„Roadside Picnic“ is an incredibly gripping SciFi novel written while the U.S.S.R. was still alive and kicking, although it wasn’t published until years after it was first written. The authors are two brothers and their way of tackling SciFi is definitely different from your standard Anglo-American Futurism.
In the town of Harmont, in an unnamed country (that quite clearly isn’t Russia), exists a so-called „Zone“, one of several around the world, left behind by „The Visitation“ of unknown aliens years ago.
„Roadside Picnic“ is a story about so-called „stalkers“. These guys vemtire into the extremely dangerous Zone to retrieve alien artifacts. The aliens have left behind many unique, useful and beautiful objects some of which humans cannot even begin to understand or manufacture themselves. Still there is quite the demand for these objects and because it’s pretty dangerous to obtain them, the stalkers are paid pretty well for them. There are a lot of dangers in the Zone and many Stalkers were killed or severely injured in the Zone.
The title „Roadside Picnic“ refers to the idea that maybe the aliens just left a bunch of junk behind at the sites of their visits, quite like Humans when they go to a roadside picnic and leave behind some paper plates, empty beer cans, a bbq etc.
„A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”
This complete trivialisation of the contact is so different from anything you read about in SciFi. No first contact, no failed communication attempts. No obvious reason for this visit whatsoever. We were just not that interesting to this visiting species from outer space.
A pretty pointless roadstop and a bunch of leftover rubbish – which still affects the lives of people around the mysterious Zones.
Stalking in the Zone is forbidden and dangerous so there are just a few left have that have not been hounded by the police, killed or are imprisoned. The main character is Redric „Red“ Schuhart. He is one of the last real stalker left. He’s tough and experienced and although he does have a soft spot for family members but he can be pretty mean and hard some times.
He is in love with Guta, his girlfriend at the beginning of the novel, who gets pregnant and they have a little daughter they call monkey. Being in the Zone seems to alter the DNA of the Stalkers and their offspring often is misfigured or disabled.
Directly or indirectly, the Zone plays havoc on Harmont, the treasures bring money but at a pretty high price to Harmont’s inhabitants. In Red’s life nearly everyone around him is harmed directly or indirectly by the Zone. A lot of people die and his family is affected in various but enough of the details, I want to avoid spoilers.
The book is short, the writing crisp and refreshing and it was hard for me to believe that this book was written years before the catastrophy in Chernobyl. A desaster that created Zone-like areas and ghost cities just like Harmont.
“The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas plus so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”
I loved the novel, it made the TOP 10 of my favorite SciFi novels – did I now convince you to read it? 🙂
This is the novel on which Andrei Tarkovsky based the motion picture Stalker and incredibly great movie with a wonderful soundtrack. Here is a link to the movie in Russian with english subtitles:
Auf deutsch erschien der Roman unter dem Titel „Picknick am Wegesrand“ beim Suhrkamp Verlag.