Roadside Picnic

Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky
Roadside Picnic Cover

Roadside Picnic


The Visit occurred sometime in last half of the 20th century. Aliens dropped by earth, landing in six areas scattered across the globe. They stayed a few days and then they left. What becomes known as The Zones are the sites of their brief sojourn on our planet. Behind them the left landscapes where the laws of physic no longer apply, or have perhaps simply taken a vicious turn. They have also left odd detritus, objects of alien manufacture of immense interest to science and very profitable on the black market.

Harmont is a town that borders one of the Zones. It seems to be in Canada or the Northern Midwest of the United States. Such vagueness suits the authors well. Their elliptical narrative, composed of four series of events some placed years apart from one another, leaves the reader on his own to put together what has happened and how, over the years, the proximity of the Zone affects the inhabitants of Harmont. Harmont itself becomes a kind of boomtown. Government research centers bring in hundreds of new citizens and manufacturing concerns spring up to exploit the new technology. A service industry of bars and brothels proliferates. The town is also tourist attraction, although the Zone is far too dangerous for any but the best trained and carefully monitored scientists to enter. And then there are the Stalkers.

Stalkers are young men drawn to the Zone for profits and adventure for which they are willing to risk almost certain death. Since so many wannabes die in their first attempt, successful Stalkers become legendary. Our hero is Rendrick Schuhart, known as Red. (Stalkers earn nicknames that make them sound like gunslingers or the bad guys from Dick Tracy comics.) Red is the perfect outlaw hero. What he does is outside the law, but he is a man of honor, a good family man, and loyal to his cohorts. But entering the Zone takes its toll. Although he may be caught and imprisoned for years at time, he always provides for his wife and child. His daughter is a mutant covered in fine, tawny brown fur. Oh, and his father is among those who have returned from the dead and hang around their old homes as slightly putrescent inconveniences. The dead man and his mutant granddaughter have an inexplicable bond.

Roadside Picnic is a novel of character and atmosphere rather than plot. Descriptions of trips into the Zone are suspenseful and usually tragic. Red is burdened with difficulties at home, with the law, and with both the scientists and black marketers that employ him. The scientists and bureaucrats who manage them know that they have no idea what they really have their hands on or how their experiments will end. Are they doing good? Are they introducing deadly technology into a world that is not prepared for it? Or are they simply making geegaws for the commercial market? Despite the action and suspense the novel offers, the overall tone is despairing. But this is, after all, a Russian novel.