ROADSIDE PICNIC – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)

Roadside Picnic Sarah OlsonA quick write-up this time, of a rather short book – 193 pages. I’ve read the new 2012 translation of Olena Bormashenko, which includes a 3-page foreword by Le Guin (okay, but not essential at all), and an excellent afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the history of the novel’s publication in Russia. The book was altered under pressure of the censors at the time, and it’s interesting to read a bit on the mechanics of that, just as Boris’ detached tone about the affair is of note – basically, he points out that all those petty bureaucrats are dead and forgotten, so why dwell on the past too long? The text in this edition is how the Strugatsky brothers intended it to be.

My first attempt of reading something by the Strugatskies wasn’t successful – I quickly abandoned Hard To Be a God because I found it too transparent – but felt I should try another of their titles nonetheless. I’ve been drawn to this particular book because of M. John Harrison’s excellent Nova Swing, which takes the basics of Roadside Picnic as a foundation for its own story.

The shared premises is the same: mysterious aliens visited for a while and left behind bits of unknown technology and debris in the zone where they visited. That zone also became a bit ‘strange’ because of it. Some people make it their living of illegally searching for alien artifacts inside the zone, risking their lives in the process.

There are some glowing reviews of Roadside Picnic online (like this one on Speculiction) and overall this seems a well-loved book, that’s also being taken very serious as Literature. The fact that it was the inspiration for Stalker, the 1979 movie by Tarkovsky undoubtedly added to the book’s fame and prestige.

My own thoughts after the jump.

First things first. This definitely is a good book, and it has aged very well.

My own reading experience was colored because I read Nova Swing first. I will never know how it would have been if it had been the other way around, but my hunch is that the book you read first might be a bit better because of it, as the basic idea is so strong, and the surprise factor simply is stronger during your first exposure.

That said, I don’t think Nova Swing is just a derivative work – Harrison takes the ideas and turns them up a few notches, so an homage, yes, but not mere theft. As such, as a contemporary reader, I think I like Nova Swing a bit more, as it develops the basic premises a bit more, and offers more thrills & more sense of wonder, and the weird horrorish aspects of Roadside Picnic are amplified as well. Also the gritty social aspects of Roadside Picnic are just as developed, if not more, in Nova Swing.

On the other hand, Roadside Picnic is more condensed – a more solid, mean sucker-punch, especially if you take into account the book is 34 years older than Harrison’s.


As for the Serious Literary Qualities of this book: not that easy to judge, especially since almost 50 years have passed since it was written. The fact that it has hardly aged speaks for it, but I’m not fully convinced about some of the qualities it is ascribed by some: a strong character study, potent, bleak social commentary, philosophically interesting, etc. I think the fact that it was written by two Russians easily activates some bias in European or American readers, a bias that presupposes that anything Russians have written, especially during politically totalitarian times, must be something deep and serious, as Russians allegedly have an unique outlook on life, and Stalin, his cronies and their deadly policies only reinforced that.

Mind you, I am not claiming this book doesn’t have merit on that front, but don’t expect a lot of sophisticated social or emotional commentary, nor cutting edge philosophical pondering. There are some epistemological bits here and there, and the different perspectives in the novel’s 4 parts work well, but I didn’t gain any new insight in the Nature of Humanity or the Meaning of Life, so to say, even though the final chapter does take a stab at some ruminations on the matter. At the same time, I have to admit that if I would reread this one day, I’d pay more attention to the role of the mutant daughter for the overall story. It is clear that this novel needs careful reading, and maybe I missed a few things.

I think the book’s strongest element is the fact that the central mystery – who were the aliens and why did they visit? – is never fully resolved. It is a clever device: the aliens are just the backdrop, not the focus, and they have provided a setting that allows the authors to highlight the absurdity and the mystery of regular life, and a certain human tendency to self-destruct out of curiosity.

