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Roadside Picnic

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Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.

First published in 1972, Roadside Picnic is still widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels, despite the fact that it has been out of print in the United States for almost thirty years.

145 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1972

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About the author

Arkady Strugatsky

400 books1,581 followers
The brothers Arkady Strugatsky [Russian: Аркадий Стругацкий] and Boris Strugatsky [Russian: Борис Стругацкий] were Soviet-Russian science fiction authors who collaborated through most of their careers.

Arkady Strugatsky was born 25 August 1925 in Batumi; the family later moved to Leningrad. In January 1942, Arkady and his father were evacuated from the Siege of Leningrad, but Arkady was the only survivor in his train car; his father died upon reaching Vologda. Arkady was drafted into the Soviet army in 1943. He trained first at the artillery school in Aktyubinsk and later at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, from which he graduated in 1949 as an interpreter of English and Japanese. He worked as a teacher and interpreter for the military until 1955. In 1955, he began working as an editor and writer.

In 1958, he began collaborating with his brother Boris, a collaboration that lasted until Arkady's death on 12 October 1991. Arkady Strugatsky became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1964. In addition to his own writing, he translated Japanese language short stories and novels, as well as some English works with his brother.

Source: Wikipedia

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Profile Image for Nataliya.
785 reviews12.5k followers
April 25, 2023
2021: I read it a few years ago, and reread it now with a bit of trepidation (which luckily proved baseless), and it’s still full of that strange, disorienting, confusing and yet utterly human magic. I read it in the original and in translation (this time side-by-side) and it’s interesting how the magic subtly shifts in a different language, how different angles become more prominent, how the personalities are softly affected by different words and phrases. But the soul is the same, that same soul that erupts in that tortured scream in the end.

A story of a horrific yet fascinating place, a story of an ordinary and unlikable man just trying to get by, a philosophical interlude on humanity and its significance or lack thereof, of greed and wonder, and the fever dream of the soul scream. It still speaks to me.


2013: When people talk about the "special" feel of Russian literature, I tend to shrug it away as yet another point of confusion "Westerners" have with anything Slavic.

But when I tried to explain the feeling this book evoked in me to a few "Westerners" I startlingly realized that "it just *feels* so essentially Russian"may indeed be a valid description that encompasses the soul-searching ambiguity, the pursuit of deeper truths shrouded in light sadness, the frustrating but yet revealing lack of answers to the clear divide between right and wrong, and the heart shattering "scream of soul".

This is a story of the aftermath of the aliens' visit to our planet. Well, a visit may be too grand of a word. It seems dishearteningly likely that the space visitors made little notice of us; that their visit here was little but a "roadside picnic" - a quick stop in the middle of nowhere, a break after which they left to never be seen again, leaving only a bit of waste behind them - the relics worth quite a bit of money, and a toxic area - the Zone¹ - where humans cannot survive, where the invisible effects of something inside it inflict permanent scars (mental and physical) on those brave (or foolish) enough to venture inside it.
¹It was hard for me to believe that this book was written years before the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station - an explosion that left a "Zone" full of deadly invisible poison affecting those in it or near it, with ghost city that once was full of people and now is just a shell of a disaster.
No wonder that in popular culture Chernobyl and Strugatsky's "stalker" became intertwined.
The disheartening insignificance of the contact goes well against the well-established rules of science fiction. There was no communication, no contact, nothing. It appears that despite the hopes of all the science fiction writers over decades, we were not that interesting to the other intelligence - actually, we probably weren't even worth noticing. Just a matter-of-fact quick purposeless roadstop and a bunch of refuse - which still proceeds to affect the lives of people around the mysterious Zones.
“A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras … A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about… Scattered rags, burntout bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp… and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow…”
Echoing the insignificance of humanity is the apparent insignificance of the main character. Red Schuhart is a "stalker" - a "riffraff" taking frequent quick forays into the Zone to smuggle out the alien artifacts that are valued on the black market, undeterred by having to live on the outside of the law, always at risk of horrific side effects or death inside and imprisonment outside. He does what he does not for any noble purpose but simply because there's little else to do. He is a common guy, ordinary, inconsequential, average, hard-hit by life. His goals are not noble - just survival. He’s vulgar, a drunkard, a cynic. In life, he is a bottomfeeder. It's underscored many times how inconsequential Red is - and maybe it's precisely why his plight has such an appeal to us. After all, despite the bravado, most of us carry no illusions of our own significance in the grand scheme of things.

The visits to the Zone that we undertake with Red and his less cynical, more wide-eyed companions - first ill-fated Kirill, then just as ill-fated Arthur - are harrowing in a peculiarly surreal fashion. It's not about what's happening - it's about the possibility of something unknown yet dreadful happening, the nerves set completely on the edge, the uneasiness of tense anticipation. You can feel the characters on the verge of snapping, and the uneasy feeling is omnipresent.

And yes, in the true Russian and Soviet fashion, the politics are very much in the background of this story even if it's written as though it's seemingly apolitical¹.The idea of little people affected by the "bigger things" that are out of their reach. The caution of us unable to understand and come to grasp with even the refuse of the outside civilization. The endless corruption that always seen to almost spontaneously spring into being. The mundane drone hopelessness of being just cogs in the machine. The hollowness of the society. The bitterness of a small person when faced with something larger - be it other worlds, or the government, or the powers that we do not understand, or humanity itself.
¹ The story is apolitical but not free from pursuing the human truths and showing the good and bad of humanity. It’s just that Strugatskys see human nature without resorting to overt and obligatory politicizing that’s often so tempting.

As great Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the foreword to the excellently translated edition:

“The Strugatsky brothers were not blatant, and never (to my limited knowledge) directly critical of their government’s policies. What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology—something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing. They wrote as free men write.”

And yet there is something akin to hope in the end - or, on the other thought, maybe there is not. Redrick's semi-delusional soliloquy at the end of the book, in the sight of the mysterious Golden Sphere - the feverish, desperate, pleading semi-rational painful revelation as he with horror realizes that "My whole life I haven't had a single thought!", that "... they've cheated me, left me voiceless..." in the semi-delirious haze — is his final scream-of-soul speech a fierce ray of hope for us or is it another lost, desperate, delusional scream into the void? Maybe there's no answer, after all.
And he was no longer trying to think. He just kept repeating to himself in despair, like a prayer, "I'm an animal, you can see that I'm an animal. I have no words, they haven't taught me the words; I don't know how to think, those bastards didn't let me learn how to think. But if you really are — all powerful, all knowing, all understanding — figure it out! Look into my soul, I know — everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I've never sold my soul to anyone! It's mine, it's human! Figure out yourself what I want — because I know it can't be bad! The hell with it all, I just can't think of a thing other than those words of his — HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!"

Brief thoughts on the movie “Stalker” by Tarkovsky, a very loose adaptation of this novel:

Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book82k followers
March 7, 2020

SF writers typically approach alien contact in grandiose terms, but the Strugatsky brothers wonder instead, "What if it is more like a 'Roadside Picnic?'"

Aliens trekking through space find they have to rest a spell and land on Terra, for lunch, a little r & r, perhaps a smoke. After an interval--however long it takes for an alien to enjoy a meal al fresco--they lift off from our uninteresting planet, probably never to return, leaving behind the star voyager equivalent of empty beer cans, plastic forks, paper napkins, cigarette butts, and perhaps a noxious spill or two.

This book is the story of the "stalkers," the smugglers who venture into The Zone to bring back some of these dangerous and ultimately baffling artifacts for sale on the black market.

The book begins as a rather straightforward adventure made superior by the imaginative creation of the Zone and its artifacts (the Strugatsky's add just the right details to delineate a place and evoke a mood, never more) but it deepens and enriches further as we learn more about Red and the stalkers, what they have risked and how very much they have lost. The climax is satisfying, for we follow our hero on his last mission, watch him face a grave moral choice, commit a great crime, and yet still reveal himself to us as completely human, and--at bottom--essentially good.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books249k followers
March 23, 2023
”Intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from the dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural act.”

“Yes, that’s us!”

 photo Stalker_zpsnki59goq.jpg
There is a 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky loosely based on The Roadside Picnic. The screenplay is by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I’m, of course, going to have to watch it.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is a stalker. He is one of the few people crazy enough to go into “The Zone”. Thirty years ago Aliens visited the Earth. They landed at six different locations. Hung out for a while and took off.

They ignored us.

What The Frill?

Here we are the most intelligent species to ever evolve on this planet (debatable) and the big moment occurs when another, obviously intelligent species comes to visit, and they act like the snooty prom queen and king at the big dance.

You’d think we were mere bugs. Not even worthy of a good probing or dissection.

In these zones they left behind trash, as if, as one scientist put it, they had just stopped off for a roadside picnic. They also left behind traps. Things unexplainable. Things that science even has trouble labeling. One example is what Red calls a bug trap, but the “eggheads” call it something else.

”His face has become completely calm, you can see he’s figured everything out. They are all like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name. Until he comes up with one, you feel really sorry for him, he looks so lost. But when he find a label like ‘graviconcentrate,’ he thinks he’s figured it all out and perks right up.”

 photo tarkovsky_zpsm4fgv0m8.jpg

Stalkers are people who go into The Zone and retrieve objects. They then sell them on the black market for cash. They need a big payoff because every time they go into The Zone they are risking life or limb (there is this slime that melts the bones and eventually turns everything it touches into more slime). Most of the original stalkers are dead. Their corpses litter the landscape of The Zone providing guideposts for…don’t go there.

The Zone does something to them. Their kids are mutants. Red’s child becomes less and less human as she grows and becomes something unknown, unknowable. People from this area can’t emigrate because odd disasters start happening in the places they move to. The Zone owns them. Still, Red should just settle down and get a real job, a safe job.

