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Roadside Picnic (Rediscovered Classics) by…

Roadside Picnic (Rediscovered Classics) (original 1972; edition 2012)

by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Ursula K. Le Guin (Foreword)

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1,381575,516 (3.97)96
I finished reading "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky last night. I enjoyed it. It was interesting. "Stalker" by Tarkovsky was based on the book. The film contains elements of the book but doesn't really follow the book that closely. Still I enjoyed both the book and the movie. ( )
  gsmattingly | May 20, 2012 |
English (52)  French (3)  Russian (1)  German (1)  All languages (57)
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Interesting and enticing for the whole missing-information approach - but just didn't deliver the punch I was expecting. ( )
  jculkin | Feb 1, 2016 |
I am not sure exactly what it is about Soviet SF that I find so appealing and satisfying but I think it has to do with 'oddness,' a sense of the world and its characters being continually off balance and desperately searching for some firm footing that infects the reader as well (at least this reader). The same atmospherics are a constant in most of Stanislaw Lem's novels as well--no intention, here, of simply lumping him in with Soviet authors. This testing of the limits of a human-centric reality is not often an element in Western SF....although there is a hint of it in certain novels of Pynchon.

Very real, even gritty characters, face situations in which their own most basic precepts of how the world does and should operate fail them. Once principals of physics become squishy, so does any sense of 'common sense.' Characters in this novel drink a lot with a purpose: reality has become so weird that they drink to gain some grasp of reality rather than to escape it. Drinking allows the tightly wrapped Dr. Pillman to finally loosen up and express his hopes, fears, guesses about a world in which his beloved physics seems to miss the target so badly it is almost beside the point.

As in much of the fiction of the Strugatsky's, I never feel like it is plotted in a way that fully satisfies Western tastes. It flows too much like life and seems to lack the hand of a creator that carefully manipulates plot lines to arrive at some fully satisfying, poetic conclusion. (Think Chekhov. Not O. Henry.) I feel like this is maybe more of a developed taste in Westerners and it is certainly a taste I have developed.

If Goodreads supported half stars, this would come in at 3.5 for me. I very much enjoyed this book and am in the process of getting my hands on more work by the Strugatsky's as well as a collection of other Soviet SF. I love the atmosphere of these books and the twilight/uncertain worlds into which they plunge their readers. It is a world in which I rightly or wrongly imagine much of mankind to have existed during the Soviet era (read Boris' Afterward) and a world I catch glimpses of when something detected in my peripheral vision causes me to turn my head quickly enough. ( )
  tsgood | Dec 20, 2015 |
A sf novel from the USSR era. An inspiration for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R movie and game. On a banned books list. Very much an enjoyable read. ( )
  Jaskier | Dec 1, 2015 |
Building the story on a series of what if's that involve a visit by aliens several years earlier and the artefacts they left behind and the cascade that follows from dealing with these. Red Schuhart is a man who deals with these artefacts, illegally and this has repercussions on his life, but the alien items are changing the world.

It's an interesting look at a slightly different world, a world where aliens have changed things without really having interaction with the humans. ( )
  wyvernfriend | Oct 27, 2015 |
When we meet Redrick Schuhart, the protagonist of this story, he is working as a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. But he is also a "stalker", only twenty-three when the book begins, and already an expert in the dangers and possibilities of The Zone. The Zone is one of several areas created from the remains of a brief alien visitation. Now gone, the aliens left in their wake both advanced items of technology and areas where the laws of physics no longer apply, or where strange substances and forms instantly kill or disable any human that comes into contact with them.

We learn in the prologue through an interview with the Nobel laureate who discovered the source of the zones. humans have set up an institute that delves into the Zone in order to extract technology. It is the Zone that also attracts illegal Stalkers who venture into the Zone without the technological safeguards offered by the institute but for whom the potential rewards on the black market are far greater. As the story continues we follow Red as he first gets lured into the world of illegal Stalking and then, after a period in prison, as he prepares to venture deep into the Zone in search of a golden ball that is said to grant wishes.
The main setting of the novel is in Harmont, a town near one of the zones in an unnamed country. The setting seems contemporary but, lacking veridical landmarks it takes on a dream-like quality. Red describes Harmont:
"Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now, it's a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change your whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That's our hole for you. There's knowledge pouring through this hole. And when we figure it out, we'll make everyone rich, and we'll fly to the stars, and we'll go wherever we want. That's the kind of hole we have here . . ." (p 42)

