Russians in July: Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers

I cannot thank my Russian friend enough for casually mentioning the Strugatsky brothers in conversation and how much she enjoyed reading them when she was younger. Following this conversation, I read their hilarious Monday Starts on Saturday and was hooked, while my friend started rereading her collection of their works (in Russian, so I can’t borrow them off her).

Roadside Picnic is very different to the previously mentioned book, much more serious and sinister, although it is also quite different from the famous film based on it, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It was a forbidden film during Communist times in Romania, so a bunch of friends watched it as a bootlegged video in the original Russian with no subtitles, so one of the friends (who was studying Russian at university) had to do simultaneous interpretation. Not the most auspicious circumstances to watch the film, but I can imagine it must be amazing on the big screen, full of brilliant photography and heavy symbolism, saturated in a sickly out-of-this-world colour. Apparently, the sickness was real, filmed as it was in a swampy location in Estonia which may have cost the lives of several of the people involved in the production, including Tarkovsky himself.

The book, however, is funnier, more exciting, faster-paced than the film. The film is all about inducing a sense of world-weariness and despair in the viewer, while the book introduces mystery, character development, several points of view and a longer time frame.

First English language edition of the book, in 1977.

The premise of the book is both interesting and heartbreaking. This is a contact tale with a difference. Aliens have landed on earth, found it utterly boring and unworthy of their interest, so left in a hurry, leaving behind something resembling the litter discarded after a roadside picnic. The places where they stopped are called Zones, and they are contaminated areas with mysterious properties, cluttered with artefacts that humans retrieve and examine and do not fully understand. The people who venture into this dangerous territory and often risk their lives in the process are known as Stalkers. Most of them are motivated by money, but our main protagonist, Red Schuhart, seems to be driven by something else. Curiosity? A need to help or protect others? Perhaps, in the final instance, since his own daughter (affectionately known as Monkey but displaing increasingly mutant traits that dehumanise her) has suffered the consequences of the Zone, it is hope that he can find a way to cure her…

… an idea, which had previously seemed like nonsense, like the insane ravings of a senile old man, turned out to be his sole hope and his sole meaning of life. It was only now that he’d understood – the one thing he still had left, the one thing that had kept him afloat in recent months, was the hope for a miracle. He, the idiot, the dummy, had been spurning this hope, trampling on it, mocking it, drinking it away – because that’s what he was used to and because his whole life… he had never relied on anyone but himself. And ever snce his childhood, this self-reliance had always been measured by the amount of money he managed to wrench, wrestle and wring out of the surrounding indifferent chaos… and that’s how it would ahve continued, if he hadn’t found himself in a hole from which no amount of money could rescue him, in which self-reliance was utterly pointless.

Because, among the artefacts in the zone, there is a Golden Sphere that is said to have the power to grant your dearest wish. In the final part of the book, Red and a young lad, the son of a former Stalker who claims to have a map to lead them to the Sphere, do indeed find it. And it looks underwhelming.

There was nothing about it to disappoint or raise doubts, but htere was also nothing in it to inspire hope. Somehow, it immediately gave the impression that it was hollow and must be very hot to the touch – the sun had heated it up. It clearly wasn’t radiating light, and it clearly wasn’t capable of floating in the air and dancing around, the way it often happened in the legends abou tit. It lay where it had fallen. It might have tumbled out of some huge pocket or gotten lost, rolling away, during a game between some giants…

Still from the film Stalker by Tarkovsky.

This fine dance between cynicism and hope, between indifference and empathy, lies at the heart of this remarkable work. It is impossible not to see the story as a political metaphor (although it is also remarkably prescient about Chernobyl, which took place just a few years later). The Zone can be interpreted as some sort of gulag, where everything is random and you suddenly get punished for the slightest lack of attention. It changes everyone who comes into contact with it. The people living around the Zone are first encouraged to settle elsewhere (like the Russians were encouraged to settle in various of the Soviet Republics, while a good proportion of the local population were exiled to Siberia). Later, they are no longer allowed to leave the local area, becoming prisoners in their own country. The final wish and promise of happiness for everyone is, of course, a direct satirical arrow aimed at the heart of Communist utopia.