But I also agree with Stanisław Lem on the book:

“If their oversight in failing to rule out the hypothesis of a “damaged gift” is one defect of Roadside Picnic, the Strugatskys’ manner of concluding their narrative is another. With Arthur and Redrick’s quest for the Golden Ball, the fiction becomes fairy-tale-like–an unintended effect at odds with the book’s overall impression. That so highly commendable an attempt to treat the theme of Cosmic Invasion should suffer from these weaknesses underscores the difficulties to be encountered in trying to carry out the optimal strategy of preserving the SF mystery through the very unfolding and presentation of the fictional events.” (www.depauw.edu/sfs/abstracts/a31.htm#c31)

Born and raised behind the Iron Curtain as well, and as such less prone to our Western bias, Lem doesn’t seem to fall for the “serious” interpretation: for him, the science fiction premises seems more important than the rest – and I think this is all the more telling as Lem is considered to be a philosophical author too. On the other hand, it isn’t surprising he focuses on the cosmic invasion in his reading of Roadside Picnic, as the ineffability of aliens is an important theme in his own work.

Anyhow, I agree with Lem that the final chapter – while I sympathize with its ultimate message, “HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!” – isn’t the most successful of the book. It turns something that was fairly consistent in its harshness in a kind of dreamlike carnival of the deranged. In vogue in 60ies and 70ies literature, sure, but also a bit of an Achilles heel, as I feel the mystery and absurdity of life isn’t best served with fairly straightforward mimesis of a mental meltdown in outré surroundings: it too easily turns into something cartoonish.

Is the weird truly the best form to portray the Wonder? Part of the answer to that is taste, obviously, but I think reality is strange enough as is, and it doesn’t need embellishments to drive that home. On the other hand, Redrick Schuhart’s mental fate isn’t unrealistic given what he had to endure in his fictional life, so Boris & Arkady Strugatsky get a pass for that ending, easily.


It is 2021, and Roadside Picnic still is recommended for any fan of science fiction. It is imaginative and gripping, and probably interesting for adventurous non-genre readers too. No mean feat.


Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

21 responses to “ROADSIDE PICNIC – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)

  1. It has been a while since I’ve read this. Most of my memories of it are fused with the film Stalker, like the image on the cover.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never seen Stalker. Should I? Apparently it just shares the set-up, not the story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stalker is pretty much its own thing, and it is generally considered as a cinematic masterpiece. I thought it was a bit slow, but interesting to see nonetheless. Just like Nova Swing might be a more interesting version of the story, Stalker might also be seen as a fuller, deeper version of the story.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Aonghus Fallon

    This is one of those books that I read a long time ago. I remember being puzzled by the title, then impressed by how – when the analogy is made by one of the characters – how relevant it was to the story. I never realised Harrison used it as a starting point for Nova Swing although I remember another English writer who wrote a book with a somewhat similar premise – Robert Holdstock (Where Timewinds Blow).

    I had a battered (and much-loved) hardback copy of The Cyberiad . It was the first book by Lem I ever read, with the result that Solaris ended up being almost anti-climatic by comparison – The Cyberiad is both wise and funny in a very Rick & Morty kind of way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only read Solaris, but copies of Fiasco and Cyberiad are on my TBR. Maybe after I’ll finish that Egan, we’ll see, but I feel I need to read some SF from 2020 or 2021 soon to satisfy that part of readership too. Any suggestions more than welcome.

      The epigraph to Nova Swing is a line from RP, it wears its influence on its sleeve, funny that you missed that.

      As for Rick & Morty, they released a trailer for the new season a couple of weeks ago!

      Like

  3. Aonghus Fallon

    Saw that! I’m only watching the fourth season now.

    In terms of current SF, I did finish War of the Maps last week – a birthday present from my brother – which provoked a weird sense of deja-vu, especially after reading Wolfe so recently, and while I wouldn’t describe it as a particularly demanding read, it certainly passed the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They plan 60 episodes more after season 5, I’m really puzzled how they will keep things interesting for so long. Not very hopeful on that front.

      Have you seen Solar Opposites? Also made by Roiland. Haven’t seen it yet myself.

      War of the Maps was on my radar already, but not to the extent I definitely want to read it. Will look into it some more, thanks.

      Like

      • Aonghus Fallon

        Sixty more episodes? That’s crazy. The fourth season was enjoyable but patchy. I’ve never even heard of Solar Opposites, but will check it out.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. oberon the fool

    One of the all time great works, if simply for all the later works that it inspired and influenced. I almost feel like it created a small but important subgenre, which just happens to be a favorite of mine. I hadn’t heard of Nova Swing, but I will definitely check it out now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree, it’s basic idea is very powerful & original. I like the power of the artifacts like the empty, it’s a neat narrative trick they aren’t explained but at the same time do feel fitting and have a kind of suggestive aura.