These thoughts provide a somewhat idealistic patina for the dangers Red and his cohorts face. About a quarter of the way into the story the narration shifts from first to third person. This transition occurs smoothly and allows for a type of objectivity for the reader after having been inside the head of Redrick Schuhart. It also allows the author to present scenes that Red is not aware of and to discuss ideas that are raised by the events in the story. I found the questions raised thought-provoking. What were the aliens doing on Earth and why did they stop here? Did they notice the existence of human life or were they oblivious to it?
"'what if I turn out to be completely superfluous in their society?' He became more animated. 'What if we're all superfluous? . . . your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption---that an alien race would be psychologically human.'" (p 129)

There is implicit criticism of the scientific bureaucracy that rings true, but is not identified with a specific terrestrial culture. Along with this the issue of technological change is raised. One wonders what effect dramatic overnight changes in technology might have on our culture. Should we be protected from those changes? Entry to the zones is prohibited to all but a few.

Red has his entire life determined by the Zone. As the book begins, he is defined by his superior knowledge of the Zone's dangers; later he acquires a wife and a daughter as a result of the affairs that he has while living the Stalker's life. Red and his fellow "stalkers" choose to ignore the prohibition risking incarceration at the least and, more importantly, the possibility of death. The denouement of this short novel leaves the reader wondering if this choice is worth the risk. This is an exciting science fiction adventure that blends cultural criticism and philosophical speculation. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 20, 2015 |

Frightening, important and completely original sci-fi story that was censored by the Soviet government when first published. Purchase the new translation to get the best version. ( )
1 vote LJMax | Aug 21, 2015 |
Faaaaaaantastic ( )
1 vote | Braden_Timss | Jul 17, 2015 |
I haven't read science fiction since the late 70s, but I picked up this book because I had such fun reading the Strugatsky brothers' satire on crime novels, The Dead Mountaineer's Inn (which had a touch of science fiction itself). And I enjoyed it because, unlike my memories of other books I'd read, it focused on real people and their reactions to a stopover, initially 13 years earlier, by aliens, referred to as the Visit.

The novel opens with an interview with a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, who sets the stage for the novel by pointing out that the most important thing about the Visit was that "we now know for sure that humanity is not alone in the universe." Then the novel switches to Harmont, a city/town that was one of the six places the aliens visited and then left, leaving havoc behind. (Harmont is in an unnamed country, that seems to be someplace in North America, possibly Canada since there are references to Royal organizations.) The reader meets Red Schuhart, then 23 (so 10 when the Visit occurred), who works as a lab assistant at the local branch of the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures by day, and as a so-called stalker by night. Stalkers go into the heavily guarded Zone (the area abandoned after the Visit) braving the dangers there to bring out "swag," weird objects the aliens left behind which command high prices on the black market. Some of these have found uses in human culture, although the humans have no idea what the aliens used them for. Gradually the reader learns about the quest to find the perhaps mythical Golden Sphere, which is said to grant your most heartfelt wish, and at the end of the novel Red goes back into the Zone to find it.

But in between, the reader enters the world of the Zone and the community around it. Dangers abound in the Zone, from hell slime to silver cobwebs to bug traps that concentrate gravity to amazing heat that can burn people, and many who go into the Zone fail to come out. The community around the Zone includes the scientists at the Institute, police who try to control the stalkers, a variety of stalkers, black marketeers, "legitimate" businessmen, bar owners, and more. Red has a girlfriend, Guta, and marries her when she becomes pregnant; the fate of their child, who they call the Monkey, is revealed gradually as the novel progresses. Most of the novel is told from Red's perspective, but there is a section, when he is jailed for stalking, that is told from the perspective of one of his friends, a local salesman of electronic equipment who also seems to be involved in some way in the effort to control stalking.

In a way, this is a philosophical novel. What does it mean to have been visited by aliens who didn't stay? Were they just having a roadside picnic on the way to somewhere else? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to do the right thing?