”But how do I stop being a stalker when I have a family to feed? Get a job? And I don’t want to work for you, your work makes me want to puke, you understand? If a man has a job, then he’s always working for someone else, he’s a slave, nothing more--and I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, my own man, so that I don’t have to give a damn about anyone else, about their gloom and their boredom…”

Besides being dangerous, working as a stalker is also illegal. He soon finds himself on one last mission for a golden sphere that he has to find before The State robots get there first. It is about more than just the money. It is about outwitting everyone maybe even himself.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russian science-fiction writers who managed to publish most of what they wrote even under the heavy censoring hand of the Soviet Union. Ursula K. Le Guin in the forward explains it well. ”What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology--something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing. There wrote as free men write.” They did struggle to get Roadside Picnic published.

In the afterword Arkady has a list of all the letters and petitions that were exchanged between various Russian committees trying to get approval. ”Eight years. Fourteen letters to the ‘big’ and ‘little’ Central Committees. Two hundred degrading corrections of the text. An incalculable amount of nervous energy wasted on trivialities...Yes, the authors prevailed; there’s no arguing with that.

But it was a Pyrrhic Victory.”

 photo arkady-and-boris-strugatsky_zpsom36tzj3.jpg
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The book was published in Russian in 1972 and translated into English in 1977. This edition, that I read, is a new translation with all the original text, as the authors intended, reinstated. There is a 1979 movie as I mentioned above. The book also inspired a video game called. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

I absolutely love this concept. Hollywood has spent so much time making us worry about Aliens coming to Earth to enslave us, to steal our natural resources, to take over the planet, to use us as incubators for their spawn etc. We are completely unprepared to be ignored. We really don’t like being ignored.

The book can be read on many levels. It is an enjoyable fast paced read on the most basic level. For those that like to apply philosophy, politics, and psychology to their reading there is plenty of hooks to keep you pondering the true meaning of different situations. It is a book, that without a doubt, will give the reader more with each new read. This is one of those terrific finds that I may have never read without the guidance of friends on GR. Our compiled reading knowledge is oh so much greater than when we read alone.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,468 reviews3,638 followers
February 28, 2022
What will happen if human mind comes across transcendent phenomena?
Roadside Picnic is an attempt of an answer to this impossible question.
The houses in the Plague Quarter are peeling and lifeless, but the windows are mostly intact, only so dirty that they look opaque. Now at night when you crawl by, you can see the glow inside, as if alcohol were burning in bluish tongues. That’s the hell slime radiating from the basement. But mostly it looks like an ordinary neighborhood, with ordinary houses, nothing special about it except that there are no people around.

The aliens have visited the Earth and they have gone but they left behind the mysterious visitation zones… So now humans vainly attenpt to explore, understand and use these bewildering and inexplicable areas.
Roadside Picnic is a complex investigation of the transcendence – of the moral, scientific, political and humanistic problems it can create…
There are rumours of the omnipotent Golden Sphere hidden in the Visitation Zone… And there are wild bruits that it can grant any human wish…
He laughed a happy laugh, crouched down, and beat the ground with his fists as hard as he could. The tangle of hair on the crown of his head trembled and swayed in an odd and funny way, clumps of dried dirt flew in every direction. And only then did Redrick raise his eyes and look at the Sphere. Carefully. Apprehensively. With a suppressed fear that it would be all wrong – that it’d disappoint, raise doubts, throw him out of the heaven he’d managed to ascend to, choking on shit along the way…

Man and God: we don’t really know if He exists or not but we believe that He’ll answer our prayers.
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,380 reviews12k followers
January 4, 2020

Are you familiar with Stalker, the stunning 1979 Soviet science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky? If so, I have good news, comrades: the novel on which the film was based is even better. I join the ranks of sf aficionados who judge Arkady & Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic among the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Although there are six locals or Zones where aliens left mysterious objects behind on this planet, the setting for Roadside Picnic takes place in and around one such Zone in Harmont, Canada, a fictional mining town way out in the boonies. The bulk of the novel consists of Redrick "Red" Schuart's first-person account at age 23, 28 and 31 as a stalker risking his life and the health of others in order to conduct illegal sneaks into the Zone to smuggle out alien artifacts.

At 200 pages Roadside Picnic is not an overly long work but a reader can gather a bushel basket of probing insights and powerful images on every single page. The novel is a gripping adventure story, no doubt about it, but if readers wish to delve deeper, this is a book that could be used in a university course for either psychology, philosophy, sociology or history. Such fertile, thought-provoking material - my initial drafts included no less than three dozen points I planned to cover. But, alas, since this is a review not an extended essay, I've whittled down the number. Here they are:

The Visit
As Nobel laureate Dr. Pillman states unequivocally in the first few pages, the fact that aliens payed a visit to Planet Earth is the most important discovery in human history, proving once and for all we Earthlings are not alone in the universe. Many of the philosophic dimensions of this earth-shattering breakthrough are explored more in depth later on in the book.

Critics and scholars of the Strugatsky novel have speculated what the Zone might represent, equating the Zone with things like capitalism, the black market or, more generally, the yearning for consumer goods; however, as fruitful as these interpretations might prove, Roadside Picnic retains its magic and power for readers if we let the Zone be the Zone where extraterrestrials left behind their stuff as if they were happy-go-lucky vacationers who tossed their trash along the roadside after a picnic, as if they considered human intelligence too minuscule (or human stupidity too colossal) to bother making direct contact with our kind.

The Many Human Roadside Picnics
One of the seasoned officials servicing the international organization in charge of the Zone characterizes the belt of land surrounding the Zone as "a hideous sore on the face of the planet." Since the Zone has attracted a huge number of tourists and scientists and military troops, skyscrapers and a complex for jazz, variety shows and a gigantic brothel have been slapped up. In this regard, Harmont is not unlike the thousands of ugly towns and cities built for their strict utility that quickly become useless, an architectural phenomenon common to all political and economic systems across the globe. Modern society as a producer of mass roadside picnics.

This abandoned apartment complex built by Soviet Gulag prisoners looks like a movie set for the film Stalker

Xenology, the study of extraterrestrials
I agree with Dr. Pillman: the way we humans are going about studying the left-behinds is highly flawed in that it assumes the aliens think like we think. Such arrogance! Why can't people in modern society keep their hands off? For additional examples we don't have to look far: of all the indigenous peoples who have their own society and cultures, how many have escaped the Western world invading and disrupting their way of life?

The Midwich Cuckoos Redux
Dr. Pillman goes on to observe "All the people in contact with the Zone for a sufficiently long time undergo changes. You know what stalkers' children are like, you know what happens with stalkers themselves. Why? What causes the mutations? There's no radiation in the Zone." A spooky scenario. It is quite possible those mutations could have catastrophic long range consequences, turning humans into aliens for an eventual alien takeover. In this way Roadside Picknic bears comparison to John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos or Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers. And those aliens need not do anything more than leave their stuff behind since we humans can't resist keeping our hands off what belongs to others.

Holy H. P. Lovecraft!
Our Nobel laureate goes on to explain how duplicating spacells and reanimated corpses from the Zone violate the principles of thermodynamics, or, in more ordinary language, are outside the laws of nature. Wow! In this way Roadside Picnic is not only a work of science fiction, it crosses over into the realm of Lovecraftian supernatural horror. Now, good humans, you really having something to worry about! Empties, Full Empties, Hell Slime, Graviconcentrates, a Golden Sphere - if these extraterrestrial objects and realities have or might have supernatural properties, you should definitely think twice before messing with them.

Red the Stalker
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky caught hell from Soviet censors for the coarseness, vulgarity and immoral behavior included in their novel. Case in point: Stalker Red Schuhart is addicted to booze, cigarettes, crass language and gross behavior. And Red can't wait for his next opportunity to use his brass knuckles or return to the Zone, his home away from home.

Can we blame Red? He's surrounded by nothing but filth and ugliness, tawdriness and crap. While turning the pages I attempted to find anything, I mean ANYTHING in Red's world, either in nature or in art or music that contained the slightest gram of beauty. There was none. The closest thing bordering on uplifting aesthetic experience is when Red passes a bakery with brightly lit windows in the early morning and he "let the warm, incredibly delicious aroma wash over him." I mention this to note how Red could appreciate beauty if there was any to be had, but, most unfortunately, his world is one of unending ugliness.

Pulp Science Fiction Revisited
I take it back. There is a second uplifting aesthetic experience Red comes across. It's the most obvious one for a young adventurer: a beautiful woman. "She was silky, luscious, sensuously curvy, without a single flaw, a single extra ounce - a hundred and twenty pounds of twenty-year-old delectable flesh - and then there were the emerald eyes, which shone from within, and the full moist lips and the even white teeth and the jet-black hair that gleamed in the sun, carelessly thrown over one shoulder; the sunlight flowed over her body, drifting from her shoulders to her stomach and hips, throwing shadows between her almost-bare breasts." Ha! Perhaps Arkady and Boris had their tongues deep in their cheeks, purposely conjuring up the stereotypical female image so common in science fiction pulp magazines in bygone years.

A Hero's Journey
Red's adventures as a stalker spans eight years. As we learn toward the end of the novel, Red's journey is a hero's journey, involving what Joseph Campbell termed 'sacrifice and bliss.' To judge the truth of these words, I encourage you to read this classic for yourself - I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

“How can I give up stalking when I have a family to feed? Get a job? I don't want to work for you, your work makes me puke, do you understand? This is the way I figure it: if a man works with you, he is always working for one of you, he is a slave and nothing else. And I always wanted to be myself, on my own, so that I could spit at you all, at your boredom and despair.”
― Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic
Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
November 11, 2011
I play video games, now and again, but I don't care about being 'good' at them. I'm not competitive about my skills. I'm interested in the story, the characters, and the world. After a particularly irritating series of losing battles, I frustratedly told a friend "I don't want to have to spend a bunch of time practicing and becoming an expert just to get on with the story. It would be like having to read the same page of the book over and over until I 'got it right' and could proceed to the end!"

"Isn't that exactly what you do spend your time doing with books?" He replied, "Haven't you just described literary analysis?"


A while ago, as most of you probably know, Roger Ebert wrote an article declaring that 'Video Games Can Never Be Art'. Predictably, this caused a huge backlash, opening up a large and messy debate. Ebert, tired of being the center of this discussion, made a follow-up response where he declared that he had no definition for 'Art' which would exclude video games, that he had not played them, and hence, was in no position to judge, but that he was not going to take back his statement.

