Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

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Book Information  
AuthorArkady & Boris Strugatsky
TitleRoadside Picnic
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Nick Meisher 
(Jul 27, 2010)

The book begins a decade after something alien, (called Visitors by human scientists) very briefly (approximately 12-24 hours) landed at 6 different locations around Earth (called Visitation Zones by human scientists). The Visitors themselves nor their means of arrival were ever seen, but the people who lived in those areas reported explosions and loud noises that blinded some and caused others to catch a type of plague. Some areas of the Zones later became labeled by scientists as the 'First Blind Quarter', 'Plague Quarter', 'Second Blind Quarter' based on the effects the Visitation had on the population. These 6 areas (some populated towns) became infested with deadly phenomenon and littered with mysterious objects with various properties whose original purpose was incomprehensible by humans and so advanced that it bordered on the supernatural. Each Zone was perhaps the size of a few square miles in size, with abandoned buildings, railways and cars, some slowly decaying while others looking brand new. The Visitation Zones became extremely deadly areas to all forms of Earth life containing space-time anomalies, and random spots capable of killing by fire, lightning, gravity or other bizarre ways. The laws of physics sporadically worked in the Zones.

Armies surrounded the Zones with strict orders to arrest or kill anyone attempting to sneak inside or out. Governments feared that some artifact could be found inside the Zones with enough power to cause a plague, permanently damage or even destroy the planet. A frontier culture arose along the perimeter of the Zones, men known as "Stalkers" who risked their lives to illegally recover alien artifacts (called swag) from within the Zone for large profit. This was extremely dangerous work since one wrong move inside the Zone could be deadly. Stalkers could only work during the night since the Zone was observed during the day by soldiers and scientists. Only one out of three Stalkers made it out alive. Even though the original purpose of the artifacts recovered was not understood, some objects had beneficial properties like a round black stick (called so-so) that produced endless energy and used to power vehicles. Others artifacts were deadly like the "Death Lamp" which emitted rays destroying all life around it. Most artifacts had no known function either because they were broken and discarded by the Visitors as trash or because their purpose was too advanced to be understood by scientists. The most desired and legendary artifact was the "Golden Sphere", which was rumored to have the power to make any wish come true, but was located so deep inside the Zone and surrounded by such deadly 'traps' that only one Stalker knew the route to reached it.

The title of the book is a comparison between the advanced Visitors and the Human population. A character in the book, a Noble Prize winning scientist could only describe the purpose and aftereffects of the visit as "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? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. 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." The nervous animals in this analogy are the humans who venture forth after the Visitors left, discovering items and anomalies which are ordinary to those who discarded them, but incomprehensible or deadly to those who find them.

Submitted by Ropie 
(Jun 06, 2005)

First of all, I would like to point out that 'Roadside Picnic' is readily available to download and print out on the internet, and I have to recommend that anyone with an interest in Soviet fiction (the book dates from 1977), particularly science-fiction, should do so. This is not a long book at approximately 120 pages, but it contains enough ideas and insights to fill a much larger novel.

The basic premise is that the world has been subject to some sort of 'visitation' that has left areas of dangerously warped physics and enigmatic alien matter known as 'zones'. The main character is involved, along with others, in attempting dangerous scouting missions into the zone near his town to collect extra-terrestrial artefacts to sell to the government.

It is almost a disappointment that some of the wonderful artefacts and strange mysteries of the zones are not dealt with in greater detail. However, what is given to us is presented in such a carefully considered and literary manner that the book is a joy to read, though at times hard to understand.

The first and last chapters - of four - contain the most action, though for the most part the pace is slow but tense. This lends an air of gravitas to the proceedings and indeed the climax of the story is a sort of release, deeply embedded in the psyche of the time it was written and, as most reviewers have noted, the book will probably require at least one re-reading to fully appreciate it.

Overall, an exciting and complex book that speaks volumes about its writers, its country of origin and adds an important slant to the science fiction that most English-speaking readers will be familiar with.

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