Note: my edition included as afterword by Boris Strugatsky describing the publication struggle about this book in the Soviet Union.
8 vote rebeccanyc | May 24, 2015 |
A dawning realisation is that for me, a richness of language and setting is just as important as the concepts described in order for me to enjoy a story.
The concept of an abandoned alien visitation site with baffling advanced alien technology strewn as refuse; the community that grows around it; government and Stalkers, all drew me into the story. Yet only twice in the story did I really feel like it hit the mark for me - Firstly, the conversation with Noonan where the Roadside Picnic idea is discussed, and when Red makes his final trip in the Zone. In total this probably accounts for 20 pages of the book. The rest I found a rather bland read. Just as Red seems removed from what is around him, I felt removed from the story, content to watch it pass by than be immersed in it.
Philosophically, there is much going on, but ultimately, for me it came wrapped in a dry and dull narrative.
Roadside Picnic was well written and structurally solid, but ultimately unsatisfying for me. ( )
  StaticBlaq | Apr 26, 2015 |
A true Sci-Fi classic. A little dated in style and characterization (unsurprisingly), but a tightly written novel with a rather unusual and mysterious premise. Well worth a re-read even if I left it rather a long time! Now to re-watch Tarkovsky's Stalker.............. ( )
  malcrf | Mar 24, 2015 |
Aliens have made contact, or have they? Thirteen years after the visitation, an international science cooperative has locked up each landing site, dubbed Zones in an effort to study the unexplained phenomena. Red Schuhart is a stalker, someone that sneaks into the zones and tries to collect artefacts. Despite the legal ramifications, artefacts on the black market sell really well. When Red puts together another team to collect a “full empty” everything goes wrong.

The attempts to gain publication of Roadside Picnic is a story in itself; like most Russian literature this novel was originally serialised in a literary magazine. Attempts to publish in book form took over eight years, mainly due to denial by the Department for Agitation and Propaganda. The heavily censored book that originally was published was a significant departure to what the authors originally wrote. I am unclear as to whether the new translation I read corrected this censorship, to quote the back of the book “this authoritative new translation corrects many errors and omissions”. I know some of the corrections made included to the original translation starting thirty years after the visitation rather than thirteen but unsure what else was changed. However, despite the censorship and notwithstanding the fact this novel was out-of-print in America for thirty years; Roadside Picnic is wildly regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.

The title Roadside Picnic refers to the visitation and the fact that they never made contact with humanity. The novel plays with the idea that intelligent life wouldn’t want to make contact with the human race. One look at humanity, full of all the violence towards each other, aliens would conclude that humans are not intelligent life forms but rather savages. One character within the novel, Dr. Valentine Pilman compared the aliens visit to that of an extra-terrestrial picnic.

“Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption—that an alien race would be psychologically human.”

It is fascinating to look at humanity in a first contact novel and it reminded me of how much I’ve enjoyed the psychological/philosophical science fiction novels that seemed to be produced in the 1960s and 70s. However Roadside Picnic went deeper; like most Russian novels of this time, there was a strong reflection on society at the time. Like I said before, I am not sure if this edition still holds the Soviet censorship but I was impressed by the subtle look at society. It wasn’t just a poke at the Soviet Union but rather a look at humanity under an unidentifiable superpower. This could be an American superpower and it looks at ideas of what might happen if the government prohibits the people from gaining access to the biggest scientific discovery of their time. You have a struggle between quarantined verses legitimate scientific research, playing with the moral idea of government regulated technology.

Moving away from the themes, Roadside Picnic is a thrilling and beautifully written novel. Red Schuhart almost comes across as a hard-boiled narrator but less cynical; he remains a wide-eyed curious protagonist throughout the narrative. A surreal, tense story that threw out the rules found in a ‘first contact’ novel and ended up redefining the genre. It went on to challenge some of the ideas in the study of xenology and perhaps even ufology.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have been the authors of over twenty science fiction novels, their unique style of blending Soviet rationalism with speculative fiction can be found throughout their books. Roadside Picnic remains their masterpiece and inspired the Russian cult classic movie Stalker (1979) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky wrote the screenplay for Stalker and then the novelisation; no idea why you need a novelisation of a movie that was based on a book. Roadside Picnic is an amazing novel, and reminds me why I love Russian science fiction. The blend of social commentary and science fiction is what I continue to look for when searching for books in this genre.