I read the articles, and I agree with Tycho from Penny Arcade that Ebert never made any arguments which require refutation. Since Ebert does not know video games, he never says anything which would disqualify them as art. Just because they started as simple little machines you pumped coins into doesn't mean they can't be art, that's how films started, after all.

Unfortunately, I don't feel that the defenders of Video Games as Art have done a great job of making their points, either, and I found Kellee Santiago's much-lauded TED presentation simplistic and full of errors in reasoning, never really touching on what makes art, or why games should be included.

But I have personally had many experiences with video games that were as touching, thought-provoking, entertaining, and beautiful as works in any other medium. In fact, the plot, characters, romances, and moral quandaries of the Baldur's Gate series are not just better than the game's novelization, but are a more heartfelt and thorough exploration of epic fantasy than most modern authors I could name.

Planescape: Torment, by the same publishers, is a wildly surreal existential exploration, touching on many philosophies and calling into question the very nature of reality and of identity. It is a revolutionary exploration of the genre that is often more thoughtful and subtle than Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

These games (and others) combine complex, thoughtful plots, psychologically deep characters who change throughout the story, beautiful graphic art, music, cinematography, philosophical explorations, and humor to create unique visions of human experience. Ebert asks whether we can point to games that are as good as the greatest works of art. Perhaps not--but then, videogames have only been around for thirty years, and I'd be hard-pressed to name a novel of the last thirty years that is as good as the greatest literary works. Certainly, there are videogames which are superior to many works of art from other media.

And one such game is S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which is loosely-based on the Strugatsys' book (at last, we're getting somewhere). I came across the game, played and enjoyed it, all without knowing anything about the book that inspired it. The game is one of the most disturbing and horrifying stories I have ever been through, in any medium. The subtly unsettling build of the game affected me more than any horror movie or book. As a bleak, lonely, post-apocalyptic world, I found it far more touching than The Road (which Ebert holds up as an example of modern art).

But for me, video games have never been about the puzzles, the fights, the winning or losing; it's about the story, the experience, the quiet moments which define a world:
You come to a campfire in the grey light of the early morning, tired, your mind numb from a firefight in the dark, having stumbled into the midst of a group of nervous men who fired at the half-seen movement. A twig snaps and bodies lie still. There is a misting rain. You sit quietly for a moment, watching the grass waving, just letting everything fall away. You approach the fire. There, on the ground beside you, half buried in the dirt is a skull, a pelvis. "Yeah. Me, too." you think.

So, as I do with any story I like, I sought out the game's roots and inspirations, hoping it would lead me to something equally enjoyable. Which is how I found Tarkovsky's film, which has become one of my favorites, and which I prefer to the better-known Solaris.

And that lead me to Roadside Picnic; a backwards trip through time from furthest inspiration back to the source. It's such an intriguing setting for me, such an unusual take on alien interaction. It is so dehumanized, so remote, that to me, it feels much more realistic, much more comprehensible than men in rubber suits making 'space war'. Which is to say, it isn't comprehensible, it's one more thing we cannot understand, no matter how hard we try, but which we must live with, every day, muddling through.

The central concept of Roadside Picnic is one that has shown up elsewhere, from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (explored here) to the more explicit homage in H. John Harrison's Nova Swing . But it's really not surprising, as there is a kind of universal Jungian appeal to the concept of the "Wish Granter hidden in the Land of Death".

But for me, the exploration in Roadside Picnic never went deep enough, so that I constantly wished for more. Not for more understanding or exposition--quite the opposite--I wanted more of those silent moments, more time to stare into the abyss, to be confronted with the nameless, the unnameable, and the smallness of man. I wanted more of what the Tarkovsky film gave me: the silent ponderousness with which man meets the Great Mystery.

The book had too many explanations and digressions about itself, things I wished I could have seen, could have passed by, uncomprehending, instead of being told about them later as a mass of theories and explanations. The film was full of digressions, as well, but these were always about man, about the eternal questions which alienation brought to the forefront. These only served to deepen the mystery, since they danced always around it, avoiding it (though I will say not all of these digressions were necessary or welcome, especially when it turned characters into mouthpieces).

Similarly, what I missed from the game was the isolation, the way the blackness was always there, patiently waiting, just beyond the lamplight of your false security, and also the moments of unexpected surreality which inspired such gripping terror. There is a definite Lovecraftian element, and if we have learned anything from Lovecraft's followers, it's that long explanations are the best way to kill a monster.

I enjoyed the book's slow burn, the gradual psychological progression--that these men, who had looked into the darkness and come away harrowed, in time they turned on one another in their fear and isolation, counterfeiting an enemy of flesh to represent the insensible, incomprehensible enemy which they faced each day. The degradation of family, community, and identity in the face of encroaching darkness lent the characters an introverted desperation which was very engaging--and very Russian.

It was also an effective and subtle satire of the impersonal brutality of government, which was why this book went unpublished so long in Russia. In the end, it only reached publication in censored form. There is an author-approved version from the past decade, but it's too grand a hope to think we might see an English translation of it. There is simply not enough demand for a small cult sci fi book, which is a shame.

The translation I read was a bit stilted, and there were many opportunities for subtlety which I could feel, but not quite comprehend. I wish it had been more personal, less built on dialogues after-the-fact, that it had more closely approached the horrific implications of the world, and that it had given us more time to come to terms.

But I don't get a say. Well, not yet. Though with all authors, writing becomes the act of telling those stories you were always looking for, but never found; you must create them, for yourself. And that's part of the final barrier between video games and art. Can the audience participate in art? Does that destroy its vision? Does the undecided ending of Inception make it less art because it invites the audience to participate in that ending?

Moreover, is art not art to the people who create it, because they decide its outcome? That is a part of Ebert's argument. I, for one, look forward to a future where I can have more participation in the art I consume, and it's a desire creators recognize: I get 'alternate endings', re-imagined remakes, adaptations which take liberties from their inspiration.

Perhaps some day soon, we will live in a world where we do not define the quality of stories by what device they are played on.
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
969 reviews6,871 followers
June 15, 2023
Intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts.

While the prospect of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe has long captivated the human mind, we must also wonder if, when we do find it, those other beings will even bother with us. What if, perhaps, we were so insignificant on a grand scale that an alien visit would be nothing more than a a roadside picnic where we are merely ants to their stop. Such is the case in Roadside Picnic by Russian brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky where in the aftermath of this very scenario the earth is left with deadly “Zones” full of discarded alien refuge that people risk their lives—often dying in horrific fashion—to obtain. But will these objects be used to improve the world or be weaponized because, knowing human desires for profit and power ‘it’s possible that by randomly pulling chestnuts out of this fire, we’ll eventually stumble on something that will make life on Earth completely unbearable.’ The novel is also the basic for the 1979 cult-classic Andrei Tarkovsky film, Stalker, which draws on the set-up and several themes of the novel while taking its own philosophical journey. A tense, page-turner of a sci-fi novel that navigates philosophical and social quandaries with the grit and caustic characters of a noir, Roadside Picnic goes down with all the burn and delight of a harsh whiskey that leaves you reeling and coming back for more.

Intelligence is the ability to harness the powers of the surrounding world without destroying the said world.

When I first came across this novel, I opened it intending to read just a page or two and the next thing I knew I was 40 pages deep and had barely taken a breath as the opening chapter was so intense. For as heady and ponderous the book is, the action with its blend of horror and complex noir-like underhanded dealings will keep you eagerly turning pages. A lot happens and there are many surprise twists and turns, yet at the heart it is a deeply philosophical investigation on human nature in a hellish landscape where truth and the search for a divide between good and evil is a stumble through a fog of ambiguity. All of which is playing out against a backdrop of humanity confronted with being cosmically insignificant after the most monumental moment in human history passed by without humans even being acknowledged.

That's the Zone for you: come back with swag, a miracle; come back alive, success; come back with a patrol bullet in your ass, good luck; and everything else - that's fate.

Written in the Soviet Union, there is a distinct Cold War vibe permeating the novel, particularly around the topics of arms buildups and the restricted Zones where the aliens had landed being walled off. There are the “Stalkers” who sneak in at night to recover objects and sell them for profit, a high-stakes profession with a high body count and other side-effects that they only learn about once it is too late. The novel is rather episodic, spanning nearly a decade in the life of Redrick “Red” Schuhart, who works for a scientific research lab by day but over the course of the book is repeatedly pulled back into the gangster-esque underworld of the Stalkers in order to survive financially. Redrick is as hard drinking as he is hard living, dealing with the side-effects of exposure to The Zone that caused his child to be born covered in fur for which they lovingly nickname her “Monkey”, but as time passes she is slowly losing her humanity and become more animalistic. Not to mention the visit woke the dead and a zombie-like version of his dad is living in their apartment. But money talks and there is rumor of a golden sphere in The Zone that can grant wishes, but those who have used it tend to make selfish wishes or kill themselves after. But is it possible someone could wish for something to help everyone?

Man is born in order to think... Except that I don't believe that. I've never believed it, and I still don't believe it, and what man is born for -I have no idea. He's born, that's all. Scrapes by as best he can.

I quite enjoy how there are so many entertaining and bizarre details to this speculative future that just pass as natural—such as the walking dead—and aren’t addressed beyond just being the way things are. The book is very much about ordinary people living in extreme times but just accepting this as the world.
Screw the years—we don’t notice things change. We know that things change, we’ve been told since childhood that things change, we’ve witnessed things change ourselves many a time, and yet we’re still utterly incapable of noticing the moment that change comes—or we search for change in all the wrong places.

