A mark of great science fiction is when its effects on the world are so subtle and misconstrued that few can actively recognize its impact. Roadside Picnic, by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, has done just that for the past forty years. The mere fact that the brothers Strugatsky coined the term stalker speaks to their ability and the strength of the novel that nearly half a century later we still read it and use their own word.
Granted, that use tends to be when talking about celebrities or ex-girlfriends nowadays; nonetheless the Strugatskys had an impact and one that was felt immediately around the world. Much like the effects of the alien visitations of Roadside Picnic, its publication has led to ripples in the pond that is Science Fiction, having far more of an impact than either of its authors ever expected. Small and slight, the book was a pebble published to little acclaim in the Strugatskys’ home country of Russia, (Soviet Union at the time). Far away in the United Kingdom and United States, the impact of Roadside Picnic has been felt ever since.
Stalkers like the main character, Redrick “Red” Schuhart, are one of those little waves carried across the pond that have changed everything just a bit. Gone is the hero or even the anti-hero, instead the uncomprehending everyman is the subject of the Roadside Picnic. Red doesn’t seek to understand the events preceding the book, he doesn’t ponder the existence of alien life or what it means for humanity, instead he accepts that the world is different. It may be a result of Soviet censorship and requirements for publication, but it made a future where there are aliens accessible. The Strugatskys proved that Science Fiction doesn’t have to be either overtly political or utter schlock, but could ask a question – then answer within the very same story.
If Roadside Picnic caused an impact, it’s because it’s a story about impact. The Strugatskys asked, if aliens visited Earth, would they have even deigned to notice humans, or would we be just a species of quivering animals left unremarked upon. Such a visitation does occur and what’s left behind are numerous artifacts with various effects – some beneficial, some dangerous. The six Zones where the Visitation occurred are spread out over the globe, though the story only takes place at one, presumed to be in Northern Canada or Northern Europe, and are infested with any number of unexplained phenomena. The whole world has been changed by one little thing, and humans are left to cope with that change.
The Strugatskys present a world both recognizable and unknown, drawing a thin but dangerous line between the border of normalcy and the wonders and horrors of the Zone. Yes the book is Science Fiction, but some elements are so fantastical that readers are left without explanation for their causes – a great premise given that the humans of Roadside Picnic are at a loss to explain most of the technology found in the Zone. The atmosphere of the book is so palpable that there are times when even Red and his fellow stalkers have to fear it.
Red, like few others, knows to fear the Zone. He’s been changed by it and his own family have felt the consequences of his ventures as a result. His daughter is born resembling a monkey, and as time passes she grows more alien. Guta, Red’s wife, bears all with courage and a smile, even the return of Red’s father who should not be there but for the Zone. Still, Red returns to the Zone time and again, against his better judgment, ultimately in search of a means to a better life. As much as he’s touched only a part of the Zone, it has touched Red more, and he is a man driven to discover its secrets and find the Golden Sphere.
Nothing is ever fully explained – nor should it be – but that’s what makes it such a fantastic and thrilling novel. Heady, yet dark, Roadside Picnic is one of those books that upon tasting is peculiar and enticing, it’s serving just the right size but leaving you wanting more. It’ll leave the reader feeling hypocritical, duplicitous even, because of that desire for more combined with the satisfaction in knowing there is nothing else like it. Roadside Picnic truly is a once in a lifetime read.