Sunday, May 12, 2013

A review of the Russian novel - Roadside Picnic.

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, has one of the most interesting and original premises I have read. Aliens land at several locations on Earth. They have no interest whatsoever in humanity and use alien barriers to ensure they are not bothered by humans. The aliens only stay for a short time and after they depart, they leave alien trash scattered around the locations, as if they were a bunch of bogans on a camping trip.

Some of the trash has amazing properties, like batteries that never run down. But much of the trash is dangerous, and many who venture into the areas are killed. So the authorities fence the areas off, making them no go areas except for those desperate for the money that retrieving an alien artefact brings. These people are called stalkers.

The novel takes place in an unnamed country, but most probably the US, at an undated time. Its main character, Redrick Schuhart, is a stalker, who at first retrieves items from the prohibited areas for a local university to study. I found him a difficult man to empathise with as he had no qualms about the potential consequences of what he was doing, even though he did it because he needed to support his wife and genetically deformed daughter. He needed the money, and everyone else including fellow stalkers, but except for his family, didn’t matter.

The book was originally written in Russian and then translated into English. It has a strange atmosphere to it, like they are living in a bleak totalitarian regime that is waiting to pounce on them, with little hope for the future. It actually reminded me of the atmosphere of 1984.

The alien artefacts don’t seem to offer a great future for humanity either. In the hands of more right-wing writers, the trash would have either been a great boon or great threat to humanity. But in this novel it is like the trash is neutral, leave it alone and no harm will come, but some people just need the money.

There is little joy in the lives of the characters. One of the authors admits in the afterword that they were trying to make capitalists appear unhappy, but the unhappiness of the characters, to me, was more a reflection of the downtrodden Russian society at the time the book was written in 1971.

The prose itself is bleak and unpoetic. I found the climax clouded as hope lead to deadly delusions of a better world.

But if you are after a novel that is different in both premise and style, Roadside Picnic is worth a read. I have seen it on a list of the 50 best modern science fiction novels.


Anthony J. Langford said...

Good review Graham.
Your commitment to literature and science fiction is inspired.

Sounds like an interesting read.
being a movie buff I recommend two strange but worthwhile sci-fi russian films from the legendary director Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris and Stalker, but not for the faint-hearted.

Graham Clements said...

Hey Anthony, Stalker is loosely based on Roadside Picnic. So yes I want to see it. Maybe there is a free Russian movie app on itunes.