We also see Redrick as a sort of anti-conformity hero, accepting the world around him but always wanting to live by his own rules and desires to get away from all the rigamarole of society. But he’s trapped by his own lack of mobility in a world ruled by power and profit, by ‘decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology.’ He is always considering the ironies of like such as how ‘you need money so you don’t have to think about money,’ and asking himself ‘what the hell are we all running around for, anyway? To make money? But what the hell do we need money for if all we do is run around making it?’ His options for money seem decidedly immoral, such as the request to recover something known as ‘hell slime,’ an ooze that dissolved an entire lab killing most inside and will undoubtedly be used as a weapon. In such a world, he questions if there can truly be ethical living. ‘This is the way I figure it: if a man works with you, he is always working for one of you, he is a slave and nothing else,’ he says during an attempt to recruit his services, adding ‘I always wanted to be myself, on my own, so that I could spit at you all, at your boredom and despair.’ With a few escape scenes (including out a bar as well as carrying a man who’s leg has been dissolved in The Zone), a prison sentence, and plenty of moments drinking away the stress of the day while cursing at authorities, Redrick is practically a noir hero.

First serialized in Russia in 1972, this edition is a re-translation by Olena Bormashenko (here is an interesting interview on her translation) returning all the text removed by censors and includes a fascinating introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin. There is plenty of discourse on the perspective of the novel, and its Cold War attributes, being rather strangely apolitical yet still managing to touch on a lot of issues the ordinary person would consider during these times. For one, the Zones and the wall around them calls to mind the Berlin Wall and one could interpret the alien artifacts to be symbolic of Western culture and goods that would be smuggled back into Soviet territory. Additionally, some have argued the representation of capitalism in the novel could represent Soviet sensibilities, though this seems shoehorning an interpretation since critiquing the evils of capitalism is hardly uniquely Soviet even at the time.

This did, however, aid in the novel avoiding censorship, as Boris Stugatsky has noted ‘it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous’ to Soviet censors, and the bits that were removed were more about language and “immoral behaviors”. On the other hand, Roland Boer discusses in his book Knockin' on Heaven's Door that the brothers being blacklisted for an unauthorized East German publication of their novel The Ugly Swans led many in the West to embrace them as Soviet dissidents and brought them into wide translation, though Boer argues this is a misinterpretation of their politics as well. In the introduction, Le Guin argues they are, instead, ‘indifferent to ideology’ and that looking for a Cold War political divide in their books or in glorifying them as smuggling Soviet critiques through science fiction is to miss the point:
Bureaucrats and politicians, who can’t afford to cultivate their imaginations, tend to assume it’s all ray-guns and nonsense, good for children. A writer may have to be as blatantly critical of utopia as Zamyatin in We to bring the censor down upon him. The Strugatsky brothers were not blatant, and never (to my limited knowledge) directly critical of their government’s policies. What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology—something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing. They wrote as free men write.

Perhaps this is what makes this book so effortlessly invigorating and engaging: it is a look at humanity at a struggle against abuse of power and cosmic indifference without needing to divide into political camps and instead hope for the success of people instead of our destruction by those who seek to divide. Which there is plenty of here, particularly when Redrick knows governments want to obtain the ‘hell slime’ in order to weaponize it for war. ‘ And it’s not because they are more clever and cunning than we are. The world is just like that,’ the Strugatsky’s write, ‘Man is like that. If it wasn’t the Visit, it would have been something else. Pigs can always find mud.’ Someone is always paying for power, and there will always be someone to accept the payments even at risk of their own life. It seems society has cornered people in poverty and harsh conditions to ensure the supply of these folks is unending. Just look at the quick flash of arguments against minor student loan repayment aid in the US whining that it will lower military enlistment.

We merely don’t understand a thing, but they at least understand how much they don’t understand.

A primary theme in Roadside Picnic is our limits of knowledge and how that also plays into the obfuscation between what is good or evil. We have teams of scientists trying to learn what the Zone objects do and how to use them, occasionally finding uses for power sources and occasionally realizing they could be a devastating weapon. An incredible centerpiece in the novel is a discussion between one character and the scientist who’s radio broadcast about the alien visit begins the novel, a discussion that covers the meaning of intelligence, our minimal purpose in a vast universe and the hate of humanity as a whole. There is hope, however, that humanity will weather any storm, but the tragedy that many often die in order to get there.

Which leads us to the incredible final section of the book where Redrick is seeking the wish-fulfilling object. It becomes a marvelous parable on ethics, particularly as to reach the orb and make a wish, a human sacrifice is required. In this case, it is a rather innocent youth who is seeking the orb to wish for the salvation of all humanity . Can one who is able to obtain the orb and have their deepest wish be read by it actually have a wish for mass goodness in their heart? It also reminds me how frequently human sacrifice to curry the favor of the gods (and what is a wish-granting machine if not godlike) occurs in the history of human literature, from the story of Abraham and Isaac to Agamemnon murdering Iphigenia to appease the gods for good sailing weather. Curiously, the Book of Revelations is alluded to frequently in the novel, such as the resurrection of the dead and other “demonic” miracles, and the character Gutalin is quick to mention the objects as satanic and warn ‘the pale horse has been saddled,’ and that ‘thou, of human flesh, whom Satan has seduced, who play with his toys and covert his treasures,’ referring to The Zone.

The end is abrupt, yet beautifully so as ambiguity and interpretability is one of Roadside Picnic’s greatest strengths. It also lends itself to the beauty of the film adaptation, Stalker, which is largely concerned with the wish-granting golden orb and what truly lurks in the hearts of people as their greatest wishes. The film is shot in Estonia and primarily outside an abandoned hydroelectric plant and has incredibly powerful imagery in long shots (this edition of the book even uses a still from the film as the cover). The film imagery frequently draws comparisons to the zone around Chernobyl, though the disaster would happen several years after the film. Interestingly enough, following the success of the film and book the term Stalker became a popular neologism in Russia for people who guide others into dangerous or restricted areas.
Screenshot 2023-06-11 131700
Stalker (1979)--Watch the trailer

I cannot recommend Roadside Picnic enough. This book comes swinging and lands each blow with such power and philosophical impact that I can’t help but love it. Imaginative, gritty, thought provoking and even rather humorous at times, this is certainly a favorite sci fi and book overall. Enter the Zone if you dare, and keep your wits about you.


Look into my soul, I know - everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I've never sold my soul to anyone! It's mine, it's human! Figure out yourself what I want - because I know it can't be bad! The hell with it all, I just can't think of a thing other than those words of his - HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews928 followers
May 13, 2022
“intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts.”

Roadside Picnic art 3 - 9GAG

As a novel about first contact with aliens, I love Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic! It is fresh and relevant and, wait for it, contains no aliens. This novel about first contact is more concerned with what aliens left behind. In the novel, there are scavengers who raid the zones where aliens visited in search of the sometimes deadly artifacts littered haphazardly about. But what precisely did the aliens leave?

Are the artifacts more akin to the trash a traveler might leave behind after a roadside picnic? There are lots of possibilities. And that brings us to one of the novel's central themes: what does it say about our intelligence if the aliens who visited the planet didn't even notice there was intelligent life on Earth? I definitely thought about Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation while reading this, but each writer had his own take. Fun read! 4.25 stars.
Profile Image for Leonard Gaya.
Author 1 book938 followers
September 15, 2020
In April 1986, a major nuclear disaster took place at the Chernobyl power plant, an hour’s drive north of Kiev (then USSR). A radioactive cloud spread across the whole of Europe in the following days. Millions were contaminated. The nearby city of Pripyat became a ghost town. In the aftermath, some farm animals were born with deadly deformities. Men and women had to go inside the contaminated zone to seal off the reactor inside a giant concrete shell. They were called the “stalkers”.

Their name directly originates from Roadside Picnic. The renown of this SF book from the Soviet era is probably due, in part, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The film is loosely adapted (by the Strugatsky brothers, who took part in the screenplay) from the last section — and undoubtedly the best part — of their book.

The setup is commonplace in SF literature: some aliens have visited our planet. But Arkady and Boris Strugatsky don’t depict a clash of civilisations (see H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and countless others after that), which implicitly assumes that humans and aliens are fundamentally alike, both invasive and aggressive species in general, either intrigued or eager to fight with one another. Instead, this novel suggests that humans and aliens exist on totally different levels. The aliens have “visited” our planet and, overlooking humans, have left scattered “objects”, traps, bombs, miracle artefacts, inside a cordoned-off “Zone”. Only a handful of people, the “stalkers”, creep into the Zone at the risk of their lives, like ants exploring a pile of rubbish beyond their understanding, left behind by unearthly picnickers on the intergalactic roadside. The mysterious nature of the aliens in the Strugatskys’ novel is similar to that of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris; both adapted to the screen by Tarkovsky.

Roadside Picnic is a strange read indeed. It expands across some ten years of the life of stalker Red Schuhart, through some deconstructed episodes: conversations regarding the peddling of alien objects, talks on the nature of aliens and humans, incursions inside the Zone, streams of consciousness. The outlook is often dismal; the style is crude; the characters, in a sort of Noir pastiche, are vulgar, sweaty, wear their heart on their sleeves, and are prone to heavy drinking and smoking. All things which earned the Strugatskys quite a few rejections from the Soviet committees (read Boris Strugatsky's afterword on that topic).

The translation by Olena Bormashenko is raw and superb. Roadside Picnic had a possible influence on a few Anglo-American novels, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy, or Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life, for instance. A few video games are also indebted to the Strugatsky brothers. Last but not least, it’s probable that French author Alain Damasio had some hints of this novel at the back of his head when writing La Horde du Contrevent.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,883 reviews16.6k followers
February 27, 2020
Russian SCI-FI.

I think the more accurate description was would be Soviet era SCI-FI as apparently the Strugatsky brothers had quite the time getting it past censors and published. One wonders if the 145 page novella began as a Tolstoy-esque behemoth and the rest wound up on the comrade editor’s floor.

This is a very novel approach to a first contact story. The title comes from the idea that alien artifacts that have been left behind in “zones” throughout the world were not deliberately left, but are rather the detritus of a brief galactic stop over on back water Terra on the way to somewhere else.

There are other ideas about the aliens and what they left behind and why. Told from the perspective of a “stalker” – a kind of prospector or poacher who enters the zones to collect the artifacts and sell them. It’s a dangerous job as the zones are radioactive or magical or something as illness, mutation and death stalk the alleyways and empty streets in an eerie prophesy of Chernobyl years after this was published.

