Roadside Picnic is a classic of science fiction. Published in 1972, it is one of the few Russian SF novels to receive exposure in the United States in teh aftermath of a chaotic period in the Cold War, published in translation in 1977. The Strugatsky Brothers, Boris and Arkady, were quite popular in Russia, but for most readers here, Roadside Picnic was pretty much the only familiar title.
Deservedly so. Well-crafted, unexpected, richly characterized, it holds up well, and in most respects avoids the often fatal “dating” that can occur with older science fiction.
In some ways, it feels like a precursor to Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. There has been a Visit. Aliens arrived, apparently in many places around the Earth. And then left, leaving behind Zones in which mysterious objects, peculiar bubbles in which physics seem not to work as expected, and traps. Time moves inconsistently within them in certain spots. While there are no physical barriers to the Zones, it becomes clear where the boundaries are, and the response of most governments is to build research institutes, establish police cordons, try to contain what emerges from them. The response of the various societies is likewise expected—scavengers, black and gray markets, and mythologies spring up.
Most of the novel centers on Redrick “Red” Schuhart, a Stalker, one of the freelance scavengers who enter the local Zone to retrieve some of what has been left behind. It’s a dangerous job and the list of those who died, often horribly, grows as the ranks of Stalkers diminish. It’s illegal what he does, but Red has been hired by the Institute and places his expertise at the service of the scientists trying to make sense of the Zones. He never completely goes legitimate, though, maintaining his ties to the black marketeers.
The swag retrieved is often inexplicable. So-called “empties,” containers that sometimes are found filled with fluid or some other matter, but usually hold nothing; rings of various sizes; small needles that have some kind of piezoelectric properties. Researchers have managed to learn a few things from them, but mostly the market scoops them up as much for the novelty as anything they might do.
Redrick goes back and forth through the story, from legitimate to pirate. He has an ethical center, but it’s difficult to know how it applies in a situation that amounts to a one-way conversation. Because the aliens never come back. They might, one day. And some believe they’ve left coded clues behind to tell people where they went and how to follow. The mythology around the Zones and the Visit grows more complex, the need to find explanations where no feedback ever occurs fueling the imaginations of those wanting to know.
In the end, Redrick succumbs to the various psychic pitfalls of the Zone. Unable to leave, unwilling to surrender himself completely to it, never quite achieving the presumed degree of “success” that would allow him to pursue a different path, and finally bound by a legacy over which he has little say and no control, his life becomes a negotiation, with himself, with the authorities, with the unknown and apparently unknowable beings who put all this stuff here.
The question running through the novel is: why? Why did They show up, leave, and what is all this stuff they left behind?
An explanation is offered by one of the scientists in an offhand conversation in a bar. He imagines a picnic, just off the road, where a number of people spend the day and then leave. Their trash remains behind. They may never come back. And are completely unaware of the animals and insects who then come out to examine their discards.
This is not offered as the explanation, only a possibility. In the absence of any kind of substantive evidence or contact or anything, it is simply one idea among many. There is a void around the advent of the Zones and people cannot abide a void. The need to have some explanation creates one. Many.
But it also sets up a situation in which obsessing over that apparently unanswerable question causes a slow-motion psychic trauma. One thing human beings seem unable to tolerate, at least so-called civilized people, is being ignored. The notion that we, on our own planet, are insignificant contains the germ of psychosis. The Strugatsky’s masterfully reveal this. The wavefront of our own sense of self crashing against the shores of a land that will not recognize us can become an obsession only leading to a kind of insanity.
It may be that in this relatively slim, in many ways modest, science fiction novel, we see examined one of the central problems of cultural identity. We enter the Zone to fetch the baubles at the risk of losing our balance, our confidence, our sense of place…eventually, our sanity. Because human beings seem to be able to tolerate many things, even abuse. But we cannot stand being ignored.