This review originally appeared on my blog: http://literary-exploration.com/2014/12/12/roadside-picnic-by-arkady-boris-strug... ( )
2 vote knowledge_lost | Dec 14, 2014 |
The highlight of Roadside Picnic is the setting. After a mysterious alien visitation, six locations around the world are transformed from everyday places to zones filled with strange phenomena, hazards, and alien artifacts. What was once normal is now a lawless pocket of space attracting those that hunger for wealth, or for knowledge. Governments scramble to get the zones under their control, but they have little luck in stemming the flow of people going into the zones, or of artifacts coming out. The best explorers of these new areas, the ones most familiar with the dangers and the treasures that they contain, are known as stalkers.

The setting by itself is enough to make this story memorable- a normal industrial town is now a place of mystery, death, and power. The characters who explore the zone are modern explorers and treasure hunters. It is little wonder that the zone of Roadside Picnic has inspired films, video games, and other books. Reading the book makes you hungry to learn more about the zone, both on the macro level (what is the zone's purpose, if it has one at all?) and on the micro level (what is a rattling napkin, and what does it do?). The Strugatsky brothers were smart enough not to answer too many of these questions about the zone, only providing enough information for you to get a feel for being in the zone, not enough so that your intrigue is replaced by understanding.

Besides the setting, though, Roadside Picnic also slips in a story about how fatherhood makes you take actions you never would have considered before, and how responsibilities and the passage of years leaves you stuck in a job that you'd rather leave behind, simply because you have no other options. The characters other than the main one are rather one dimensional and the writing is merely competent, not amazing, but otherwise this is a work well worth your time. I wouldn't have minded if it had gone on longer, and if that's not high praise I don't know what is. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
More of a 4.5, but I gave it The Bump. Such a great premise. ( )
  behemothing | Oct 25, 2014 |
Roadside Picnic is a Soviet-era ideological tract about the evils of Capitalism. Interesting idea for the zone but science fiction in the service of ideology is par for the course of this sordid genre. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jun 30, 2014 |
A sf novel from the USSR era. An inspiration for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R movie and game. On a banned books list. Very much an enjoyable read. ( )
2 vote Me-chan | Jun 19, 2014 |
When I finished this story I was reminded of a comment that Rudy Rucker made back in the day about there were limits as to how weird one could make your aliens because our own world was probably about as weird as Humans can handle. Which is another way of saying that what "Roadside Picnic" really has going for it is existential dread, as our protagonist goes from young bravo seeking to make a fast buck from raiding alien artifacts to (over the course of a few years) a desperate man seeking answers to what has happened to his life, and knowing full well that he probably isn't equipped to understand those answers even if they're forthcoming. That the authors cut you no breaks on the ambiguity of the situation in the approved edition of the novel I consider a plus.

What also makes this book look prescient is, on one hand, how it presages the Chernobyl Disaster, and on the other, how it apparently helped to inspire a whole genre of fiction and gaming (survival-horror). ( )
  Shrike58 | May 28, 2014 |
What's most amazing about this book is how the authors write prose that is so thought-provoking but not at all heavy. I might rate it 4 stars for that alone, but add to that the solid, lean prose, interesting characters and the compelling mysteries of the zone, and it's definitely a 5 for me. ( )
2 vote qaphsiel | May 11, 2014 |
What's most amazing about this book is how the authors write prose that is so thought-provoking but not at all heavy. I might rate it 4 stars for that alone, but add to that the solid, lean prose, interesting characters and the compelling mysteries of the zone, and it's definitely a 5 for me. ( )
  qaphsiel | May 11, 2014 |
Science Fiction
6 Stars