SF fans will draw comparisons to Frederik Pohl’s 1977 novel Gateway because of the profitable but hazardous collection of alien relics. But whereas Pohl’s novel was hard SF, this had the Russian literature undercurrent of depression and morose introspection.

This was very influential and even contained a Vonnegut reference; a classic in the genre and a must read for fans.

April 2, 2023
«Ευτυχία για όλους!...
Ελεύθερα!......Όση θέλετε!...Μαζευτείτε όλοι!.....
Φτάνει για όλους!
Κανείς να μην φύγει ανικανοποίητος!....
Χωρίς αντίτιμο!..... Ευτυχία!....Δωρεάν !...»

Πρόκειται για ένα συγκλονιστικό, πρωτοπόρο βιβλίο. Ένα έργο ζωής που χρειάζεται αποκλειστικότητα αντιληπτικής ικανότητας στην κρυφή αποπροσανατολισμένη και απλή προοπτική που σπάνια βρίσκουμε στην επιστημονική φαντασία ή και στην λογοτεχνία γενικά.
Προσεγγίζεται με ειδική μεταχείριση,
αφού συγκαταλέγεται στα κλασικά αναγνώσματα,
πέρα απο κάθε μυρωδιά και χρώμα επιστημονικής φαντασίας την εποχή του •Ψυχρού Πολέμου•
που το καλύπτει,
πέρα απο κάθε σουρεαλιστική φρίκη που αναπτύσσεται με δεξιοτεχνία στα καλύτερα της χαρακτηριστικά.

Το «Πικνίκ δίπλα στον δρόμο» ακολουθεί αφηγηματικά τους “Stalkers”, οι οποίοι διακινδυνεύουν την ζωή που ίσως και να μην έχουν, μπαίνουν σε «Ζώνες» επίσκεψης απο εξωγήινες οντότητες στον πλανήτη Γη.

Σκοπός τους είναι να βρουν και να ανακτήσουν διάφορα εξωγήινα αντικείμενα τα οποία απέμειναν στις περιοχές της Γης όπου πραγματοποιήθηκε η σύντομη ξενική επίσκεψη.

Οι Ζώνες είναι πραγματικά εκτάσεις φρίκης,
είναι η άγνωστη κόλαση που μεταλλάσσει, σακατεύει, σκοτώνει και εξαϋλώνει κάθε ανθρώπινη ύπαρξη μέσα στην καυτή κόλλα μετατροπής και παραμόρφωσης που βράζει.

Πόδια ανθρώπων που λιώνουν σαν καμμένα λάστιχα, χνουδωτά μανίκια που τρώνε σάρκα, άρρωστη και πληγιασμένη απο τοξικές παραισθήσεις.
Παγίδες βαρύτητας οι οποίες συνθλίβουν τους περιπλανώμενους, κύματα θερμότητας που μαγειρεύουν την ανθρώπινη ζωή, καίγοντας αργά και βασανιστικά το δέρμα εως το κόκκαλο.
Ανθρωποφάγοι Μύλοι που περιστρέφουν σώματα σαν κουρέλια μέχρι να σκορπίσουν σε σκουπίδια βρόμας, βάλτοι παραμόρφωσης, κρεατομηχανές μυαλών και πολλά άλλα.

Τα αντικείμενα που κλέβουν απο τις Ζώνες οι Κυνηγοί είναι πολύτιμα και εξεχόντως εφευρετικά.
Δοχεία κενού άμορφης ύλης,
μηχανές αέναης κίνησης, μπαταρίες που διαρκούν για πάντα
και διάφορα επιτεύγματα τεχνολογικής εξέλιξης
τόσο προχωρημένης και ανεξήγητης
που θεωρείται μαγεμένη απο τον ανθρώπινο εγκέφαλο της επικείμενης εποχής.

Οι συγγραφείς του βιβλίου είναι Ρώσοι και το συγκεκριμένο πόνημα δημιουργήθηκε το 1971 όταν κόντευε να «κορυφώσει» ο Ψυχρός Πόλεμος
και η λογοκρισία της εποχής του πατερούλη Στάλιν.

Και κάπου εδώ έρχομαι να υποκλιθώ στο πλαίσιο που ανυψώνει την αριστουργηματική αυτή μυθιστοριογραφία σε κλασική.

Ο ήρωας μας, γιορτάζει την χαμένη νίκη που ηττήθηκε απο κυρίαρχες εξουσίες πάνω στον πλανήτη.

Είναι ηθικά διφορούμενος αντι-ήρωας, ένας κυνηγός, ένας κορυφαίος stalker,
ονομάζεται Κόκκινος.
Τυχαίο, ίσως, μπορεί και όχι.

Ο Κόκκινος άνθρωπος υπονομεύει ένα σκληρό κατασταλτικό σύστημα επιδιώκοντας να κερδίσει
ο,τι και όσα περισσότερα μπορεί, απο ένα
βαρβάτο καπιταλιστικό σύστημα μαύρης αγοράς.

Παραβιάζει κανόνες, αψηφά την εξουσία,
φυλακίζεται, σκέφτεται, καταλαβαίνει
και δίνει ελάχιστη προσοχή στις συνέπειες των πράξεων του,
αφού γυρίζει πλάτη στο μέλλον που φτιάχτηκε απο το στημένο παρόν.

Επομένως, οι συγγραφείς ανήκουν στην πλατφόρμα
των μεγάλων επαναστατών μέσα απο την τέχνη ,
αυτών που με θάρρος, ψυχή και εφευρετικό τρόπο πίστεψαν, οραματίστηκαν, έσπρωξαν την ανθρωπότητα με την επίφαση μιας επιστημονικής φαντασίας
στην απελευθέρωση μυαλού
και στην απολύτρωση απο δογματικά παραμορφωμένες εξουσίες.



Καλή ανάγνωση
Πολλούς ασπασμούς.
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews806 followers
January 29, 2016
4.22 average rating, eh? It is not undeserved but I would say satisfaction is not guaranteed.

Roadside Picnic is something of a minor classic that I have often seen mentioned in sci-fi literature discussion groups like the excellent PrintSF on Reddit. Certainly the basic conceit is wonderfully “sfnal”. Six zones of Earth have been visited by aliens over a two-day period, there are no witnesses for these visitations, the only evidence is the strange artifacts these alien apparently left behind or discarded. The short novel deals with the aftermath or cultures that develop from “The Visitation”, as this event came to be known.

This book reminds me of “Big Dumb Object” sci-fi trope where an alien artifact is found by humans but their owners are absent, for examples Rendezvous with Rama , Gateway, and Ringworld . The main difference is that the objects in Roadside Picnic are little ones scattered all over the Zones of Visitation, your average sci-fi BDOs are gigantic things floating in space. So props to the two Strugatsky brothers for making an original spin on a well-worn concept.

I love the bizarre alien artifacts described in this book. For example “empties” which are empty containers of some kind but you can only see the lid and the bottom, the container itself is not only invisible but seems to be made of nothingness. You can put your hands through the container in the space between the lid and the bottom as if there is nothing there but the lid and the bottom always maintain their relative positions and distance. They are extremely interesting artifacts but nobody knows what they are for, or what they are supposed to contain. There are quite a few mysterious objects like this in the book but the descriptions are quite elaborate so I will leave you to discover them for yourself. In addition to these objects, there are also weird effects of the Zones on people who were in the vicinity when the Visitation occurs.

Now the negatives. There is something about the narrative or the prose style I don’t quite connect to. I don’t know whether this is attributable to the translator Ms. Antonina W. Bouis; in fact, the English of the translation seems clear enough but there is something vague about the narrative that I can’t quite put my finger on. Characters seem to drift in and out and it is hard to remember who some of them are. The mysterious artifacts are great, but some of them are not clearly described (unexplained is OK, as they are supposed to be mysterious, but not described is a little frustrating). I cannot quite connect with the characters even though their motivations are understandable. I imagine this is due to the perfunctory developments of these characters; even though much of the narrative is focused on Redrick Schuhart I don’t feel like I know much about him by the end of the book. The upshot of all these negatives is that I feel a little disconnected from the book as I was reading it, it all feels rather dispassionate. I also dislike the ambiguous ending (in all fairness some people don’t mind ambiguous endings, they frustrate me).

To sum up Roadside Picnic has a brilliant premise, and is endlessly inventive, but I personally find the execution to be less than satisfactory. Having said that it is such a great story and it is quite short so I can recommend it with the above-mentioned reservations.

3.5 stars.

For an explanation of the book’s title check out the "QUOTES APATT LIKED" section below, specifically the one that starts with “A picnic. Picture a forest”

I like these two quotes, but they are not included on Goodreads’ Roadside Picnic quotes page:

“For me the Visitation is primarily a unique event that allows us to skip several steps in the process of cognition. Like a trip into the future of technology. Like a quantum generator ending up in Isaac Newton's laboratory.”

“I would put it this way. There are objects for which we have found uses. We use them, but almost certainly not the way the visitors use them. I am positive that in the vast majority of cases we are hammering nails with microscopes.”
Profile Image for Coffee&Quasars.
53 reviews5 followers
October 17, 2018
What happens when aliens arrive on Earth and leave again without so much as a hello, leaving behind all their rubbish? Naturally, humans want to get involved, for better or worse, despite the fact that the advanced refuse is almost entirely deadly and beyond comprehension.

This book carries the spirit of a trend in human history. The Earth is not at the centre of the Universe, nor is the Universe confined to our single solar system, galaxy, or even cluster of galaxies. The more we learn, the more we realise that we don’t inhabit any special place in things. We’re not at the centre of anything. In the same way, the people in this book are forced to consider the possibility that they’re not the poster children for intelligence or consciousness, but akin to ants, scurrying around the remnants of beings that are profoundly unknowable.

A funny, tragic and unique take on alien contact, Roadside Picnic offers a thoughtful and fascinating look at what it means to be human.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,109 followers
February 10, 2017
This old Russian classic SF is surprisingly relevant and fresh today, sans all the copious amount of smoking going on. :) If anything is going to give this little gem away, it's pretty much only that.