Yet there are many more layers to the story here worth exploring: the ultimate unknowability of the human heart, the limits of science, the dangers of the quest for knowledge. What is goodness, what is evil, what does individual integrity mean in a society which is utterly compromised? All the big questions, in other words, but never in a dry, dull sequence of endless philosophizing. There are plenty of characters with rather dubious motivation, lots of interesting interaction between the characters, and a storytelling style full of black humour which might remind you of Kurt Vonnegut (whom the authors reference) or Raymond Chandler (the prose might be hard-boiled, but not quite as spare and minimalist).

Another still from the film.

Here is one more lengthy quote that I really enjoyed and made me think. It comes from one of the key dialogues in the book, between the Nobel laureate Valentine Pillman, and the rather shady businessman Richard Noonan. Yet in the end, the pragmatic and sly businessman is the one who cannot stare unflinchingly at the likely truth about alien contact and subsequent. He is the one who needs to believe that humanity is capable of more, that perhaps they are being tested.

‘How about the idea that humans, unlike animals, have an overpowering need for knowledge? I’ve read that somewhere.’

‘So have I,’ said Valentine. ‘But the issue is that man, at least the average man, can easily overcome this need. In my opinion, the need doesn’t exist at all. There’s a need to understand, but that doesn’t require knoledge. The God hypothesis, for example, allows you have an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything while knowing absolutely nothing… Give a man a highly simplified model of the world and interpret every event on the basis of this simple model. This approach requires no knowledge. A few rote formulas, plus some so-called intuition, some so-called practical acumen, and some co-called common sense.’

My Gollancz SF Masterworks 2012 edition of the book, in a new translation by Olena Bormashenko, also contains a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin, and an unmissable afterword by Boris Strugatsky, written in 2012. It evokes all the relief yet bewilderment of someone who has watched the whole world that they knew change beyond recognition in their own lifetime. Perhaps feeling superfluous?

At first I was looking forward to using this afterword to tell the story of publishing the Picnic: naming once-hated names; jeering to my heart’s content at the cowards, idiots, informers and scoundrels… being ironic and instructive, deliberately objective and ruthless, benevolent and caustic all at once. And now I’m sitting here, looking at these folders, and realizing that I am hopelessly late, and that no one needs me – not my irony, not my generosity, and not my burnt-out hatred. They have ceased to exist, those once all-powerful organisations with almost unlimited right to allow and to hinder; they have ceased to exist and are forgotten to such an extent that it would be tedious and dull to explain to the present-day reader who is who…

Except of course, what goes round comes round, and history is more cyclical than linear. Defunct organisations become powerful once more, or new ones are created. And ‘happiness for all’ is once more promised, and once more impossible to deliver.

11 thoughts on “Russians in July: Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers”

    1. And yet the criticism is really not at the forefront of the story – you know, it’s not overtly political or trying too hard to be metaphorical. It’s a good story as well.

  1. Excellent review, Marina. I’ve often thought about reading this as it’s considered to be such a classic – not just for fans of sci-fi but other readers too.

    1. Highly recommended. It’s not perfect – the structure spread over several years can be a little woolly (you can see why Tarkovsky reduced it to just one foray into the Zone rather than multiple ones), And I would have liked to see more and stronger female characters (why are there no female stalkers, for instance?). But a good read nevertheless.

    2. I keep claiming that I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, and yet there are many sci-fi books (and films) which I really like. I think the best science fiction (just like the best crime fiction) is about universal human problems, transcends its genre, while also providing a good story (which, let’s face it, some ‘literary’ fiction really doesn’t).

  2. So much to think about with this book, Marina Sofia! It sounds as though the story itself is absorbing, but that it also has a lot to say about humans, about the nature of government, and more. I can see what you man when you say there are several layers here….

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