Roadside Picnic, while written in 1971, feels like it somehow belongs to the Golden Age AND the Modern Age of Science Fiction. Based on the after effects of an alien visitation Roadside Picnic feels like it could have been written in the 1930’s. However, the language and the way the strange occurrences are handled are definitely modern. This is some of the wittiest, humorous, and downright scariest Science Fiction to come around in a long time. (Psssst, it’s scary as hell because it reads real…) ( )
  TheAlternativeOne | Mar 18, 2014 |
I hadn't originally planned to read this but I saw the movie with some friends and one of them recommended the book. It's very sad, and I think purposefully unfulfilled. I think, like the abruptness of a bug trap, I don't think the reader is supposed to know what happens. The last words we read are like an echo, a last thought, a moment of pure rebellion. It's one of those books where the journey is best part and the point of the story, rather than the conclusion. The film that is based off the book is similar in this way that it only hints at what the Zone really is and where it came from. But that is what makes the Zone so extremely dangerous, is that the reader knows as much about it as the characters do. Rederick Schuart isn't a hero, he is a man struggling between his own curiosity about the Zone and making ends meet for his family. His isn't the kind of character that has an epic destiny, a determination to save everyone, he just wants to be free from those that run his life. So instead of being disappointed like some, I'm glad the book progresses the way it does. ( )
  asukamaxwell | Mar 13, 2014 |
Beautiful, yet unfulfilling, I am left with a hunger for more ( )
  IAmAndyPieters | Feb 16, 2014 |
This is said to be a classic of Russian science fiction. The idea of discarded alien artefacts, absurdly dangerous to retrieve from the zones where they are littered, but with potential of fabulous wealth for the stalkers who bring them out illegally, is a strong one. However, the language seems to have suffered a lot for being translated, and the sceanarios start off very bleakly, and get even bleaker. Not recommended. ( )
  Matt_B | Jan 26, 2014 |
13 years ago, something happened near the city of Harmont. Known as The Visit, no one is quite sure exactly what happened, but something changed in a five-kilometer are. People died. Large gravitational traps appeared pulling anything to the ground, from a tiny bird to a large helicopter. Shadows became alive and dangerous. The air exploded like flame in an instant. And ordinary object suddenly transmuted into valuable items: spacells that provide electricity indefinitely; pins that sing if one pinched long enough; two saucer-sized discs of copper with nothing between them yet inseparable and weighing almost fourteen pounds (an "empty"). Good money was to be found in retrieving such objects and bringing them back for scientific study (or even private collections).

Redrick Schuhart is a Stalker, one of those daring individuals who venture into the area known as the Zone, and one of the best at his craft. The prospect of bringing in a full "empty" -- two of those saucer discs but with a blue substance between them -- spurs Red into making another trek into the Zone -- that, along with a hefty sum of money. But his comrade Kirill innocently brings something back from this trip, something that convinces Red that these trips are too dangerous. But the Zone won't let him go that easily, not when the effects of living so close to and venturing into the Zone too often take their toll on his daughter.

Convinced by his old comrade the Vulture that an ultimate object exists in the Zone -- a Golden Sphere that will grant your innermost wish -- Red makes one last voyage into the damaged area to hopefully find a way to protect his daughter.

A remarkable trip into science fiction, "Roadside Picnic" creates a fantastical landscape, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Simple, forgotten objects take on new life, new meaning, and it's amazing watching Red and his traveling companions carefully pick their way through the Zone. The world inside the Zone doesn't look changed, but nothing is as it once was. Red uses remembrances of past trips, unintentional landmarks left by former stalkers, and even something as simple as tossing a nut or bolt on the path ahead to determine the correct path. Red and others constantly try to understand what created the Zone -- was it simply a change in nature, portending what the future may hold? Or was it an alien visitation? Did they stop by Earth for a few moments and leave their garbage, what Red and others now treasure as the mysterious objects, behind? And throughout, Red tries to hold on to some kind of hope, that something exists in the Zone that will answer all his questions and bring about the miraculous change that his life needs. It's a great book that should be a part of any science fiction library. ( )
  ocgreg34 | Sep 5, 2013 |
Excellent beginning to this novel and a fascinating central idea - our First Contact with extraterrestrial life being with their litter. There's a not-too-subtle point being made here about our own exploitation and degradation of our environment.

The middle is interesting, as it rather disjointedly develops some of the characters and shows how their lives are affected by contact with the alien artifacts. Little is explained and much is hinted, which is simultaneously tantalising and frustrating.

The last chapter I found a disappointing anticlimax to what had gone before. I didn't expect everything to be explained but this felt like it was a couple of pages short of the actual finale. A fine but flawed book. ( )
  Michael.Rimmer | Jul 26, 2013 |
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