Roadside Picnic by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky
Roadside Picnic (1972) is a Russian SF novel written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. This was back when authors and publishers were subject to government review and censorship. Since it didn’t follow the Communist Party line, it didn’t get published in uncensored book form in Russia until the 1990s despite first appearing in a Russian literary magazine in 1972. So its first book publication was in the US in 1977.
Since then Roadside Picnic has been published in dozens of editions and languages over the years, and inspired the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker, which the Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay for.
The story is set after the Visitation, when aliens briefly stopped on the Earth and left six Zones where strange alien technology and physical phenomenon exist. Residents of these areas never saw the aliens, but the alien artifacts have mysterious powers that can sometimes be harnessed by humans without understanding the underlying technology.
The title refers to the simple analogy of a group of people going for a picnic in the countryside, having a good time, dumping various trash, and heading on. For the forest animals, the actions of these mysterious beings are incomprehensible, as are they objects they leave behind. So we are those helpless forest creatures.
Since the visitation, the Zones have been closed off by the UN and various governments to civilians, but the lure of the alien artifacts creates a robust illegal trade in them by “stalkers” who know how to avoid the numerous strange and frequently deadly traps that would kill the unwary.
The protagonist of the story is Redrick “Red” Schuhart, a veteran stalker who has made dozens of successful trips to the Zone and emerged with enough artifacts to support himself and his girlfriend. This existence is quite precarious, so he also takes a job as an assistant in a lab that studies the Zone. However, he frequently finds himself in the local bar, especially when he makes another illegal score.
When Red ventures into the Zone with another stalker named Burbridge, they encounter “witch’s jelly,” a substance that dissolves Burbridge’s legs. Red saves him, but has to evade the authorities upon his return. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Guta gives birth to a girl with a full body of hair (who gains the moniker “Monkey”), since many children born near the Zone or exposed to people like stalkers end up with strange mutations.
After various scrapes with shady artifact buyers, underground organizations, and a stint in prison, Red finds himself at home once again. Sadly, his daughter has lost the ability to speak. Finally, he is lured into “one last job” to retrieve a legendary object called the “Golden Sphere”, which is rumored to grant the wishes of its owner.
He enters the Zone with Burbridge’s son, but they must first get past the “Meatgrinder.” The ending of the story is fairly abrupt and ambiguous, so I will leave it to the reader to decipher.
So was Roadside Picnic good? I thought the central concept was excellent, but I’d be hard-pressed to say I enjoyed the book. It spent a lot of time with Red drunk in the bar, commiserating with various others in the strange subculture that develops around the Zones, which are generally desolate and sparsely populated.
The various shady buyers and their schemes to get artifacts weren’t as interesting as I hoped, and the actual time within the Zones was frequently anticlimactic. His family life with his wife and mutant daughter was more promising, but didn’t really develop enough dramatic depth. And the ending… I had to go back and re-listen twice just to make sure I hadn’t skipped a final chapter by mistake.
The most interesting thing about Roadside Picnic is the parallels it has with Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (2011), which it predates by about 40 years. That book is about a strange area known as Area X, where bizarre physical phenomena occur and many expeditions have gone in but have never returned. Of course it is not revealed whether Area X was due to aliens or other more occult sources, and the novel is stylistically much closer to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and the New Weird school of fiction. Vandermeer loves to mix genres, injecting lots of horror and mystery elements, and has some fantastic descriptive writing.
But Annihilation and Roadside Picnic do share the same DNA: a refusal to disclose their mysteries to the reader. They show the limitations of human knowledge, and our powerlessness when faced with a superior and mysterious force. The characters of Annihilation are more unreliable narrators than Red, and less easy to relate to.
In the end, Roadside Picnic wasn’t my favorite book, but it is still worth reading if you are interested in classic Russian SF.
Film Version: Stalker (1979) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Roadside Picnic did inspire a very loosely-based adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky, who also directed the film version of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris in 1972. He was intrigued by the book and went to a lot of troubles (including having to completely reshoot the entire film after the first film stock was unusable) to achieve “classical Aristotelian unity” and create a very artistic, intellectual, and STUNNINGLY BORING film version. I had already seen Solaris and knew I was facing long, uninterrupted and static shots, minimal dialogue, inscrutable snippets of philosophical debate, and above all ambiguity and a lack of action. Sound like a promising way to spend 2 hours and 40 minutes? I was shocked to find the film available at my local Japanese video store. What were they thinking? This film is exactly the type of pretentious art-house film that is highly praised, being picked #29 by the British Film Institute of the “50 Greatest Films of All Time” and getting a 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while being completely unwatchable. I started the film determined to give it my undivided attention, but it punished me unrelentingly. I dare anyone to watch this film to the end without wanting to stick a fork in their eye.
The story has been changed quite dramatically from the book. The entire backstory about the visitation, black market for alien artifacts, and various organizations’ schemes are mainly left out, leaving us with… I’m not sure what. Instead, we have the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor (much like the 4 main characters of Vandermeer’s Annihilation), the latter two seeking either inspiration or fame by discovering a Room in the Zone that will grant the entrant’s deepest wish.
We are then subjected to over two hours where almost nothing happens at all. My wife and daughter started to ridicule the film and we decided to wait to see if anything happened at all, and burst into laughter at Tarkovsky’s insistence on lovingly filming desolate, abandoned industrial scenes with no events of any kind. There were quite a few completely incomprehensible discussions among the three characters about the meaning of life, ambition, and their true motivations for seeking the room. The ending is almost comically obtuse, as every time there is any possibility of action, the characters elect instead to sit or lie on the dirt floor and mumble about drivel. I have a feeling that Tarkovsky and I would not get along at a cocktail party.
I guess Tarkovsky saw the film as a means of exploring the inner psychology of his characters, and the Zone as merely a framing device for this. I don’t think that was the original intention of the Strugatsky brothers (though they wrote the screenplay), since Roadside Picnic was, for me at least, more about how humans react to a superior and unknowable alien presence. So frankly the intent of Stalker was completely lost on me. There is one telling anecdote I read about. When a government official complained that the film was slow-moving, Tarkovsky supposedly retorted “the film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” That’s a fairly arrogant attitude to have if you’re a director. Why bother making the film at all? I would grant this film zero stars — steer clear of it.
I read Roadside Picnic in April 2022 and liked it a lot better than Stuart did. I love Russian Soviet-era science fiction and I especially enjoy the Strugatsky Brothers’ sense of humor. It’s on full display here and is enhanced by Robert Forster’s interpretation in his performance of the Random House Audio edition (2012).
The audiobook also contains an afterword by Boris Strugatsky.
I haven’t seen Stalker.