A 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.
update July 2022: Nethan commented on my review on Goodreads, and his words shed new light on the ending, making it better imo. Read as such, it also gets thematic ties with Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Here’s Nethan’s comment:
HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!” isn’t the book’s ultimate message. I originally misunderstood the intent of the authors due to the subtle nature of their work, but figured it out later on.
Redrick became a stalker because he wanted to feel superior to other people. It was something only he was best at. Throughout the book, he subtly dishes out his sense of superiority on to people he considers to be inferior, including Arthur. The golden sphere can’t grant a wish if a person has no clue what they want. Redrick wanted to be happy, but had no clue what would make him happy, so he repeated Arthur’s wish. The wish of a person who he considered to be inferior, revealing that in the end, Redrick wasn’t superior to anyone at all. He was just another hopeless soul whose hopes and dreams will never come true. Redrick’s final words aren’t meant to leave a positive, ultimate message. They’re an important part of Roadside Picnic’s soul crushing and tragic conclusion.
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.