It's very tight, masquerading as a scavenger adventure that becomes a black-market thriller that becomes a Question about the nature of intelligence, discovery, and even the most basic question of all: "What the hell are these aliens thinking???"

After all, they just left a huge mess by the side of the road, not even bothering to say hi to the damn locals before dumping their half-eaten crap and leaving their high-tech soda bottles.

I mean, seriously? Who do these Americans think they are, despoiling such a pretty Russian countryside? *sigh* And then there's the whole mess about consumerism and capitalism, giving us a pretty complete and coherent condemnation while never quite "saying" anything. It's all just shown, and shown extremely well.

And then there's the now obvious connection to the much later work that is heavily indebted to Roadside Picnic, the redoubtable Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. Others have gone over the connections better than I will, but I can say one thing freely: The two are very similar in the gross, between the oddness within the area and the desire for both understanding and possible trinkets, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Sure, we'll keep asking questions in both novels, long after they've ended, but this one keeps things pretty light even when the MC is crawling through the mud. I blame it on the alcohol. But then, this is very much a Russian novel.

I think I might go ahead and say that I think this one is the tighter SF story. The first novel in Area X was delicious for the surreal and the details, but this novel had a lot more action and straight talk for those who prefer their tales snappy. Don't be surprised, though, if you get more of a bellyful of the evils of capitalism rather than a deeper exploration of aliens and our own ultimate insignificance. It's there, but the sneaky diatribe against the West is actually the superior portion of the novel. (Superior both in fun and plot and the things that our MC must endure, rather than sheer page space.)

This is quite an awesome classic SF and I heartily recommend it. It obviously had a lot of love and care poured into it, and the results are fantastic. :)
Profile Image for Kevin Kuhn.
Author 2 books586 followers
October 19, 2021
Wow, I flew through this book. I adored (yes - adored!) the central concept – aliens visited our planet, but appear to have ignored us, as we might insects and small animals, when stopping for a roadside picnic. And just like we would, they left behind all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. The Zones where they visited are filled with hazardous (often deadly) phenomena and objects with unearthly properties. This book was published in 1972 and after all the science fiction where aliens arrive to invade us or probe us or even help us, to me the concept that they just might ignore us, seems more realistic than any other first contact scenario. The plot and backstory are slowly revealed and had me begging for more (even after the ending) – what are the zones like, what are the objects, what implications will it all have on humanity?

And here’s the real magic, Arkady & Boris Stugatsky tell the story through everyday characters. It’s about people who venture into the Zones to recover the artifacts. The characters and the atmosphere are gritty and intriguingly depressing. It felt like they borrowed from gold rush mining towns where most gold-fever miners lose their fortune or even their life seeking fortune and the only people that benefit are the bar & shop owners. I loved the slow reveal and the fact that we experience this world though relatively common people. We don’t get the General, or the Senator, or the crack military squad, we get the prospectors who are course and vulgar, and just trying to make a buck.

I will admit there were a few times where I felt lost or confused, but I pushed through and found solid ground soon enough. I chalked this up to either the Russian to English translation, or maybe my own failures in reading too fast and not enough paying attention to details.

Being a Russian work, I’m sure there are deeper interpretations, but to me, it was simply a fantastic and creative exploration of what first contact might be like. Although, it’s less about the contact (or lack thereof) and more about the implications of what was left behind. Five glowing, slimy, levitating stars for this unique Russian Science Fiction classic.
Profile Image for Simona B.
898 reviews3,011 followers
December 28, 2016

"This is the way it is with the Zone: if you come back with swag -it’s a miracle; if you come back alive -it’s a success; if the patrol bullets miss you -it’s a stroke of luck. And as for anything else -that’s fate."

I'm afraid I'll keep responding to the words "Russian science fiction" by shouting "We by Yevgeny Zamyatin!" since, in my humble opinion, Roadside Picnic does not reach those level if not, maybe, in the concept.

Because the concept is great (what if the infamous alien invasion finally came, only in the form of our foreign friends having a merry picnic and discarding their litter and scrap and waste there on the ground? And what if that waste, being alien, had some mysterious and incredible properties that men could study and put to use in turn?). And precisely because it's so great, it presents a tremendous amount of possibilities -both when it comes to the plotline and to the scientific aspect. But I feel that none of these possibilities were truly developed and explored. In fact, the whole story felt flat, uninteresting. The book is very short, and I went on even though I wasn't interested in what was happening, but I'm sure enough I kept on reading by inertia alone. The characters are no better.

In all honesty, I can't recommend Roadside Picnic: it looks like one of those books that will make you somehow richer as a reader and as a person, but in fact it left me nothing at all. It remains a classic, obviously; just not my type of classic.
Profile Image for Forrest.
Author 43 books740 followers
October 18, 2013
Another gem introduced to me by my friends at Goodreads. This short novel is a "how-to" on sidelong insinuations, information gaps, and inferences that make for a wholly satisfying story. The main character, Redrick Schuhart, starts out as an entrepreneurial collector of alien artifacts, and becomes a hardened, curmudgeonly, but effective artifact hunter searching for . The Strugatsky brothers use multiple Points-of-View, switching from first person to third person, moving in and out of people's thoughts as they go. I tend to like stories done in this way, when it's done well, and it is done well here. In this case, the shifting viewpoints allow the authors to focus in or telescope out on events and attitudes, as needed. The result is a very rich narration, especially for such a short book.

The premise is simple. Aliens have left some things behind. They reside in "The Zone," a contaminated area from which the government is trying to protect its citizens. "Stalkers" go in and collect the artifacts, then resell them. No one quite knows the full functionality of the artifacts, and no one understands the full dangers of "The Zone". This makes for some intriguing and intense moments throughout.

The tone of the book is akin to that of some noir works, dark, gritty, getting darker and grittier as the tale wears on. I suspect that many of the discussions and plot line centering around the artifact trade are reflective of the Soviet-era underground economy (i.e., Black Market). I have no proof of this, but I wonder. Some friends of mine in high school traveled to the USSR in the late '80s. They had heard rumors about what a pair of American jeans could buy over there, so a few took over extra pairs, in case opportunity presented itself. One came back with one less pair of jeans and one more Soviet "bear hat" from one of the border guards that "inspected" their bus. Crazy, and true. But I digress.

Like many great books, the meaning of the ending is left up to the reader. Is this novel about triumph over existential angst? Or is it about the inevitability of our naivete conquering our logic and good sense? I don't know. But the fact that I am left meditating upon these questions shows clearly that Roadside Picnic was no mere picnic.
November 11, 2018
👽 Evil Russians™-Sponsored, How Did This End Up Here Buddy Read with Evgeny, Lee and Elena 👽

⚠️ I wouldn’t read the thing that follows, if I were you. I mean, it’s kind of pointless, sort of meaningless and pretty much has nothing to do with roadsides and/or picnics. But hey, it’s your puny life and you are free to waste it as you please and stuff.

This is me desperately trying to write a not-too-crappy crappy non-review for this book for the past eight bloody shrimping days:

Sigh. I guess that’s the Too Brilliantly Brilliant Book Curse (TBBBC™) in action. You know, when a book is so bloody fishing good and fantastic and amazing and also a little stupendous that you have absolutely nothing-zilch-nada-zip-rien de rien to say about it? And you end up blabbering about everything BUT the book? Not that this has ever happened to me or anything. I’m just trying to explain how I would (hypothetically) react if I (hypothetically) had read the book and (hypothetically) enjoyed it which would (hypothetically) have lead me to (hypothetically) not be able to write a crappy non-review and stuff. Right.

Still here? Why are quite the resilient bunch, aren’t you, Mostly Flimsy Decapods Mine? Are you planning to stick around until I unleash the homicidal shrimps on you come up with something to say about this book? Damn. I better think of something post haste, then, or else I might get stuck with you for all of eternity *shudders*

① This is a book about alien visitors with not a single measly little green person in sight. Shocking, I know.

Supposedly Horrifying Horror Books (SHHB™) always fail to horrify me (they rarely failing to make me hahahahahaha me little head off, though), but this not-supposed-to-be-spooky SF tale creeped the fish out of me. And such a delicious feeling it was, too [insert blissful sigh here].

③ This book features Super Extra High Quality Thought-Provoking Material (SEHQTPM™) about puny humans, their ethnocentrism (yes, it hurts me lots when I use big words), and their role/place/whatever in the grand scheme of universal things. Most fascinating stuff, methinks.

The concept of the “roadside picnic” is quite possibly the best thing since sliced, bacon-flavored barnacles.

Why you are quite welcome, dear. I fail to see how this has anything to do with you, but whatever. My pleasure and stuff. By the way, have you thought of consulting a gastroenterologist or something? You look kind of green around the edges, you know. Looks suspiciously like digestive problems to me.

⑤ This is a Slightly Very Good Book (SVGB™). One might even say this is a masterpiece. Yes, one might. Maybe. Perhaps.

The end.

P.S. I don’t think the Strugatsky brothers had this type of picnic in mind when they wrote the book. But hey, who knows, I could be wrong .
Profile Image for Jen - The Tolkien Gal.
458 reviews4,465 followers
July 16, 2021
A great book and a refreshing view on a post-apocalyptic world whose anthology focuses more on the lives and reactions of humans, down to the last idiosyncrasy of speech.

I also implore anyone who has read this book or is interested in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game to read about the difficulty the Strugatsky brothers faced in publishing this book under Soviet Russia - it's fascinating.

Lars Brown on Twitter:

Edit: I also want to add that there is a fascinating history behind this book getting published. It took over 8 years for this to be published under Soviet Russia - not for any explicit political reasons, but purely because the straightforward speech of the characters and the not-so-Shakespearean writing was considered crass. The publishing industry at the time believed that characters drinking, swearing or threatening murder wouldn't be a good example to the "Soviet Youth that primarily consumed science fiction".

