A SciFi Classic: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

A SciFi Classic: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Cover_Roadside_PicnicContext is everything. Would you like someone to frame you, shoot you, and hang you on a wall? If that someone is a photographer, then yes. Anyone else, uh, heck no. With that said, Roadside Picnic when read with no context is a 4 star novel. When read in context, it is nothing short of a SciFi classic. Stay with me on this.

Roadside Picnic follows characters called “stalkers” who risk their lives retrieving alien artifacts left behind from a brief alien visit to Earth. The area of the visit, called the Zone, is a house of horrors. Hell slime that turns limbs to rubber. Tufts of fuzz that eat flesh. Gravity traps that crush those who wander into them. Heat waves that cook skin on the bone. Grinders that twist a body like a limp dish rag, and more. The valuable artifacts are no less inventive: containers with no form, perpetual motion machines, everlasting batteries, and so on. In other words, technology so advanced that it seems like magic to mere human brains. When focused on The Zone and the dilemma it presents to stalkers, the story soars. Sometimes, though, it bogs down with pages of moral rumination by the characters. That perception may be due to my impatience as an American. The authors, on the other hand, are Russian, and Russians are generally more patient than Americans are.

Oh, did I mention that the authors are Russian? And that they wrote this story in 1971 near the pinnacle of the cold war and post-Stalin era censorship? That, my friend, is the context that makes this novel a classic. The morally ambiguous hero (or anti-hero) is a man named Red who subverts a repressive system in pursuit of making money in a black market capitalistic system. He defies authority at every turn, and breaks the rules with little regard for consequences. Given the time period in which this was written, it is a miracle that Soviet censors allowed this novel to come to print. When you consider the final words of the novel in this context, it is a wonder that the Strugatsky brothers didn’t end up in a KGB holding cell. Kudos to the authors for the courage to write what they envisioned, and all hail Science Fiction for providing a platform for defying authority in ever so inventive ways.

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