      (I’ve reviewed Nova Swing a while back, I linked to it in this review. Btw, as I know you like Wolfe, I’ve also wrote on my reread of Book of the New Sun, should you have missed that too.)

      Like

  5. “Literary qualities: a strong character study, potent, bleak social commentary, philosophically interesting, etc.”

    Literary qualities can mean different things though. The Russian ex (a Russian philology major, no less) who got me into the Strugatskies seemed to delight in the writing for its own sake: “I could lick the words off the page” she would tell me. No matter how good a translation we get, we are just never going to get that.

    By the bye, who’s translation of ‘Hard to be a God’ did you have? Was it Olena’s as well? I have one lying around and was hoping to tackle it at some point. Just a passing curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, agreed. What I put after the : was just a list of the qualities ascribed to the book in other reviews, not necessarily my own take on the matter.

      Very interesting remark that your Russian ex made, I can see this would work even better in the original for a native speaker, there is something gritty that shines through but not quite.

      I had a Gollancz Masterworks edition of Hard To Be a God, I think it was first published in 2001 from what I can gather online, so I suppose it was the first translation by Wendayne Ackerman who translated it from German in 1973. The Bormachenko translation is of 2014, and the first directly from English says Wikipedia – could be that Gollancz switched to that in later editions (ISFDB lists a 2015 Gollancz release), but that seems highly unlikely given copyright and typesetting issues. I don’t have the book anymore, so I can’t check.

      Like

  6. I’ll start with Roadside Picnic, then.
    I wish I knew Russian enough to read this in the original, but maybe I should find a Polish translation instead; Slavic languages don’t translate to English easily, and vice versa.

    This reminds me of another old project on my list – I have The Master and Margarita in original on my shelf, as I thought that reading in a new language would’ve been easier with a book I know and love, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Any particular reason why they don’t translate well? Because of cases? Or?

      I’ve only become aware of The Master and Margarita last year or so, as I’ve seen people call it their favorite book. Could you do a quick pitch? I’m intrigued by it, but at the same time also a bit afraid.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can speak mostly about Polish vs English, and a bit about Russian/Slovakian/Czech with some knowledge, so I don’t cover all Slavic languages bit I have reason to believe other from that group are quite similar in this regard. I think it’s mostly more complex verb inflexion and syntax; Polish sentences are much more convoluted and fluid in their structure, sometimes don’t have subject, because the verb inflexion already indicates it. Sometimes verb is missing, too, and it’s still ok 😂 Polish is way more descriptive; sentences are naturally longer, and the inner rythms are different, too. Often the structure is inversed or simply verbs and nouns fall naturally into different places than in an English sentence. Come to think of it, I need to look up if some translators approached the problem analytically and wrote some paper on it …

        Master and Margarita is a fantastical satirical novel in which Devil comes to early 20th century Moscow and makes mayhem; Devil in the very Faustian style, dispensing punishment and rewards in a very roundabout and entertaining way. There are two timelines, one of which covers the death of Christ who is or is not, depending on how you approach it, a God/human, and Pontius Pilate’s role in it.
        It’s a beautiful book, very humanistic, ironic and imaginative. I do wonder what you’d think of it, especially considering your interest in the existence/lack of free will.

        That said, I finished Shadow & Claw; review’s in the works! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • S&C: looking forward to that!

          M&M: sounds cool, if the satire/irony isn’t too dominant

          Liked by 1 person

          • M&M is very heartfelt and weirdly sincere in all the irony – every character is treated with respect, even if made fun of at some point. Don’t know if this makes much sense, but Russian literature for me excells in melding sorrow with laughter, and M&M is a fantastic example of this.

            S&C – oh, I’ll be very interested to see our discussion 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Aonghus Fallon

    I read it as a teenager. The satire is mostly focussed on the Moscow art world (which sounds a lot like the Irish art world!) I think it works best early on – when you’re not quite sure if the devil is who he claims to be. There are some great touches: a giant black cat who’s a dead shot with a Mauser automatic (and who’s sometimes just a fat little man in a dark suit) a Pontius Pilate who’s basically an imperial official who hates his job and loves his dog and suffers from ferocious migraines, but I’m not sure if I’d ever have the patience to read it again.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Aonghus Fallon

    I should add that I mean art in the sense of the arts – ie, the satire is directed mostly directed at writers (authors and dramatists). At least, that’s my recollection.

    Liked by 1 person

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