“The problem is we don’t notice the years pass, he thought. Screw the years—we don’t notice things change. We know that things change, we’ve been told since childhood that things change, we’ve witnessed things change ourselves many a time, and yet we’re still utterly incapable of noticing the moment that change comes—or we search for change in all the wrong places.”
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews664 followers
May 19, 2014
Being below the concern of alien beings is not a new science fiction theme (although it is a relatively rare one), but I've never read a book that examined the idea quite like this. Ursula K. Le Guin's foreword is right - most of the time, the people who interact with alien technology are highly skilled and educated, even if, as in Rendezvous With Rama, the aliens couldn't care less about us.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
811 reviews1,274 followers
March 2, 2020
I decided to read a science fiction for my classic-of-the-month this month even though old sci-fi is often a miss for me. Thankfully this one wasn't a total miss though it was slow-moving. 

Aliens land on earth, perhaps to have a "roadside picnic", and leave behind a bunch of trash. The areas where they landed become uninhabitable and it's dangerous to enter into these zones. The items left behind by the aliens are of immense interest to the scientific community and as collectors items on the black market. "Stalkers" venture into the zones to hunt for and collect these objects, at great risk to themselves.  Redrick is a Stalker and the book is mainly about him though there isn't a whole lot in the way of character development.

At times I was really into this book; at others, I was glad it isn't a long. It's a slow-moving story, at times interesting, at others dreadfully dull. As with a lot of classic sci-fi, there is some sexism in the book - for instance, the only females mentioned are in relation to what they are doing for the men. I know it's a "sign of the times" in which it was written, but it still made my eyes roll. 

3.5 stars rounded up

March 2020 classic-of-the-month
Profile Image for Scott.
292 reviews318 followers
April 22, 2018
My book-long conversation with Roadside Picnic:

Me: "Really? We're not alone?! The Aliens are here?!"

RP: "Well... they were here. They've gone home now."

Me: "But they've left heaps of amazing stuff for us? Cool!"

RP: "Yeah, it's kinda cool, except, well... what they left might actually be alien trash, and they don't seem to have even noticed us."

Me: "Oh... right. But they visited several places on Earth, yeah? So at least there's lots of alien trash to analyse?"

RP: "Yeah, except all the zones they visited are now thick with weird traps. It's pretty much suicide going into one."

Me: "So.. what you're telling me is that aliens turned up, ignored us, trashed the place, and buggered off back to Andromeda or wherever?"

RP: "Yep."

Welcome to the world of Roadside Picnic, the novel Tartovsky' famous film Stalker is based on.

Aliens have visited several places around the world. The spots they visited are strewn with strange artifacts that defy our understanding, the products of a strange and advanced science. Large areas around the visitation sites are uninhabitable, and barely traversable at all- strange and deadly gravity effects, areas of sudden incinerating heat, pools of glowing jelly that destroy metal as easily as they do flesh- these and other horrors infest these sites.

People who have been exposed to the zones are often altered, and their children are born with strange mutations, despite there being no measurable radiation in the zones.

Naturally governments have restricted access to the zones, and send scientists on lethal missions to acquire the items within to discover the secrets of alien technologies.

Equally naturally, smugglers - known as Stalkers - risk their lives sneaking into the zone to retrieves items for the black market, feeding a thriving trade in alien tech.

One of the most successful of these Stalkers is Red Schuhart, a man who has entered and returned from the zone many times, often with priceless alien loot. He's a working stiff kind of guy, always on the verge of being broke and constantly tempted to chase the big bucks he can earn as a Stalker. The narrative follows him, and through him we learn of the nature of the zones, what they can do to the people who enter them and their effect on the world at large.

But while Red's story is interesting, for my money the meat of this novel is contained within the ideas that underpin it. The central premise - that alien visitors stopped on Earth and left behind strange artifacts that we do not fully understand, artifacts that will change the course of our history - is not unique, but the reason behind these visits is; the aliens were just stopping by on their way somewhere and either didn't notice us or considered us beneath their attention.

They weren't here for first contact, or to raise us up. They merely stopped for a 'roadside picnic' and the powerful artifacts, the reality-distorting and deadly zones - all of these are nothing more than discarded bits of pieces of junk and swathes of pollution from their activities, much like a group of humans might toss a few beercans around a campsite and leave a stinking puddle of oil behind from their leaking car.

I loved this idea. It turns the underpinnings of the story completely away from the usual directions Alien technology focused stories take, which is usually something to do with the discovery of world-changing tech left on a distant world by a long-dead alien race whose origins are now lost in the mists of time, blah-blah-snore. This scenario is over used in SF, so the Strugatsky brothers' take on the trope is a refreshing as a mysteriously hydrating drink made with long-lost alien technology, ie: quite refreshing.

The whole story is intriguingly tainted by the feeling that the tech that has been found could just be junk, that the main characters are risking their lives for alien beer cans, and that humanity, so important in our own eyes, is of so little consequence to greater powers that they arrive, mess up our backyards and leave without so much as a Take-Me-To-Your-Leader. This shadowing makes an already fairly grim story even grimmer, but I liked the darkness in Roadside Picnic, and the heavy mood that pervades much of the story.

This novel is influential for good reason, and it's well worth your time. Roadside Picnic is dark, fascinating and original.
Profile Image for George Kaslov.
100 reviews138 followers
November 18, 2018
First contact is made in the form of Zones and its far from idyllic or disastrous scenarios from the SF past. What we got is far more akin to a slap to the face... hell we can understand a slap. This is an indifferent gesture, if it can be called that and nobody knows for certain. This uncertainty and danger sucks in all that have anything to do with it and probably drives them mad, or at least make them pay for it. We see all this through the life of the Stalker Red and with him ask: Why, How, Did we do something wrong, Is it worth it, and never get an answer.
Profile Image for Nickolas the Kid.
314 reviews70 followers
October 5, 2017
Ακόμα ένα βιβλίο που χρησιμοποιεί την ΕΦ για να εμβαθύνει στους κοινωνικούς και πολιτικούς προβληματισμούς του ανθρώπου...

Οι εξωγήινοι περνάν μια βόλτα από τον πλανήτη μας και φεύγοντας αφήνουν διάφορα αντικείμενα τα οποία γίνονται πόλος έλξης για επιστήμονες, τυχοδιώκτες και οραματιστές... Τα "σκουπίδια" των εξωγήινων βρίσκονται σε μια περιοχή που ονομάζεται Ζώνη και εκτός των θησαυρών κρύβει πολλά και διάφορα μυστικά. Οι άνθρωποι ανακαλύπτουν έναν καινούργιο πολιτισμό ή ποια πραγματικά είναι η θέση τους μέσα στο σύμπαν;;;

Το βιβλίο είναι δυνατό και η γραφή των αδελφών Στρουγκάτσκι στρωτή. Τα 2 πρώτα κεφάλαια είναι ελαφρώς κουραστικά όμως τα 2 τελευταία είναι άκρως ενδιαφέροντα και παρα��ύρουν τον αναγνώστη στο δυστοπικό μέλλον των συγγραφέων!


ΥΓ1: Εξαιρετική επίσης η κινηματογραφικής μεταφορά του βιβλίου από τον Αντρέι Ταρκόφσκι με τίτλος "Στάλκερ". Με ένα εμπνευσμένο φινάλε και σπάσιμο του "τέταρτου τοίχου"...
Profile Image for Ivana Books Are Magic.
523 reviews201 followers
August 11, 2020
Roadside Picnic is a beautifully depressive and wonderfully atmospheric science fiction novel about life on Earth after an alien 'Visitation' that leaves humans with more questions than answers. The novel takes place after the alien visitation event and slowly introduced its readers to the event as well as its consequences while at the same time following the first person narrative of its principal protagonist Red. The novel opens with an interview with one of the scientist and quickly switches to Red who is a 'stalker' by profession, i.e., a person who steals alien artifacts and sells them. Red is a rehabilitated stalker now, doing his 'stalking' legally while working for an Institute (some kind of government supervised body) and taking scientist in the zone (as the dangerous area where the aliens landed is known). There are several such zones on the Earth but most of the novel focuses on the one Red lives next to in an imaginary town somewhere in North America (I couldn't decide whether it was supposed to be Canada or USA, I read somewhere that it could be Canada, but I suppose it isn't really important for the story).

Most of the novel follows the first person narrative of Red, a tough guy who risks his life going into the zone to collect valuable alien artifacts. Red is no angel, he drinks heavily, has a hot temper, a tendency for violence and can't seem to stop breaking the law. At one point the narrative switches to Richard, who is a friend of Red, but the switch is done in a natural way. The ending chapter is again narrated by Red.

The writing is very convincing, descriptive, up to the point and consistent throughout the novel. The whole novel is well thought through and executed. The narrative moves pretty quickly but the reader doesn't get confused. Strugatsky brothers do a fantastic job of developing Red character in a realistic and logical way. A reader really feels like he is inside of Red's head. Moreover, the dialogues feel realistic and consistent with the other characters' traits. The descriptions of the zone were absolutely perfect. The writers captured the feelings of 'otherworldly' so brilliantly I got chills while I was reading the parts of the books that happen in the zone. Moreover, I enjoyed the way the whole alien concept was developed, including descriptions of the initial visit and the horrible consequences it had for the people who happen to be there (Plague District, the Blind District etc). I feel that part especially was quite realistic. Imagine what kind of a shock would a contact with an alien civilization be for all of us. This novel explores the aftermath of not just such a visit but the collective burden of not even knowing what the 'Visitation' was for. The aliens came and left, nobody knows why or whether there was some intent behind their visit.

This novel explores many interesting themes and is in no way limited to the extraterrestrial question and philosophizing about what an alien visit might mean. This novel is also about daily struggles and question of morality. It is about isolation, about feeling trapped in a place of corruption where being a criminal doesn't seem so bad. If you have a look at it, most people in this book, that is, the stalkers are criminals. They cannot escape that place they live by, not once the anti -migrant laws are made. They are forced to either conform to the rules or to become criminals. To conform isn't a moral choice either. Red realizes not only the danger of zone early on- that's why he keeps staying alive- but also the impact the dangerous artifacts could have. Red is clearly worried when some shady guys want the dangerous stuff that can kill men. But isn't the government also a shady guy? One of the issues is that the government isn't someone interested in the safety of people, that government isn't someone you can trust- I guess that is a very Soviet feeling but it can be applied to modern times as well.

