Picnic is the cream of the literary crop if relativism and existential questions are your game.
A note regarding writing style. I read the SF Masterworks version translated by Antonina W. Bouis and found it effectively presented. Redrick’s character one which defies flowery language, the Strugatskys tell a direct tale that strikes a superb balance between detail and generalities, with the occasional literary flourish to enrich the narrative. The setting may not be described down to the last blade of grass, but what details exist exceed their surface value. Each of the characters, scenes, and most importantly, themes, are presented in clear yet prosaic enough fashion to merit respect. Quickly but effectively drawn characters—like Gibson: a few words of description, a short piece of dialogue, and the character is identified.
One of the main ideas of Roadside Picnic is the subjectivity of perception. It is therefore nice to have the structure of the book work in parallel. Broken into six parts, each looks at setting and character from a different point of view. Whether it’s temporal, individual, or perspective (first vs. third), the authors match theme to presentation. Enriching what would otherwise be a straightforward narrative, the variety enlivens what is in reality a short book.
In the end, Roadside Picnic is a stellar example of the literary, contemplative side of science fiction. If relativism can be said to be an agenda, then the uncertainties of reality are presented by the Strugatsky brothers to full effect using a trope of science fiction. The people of Harmont trying to cope with the idea we are not alone in the universe, Redrick’s is an individual story, and through his plight, mental and physical, readers get a perspective of the value of existence despite the rocky road. A very similar book to Gateway (interestingly published the same year), readers who enjoyed Pohl’s most celebrated work will want to check out the Strugatsky’s novel. M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing featuring a mysterious Zone where artifacts are sought in dangerous conditions, fans of the British author may want to see where his idea originated. And lastly, fans of Stanislaw Lem or those looking to get a peek into Eastern European science fiction will want to pick up a copy; the novel is both a stellar parallel and example of the region’s sci-fi output. Simple yet intense, short but profound, Roadside Picnic is for the ages.