The title 'Roadside Picnic' only becomes clear towards the end of the book when two characters engage in a deeper discussion, one of the explaining that the 'Visitation' of aliens was a sort of picnic for the aliens. The aliens didn't mean to connect with the people, they didn't even notice the human race, they stopped on Earth and moved on, leaving their trash behind, the same way humans have a picnic somewhere in wilderness where they leave animals bewildered. The other guy seems to think this is too pessimistic a rendering and too destructive for a human ego. That is certainly true but it doesn't make it less realistic. In fact, the pessimistic views of this book seem very realistic to me. There is a grim reality in this book. I felt a subtle melancholy and tragedy hidden between its pages. The tragedy and burden of every day living and of not being able to escape the vicious circle of violence. The writing of this book is quite economic but very powerful nevertheless. Indeed, somehow this novel manages to develop its characters, tell a story and convey perfectly the feeling and the atmosphere despite being quite short. Roadside Picnic proves that quality of words is more important than quantity. Once I started reading it today, I couldn't stop. The story captured my heart and held my attention. Roadside Picnic is the kind of fiction that makes you think. The best kind of fiction. A masterpiece of science fiction.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,018 reviews1,184 followers
August 12, 2021
4 and a half stars for my first, but certainly not my last, foray into Soviet science fiction, and the work of the Strugatsky brothers!

Thirty years before the beginning of this story, aliens landed on six different locations of our little planet, but they didn’t stay long. The areas where they touched down, now knowns as Zones, are both fascinating and dangerous: unexplained phenomenon make it very hazardous for humans to go to, but the artifacts the aliens left behind make it inevitable that a few will try to get their grubby hands on it, even if they have no idea what the artifacts do. As one might expect, there is official scientific research done on those objects, but also a flourishing black market – which is where Red comes on. Red works at one of the facilities dedicated to the story of a particular Zone, located in what I believe to be Canada, though it is never located with any precision. He goes in and out of the Zone, brings back artefacts for scientists to play with, but also some that end up sold to some sinister individuals, who’s ultimate agenda we are not privy to. Red’s work is dangerous in so many ways: the Zone’s terrain is a constantly shifting and hallucinatory landscape, strange lights appear and vanish, and despite careful decontamination, the effects of being exposed to whatever is in there changes him, affects and transforms his child… After getting caught one final time, he decides to give up this treacherous work, but it’s not that easy to walk away.

I adore the idea that we, as a civilization, we’re just not interesting enough for aliens to hang about any longer than it took them to empty out their trash and bounce. It’s a nice raspberry blown in the face of humans’ self-importance – and tendency to litter. It also paints a not-too-shiny portrait of another nasty human tendency: to try and turn every piece of garbage we can get our hands on into something we can sell, no matter how dangerous that might be, both for us and for the person who ends up with the aforementioned garbage. I also love when science-fiction mentions aliens but then they are not really an active part of the story!

Even without trying to read any sub-text from this novel, it remains an absolutely amazing, dark and weird piece of science-fiction history that holds up as an excellent and very readable novel to this day. There are strong parallels to be drawn with Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), and I wonder if he is a fan of the Strugatsky brothers after reading this – because just like his infamous trilogy, this is a novel that lends itself to removing and examining its layers. My edition includes an afterword by Boris Strugastky, describing the rather convoluted process they had to go through to see this book published (committees, censors, boards, etc…): this makes it hard not to read into the griminess of the world of “Roadside Picnic” as a commentary on a dull and bleak world, where one worked very hard for ultimately very little. The transformation of the children by whatever the parents are exposed to in the Zone also feels like a strange metaphor about how an unfamiliar world can turn even the people closest to you into something you don’t quite recognize. I also couldn’t help but smile at the idea that in the mind of the scientists working at the Institute, the suits running the whole thing have no idea what they are doing and aren’t doing any work of value… I know Red is not really a sympathetic character: by his own description, he is kind of a bottom-feeder, but I saw someone who’s options for survival are very limited by the time and place where he happens to be. In order to live a life that feels decent and fulfilling, he has no choice but to go around the system – but will get crushed by whichever path he chooses.

Thank you Nataliya, for encouraging me to bump this one up on top of the reading pile! It exceeded my expectations in every way, and I look forward to reading more by the Strugatskys!
Profile Image for Amir.
46 reviews35 followers
May 7, 2021
تصوری که از حمله فضایی ها داریم چیه؟ تصوری که از اولین ملاقات داریم چیه؟ لابد سکانس های مبارزه و اکشن هالییود رو می بینیم..... چی میشه اگر فرق داشته باشه؟ یعنی فضایی ها بیان و اصلا کاری بهمون نداشته باشن و شاید اصلا نفهمیده باشن وجود داریم. اسم کتاب هم به همین اشاره داره. فضایی ها اومدن روی زمین پیک نیک و بعدش جمع کردن رفتن ولی یسری از بقایا و آت و آشغال های بعد پیک نیک رو جا گذاشتن. این وسایل در نواحی مختلفی از زمین که ازشون بازدید شده وجود دارن. به اون نواحی می گن "ناحیه" =/
مشخصا دولت ها قصد دارن با زیر و رو کردن ناحیه ازش وسایلی برای پیشرفت بسازن و مردم عادی هم کند و کاو می کنن تا چیزی پیدا کنن و بفروشن

اما اصل کتاب پراخت به این قضیه است. این که این بازدید فضایی ها چه تاثیری روی مردم، تجارت، قضایای سیاسی و اجتماع های اطراف ناحیه گذاشته. اون ها فقط یه سر اومدن و رفتن ولی طغیان ها به پا کردن. این کتاب پر از دیالوگ های قابل تفکر و یک کلیشه شکنی عظیمه که اوایلش من رو یاد فیلم arrival ویلنوو انداخت.
هرچند اون شباهت به همون اول کتاب مربوط می شه و باقی موارد زمین تا آسمون فرق دارن.

مشکل اینجاست که گذر سال ها رو متوجه نمی‌شیم. لعنت به گذر زمان. متوجه نمی‌شیم همه چیز چه طور تغییر می‌کنه. می‌دونیم تغییر اتفاق می‌افته، از بچگی تو گوشمون کردن همه چیز در حال تغییره. خودمون هم تغییر پیدا کردن خیلی چیز ها رو به چشم دیدیم. با این حال درک کردن لحظه‌ای که اتفاق می‌افته کاملا از توانمون خارجه. شاید هم توی جاهای اشتباه دنبال تغییر می‌گردیم.

آندری تارکوفسکی، کارگردان مشهور روسی، به این اسم از کتاب اقتباس کرده که پیشنهادمی کنم ببینید فیلم رو.

سری بازی به این اسم هم از روی کتاب ساخته شده

پیشنهاد خودم اینه که نه کتاب، نه فیلم و نه بازی رو از دست ندید که عالین.
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,595 reviews1,027 followers
February 8, 2017
At long last. Somehow Andrei Tarkovsky was able to read this, extract an absolute masterpiece of pseudo-genre film, and yet actually have almost no relation to the source. Where Tarkovsky took this into ambiguity and philosophic riffs, the original is more specific in its terms, dealing almost entirely with the massive criminal economy that springs up in the wake of a tremendous event (if you've ever wondered what the Zone actually is, here we're simply told in the first pages, but that doesn't scratch the surface). Anyway, its a very practical, Russian treatment, and much more towards pulp in style.

Yet the novel also has its hefty share of the metaphysical. This is, like Solaris, a book about terminal incomprehension. In stark opposition to the undying optimism of so much American science fiction, here, human ingenuity has met its stopping block. We're entirely superseded by events. This is equally present in the actual descriptions of the Zone -- which are incredible, nail-biting, and bizarre -- and in the surrounding events sometime only obliquely mentioned. The plot is in fact impressively oblique as a whole, with implications often left off-camera, or to creep up slowly and emerge in chilling moments of recognition. The exact significance of Burbridge's career, for instance, remains almost subliminally horrifying. Thrillingly almost nothing to do with the Tarkovsky film, and independently excellent for that.
Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews269 followers
December 5, 2015
Roadside Picnic: Russian SF classic with parallels to Vandermeer’s Area X
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
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, it 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.” Pretty contemptuous of the viewer, if you ask me. Why bother making the film at all? I would grant this film zero stars — steer clear of it.
Profile Image for StefanP.
148 reviews80 followers
January 18, 2020

Danju crkavaš na poslu, uveče zuriš u televizor.

Jednostavan i čitljiv roman. Analogija bi mogla da se prikaže sa Klarkovim romanom Kraj dijetinjstva. Samo što je Strugacki dosta neprimjetniji u onome što želi da prenese u odnosu na ovog. Njegov svijet je pun Zona u kome borave vanzemaljska bića. Te Zone nisu bezbjedne ali jedinice u vidu Stalkera su oni koji imaju znanja i načina kako da u njih uđu ali ponekada baš i ne izađu iz njih. Kao i kod Klarka, i ovdje se teži otkriti kakav ključ sreće vanzemaljci donose sa sobom ili zbog čega su oni tu. Kroz cijeli roman postoji neka misteriozna atmosfera. Ona naročito dolazi do izražaja među samim intervjuima i dijalozima mladih inženjera zaduženih za Zone. Strugacki kroz narativnu stranu uopšte ne potencira dolazak ili odlazak vanzemaljske civilizacije niti je ona u sukobu sa ljudskom, već se više čini da je ona oduvijek tu i kao da su interesi običnih ljudi i biznismena to istakli. Kakva će sudbina zadesiti te ljude i da li postoji neka dobrobit koja se može tek tako uhvatiti od drugih, ili je to ipak zavaravanje kroz isturenu kopiju vanzemaljaca kako bi se okušale i ispitale ljudske namjere u onim stvarima koje tek treba da se otkriju?
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