Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Posted by DarkChaplain at 11/25/2017
Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those misfits who are compelled, in spite of the extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artefacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his mutant daughter has been determined by the Zone and it is for her that he makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile territory.
I didn't actually think I'd have the proverbial balls to review a classic like this. You have Peter Fehervari to blame for it, by virtue of being curious about my thoughts. In all honesty though, this was an impressive book that I just felt like talking about.

The Story:
"Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those misfits who are compelled, in spite of the extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artefacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his mutant daughter has been determined by the Zone and it is for her that he makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile territory."

The Review:
Roadside Picnic is a hugely expressive novel in all its intended ambiguity and rendition of hard lives all around.

I found myself impressed and teased time and again by all its little implications and large questions. In a way, it frames some of the archetypical themes of science fiction and contact novels without ever giving definitive answers one way or another, providing food for thought and chilling considerations over preachy answers and delusions.

One of these points that made me giddy, and is one that I've appreciated for what feels like ages, would be the very human fear of being irrelevant in the grander scheme, and even the smaller scope. Mankind labors under the vain idea that the alien visitors of the Zones may have left their swag deliberately to teach man to reach out and make scientific leaps, as if they're a chosen species by intelligences beyond their comprehension.

I'm sure every single one of us has suffered from that kind of inflated ego one time or another. Often it acts as a shield against one of our greatest fears: That we don't matter one bit, and just happened to fall prey to coincidence. That fear even goes down to the very core of human existence, doesn't it? After all, even our births are matters of chance, as would be the way we turned out until today, despite cultural nurturing of our characters. Change one variable, and the results would be drastically different. It would be only natural to feel uncomfortable thinking about just how arbitrary our own existences really are in the grand scheme of things, and how little we'll likely be able to impart on the world around us.

In that sense, I loved the way the Strugatsky brothers had Dr. Pillman discuss the nature of the alien visit and the Zones with Richard Noonan, up in chapter three of the book. It formulated many an idea that gives the reader chills and, to a fan of Cosmic Horror like myself, felt just oh so right. Because that is what many elements of the Roadside Picnic come down to in my eyes: Cosmic Horror. Now, this isn't the Lovecraftian sort of that, not at all, but it plays on many of the same underlying themes and fears, exposes people to unknowable artifacts, mind-boggling phenomena and existential crises.

Like the best of Cosmic Horror, the Picnic also avoids clear answers, or showing too much. It delivers experiences of people involved, shows us the world through their inherently biased perspectives, tells us of the horrors but rarely straight up presents them to us in clear terms. Whether it be "bug traps", "hell slime" or "grinders", descriptions are kept to a minimum while showing direct effects without great explanations.

Early in chapter one, main protagonist Redrick Schuhart even remarks on man's need to label things, to be incapable of living peacefully and satisfied with things that may defy explanation.

"His face has 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 finds a label like "graviconcentrate", he thinks he's figured it all out an perks right up."

This, in a way, connects right back to Redrick's own existential crisis at the end of the book, when he himself is struggling for words even just to express and encompass his own deepest desires, or even just formulate what they are to begin with. He is just as uneasy with not having a clear idea of his own heart as his friend Kirill was when it came to the bug traps. For all his lamentations in the end, for all his questioning of what humanity he has left, there are many aspects that the Zone has not taken from him after all.

And just now, I can't help but think of Samuel Johnson's famous line "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.". It feels strangely apt, as many of Schuhart's actions set him apart from common society and closer to the Zone, to the point of neglecting his family while struggling to find his own place. By becoming a Stalker, and a damn good one, Schuhart turns more into a creature of instinct and an overwhelming sense for survival.

Seeing him questioning his humanity and lamenting his loss of words and struggles to even think (which is further put into context by memory of his friend Kirill saying that "Man is born to think") felt like a fundamental point of the novel to me. Throughout the book, we see Red Schuhart turn more and more from somewhat of a thrillseeker who still cares about authority and friendship to a degree, to a person who gets entirely disillusioned with dreams of grandeur, hopes for the future, friendship and in turn throws all pretense of morality overboard before the end. Despite this, he never really became a bad person, simply a lost and confused one whose tragedy is formulated by his life around the Zone, from relying on it for a semblance of financial stability, being jailed, fathering a mutated daughter, losing sight of his own autonomy.

That all this is presented in a relatively straight-forward way, almost entirely told through Red's perspective, with only one out of four chapters being focused on his friend Richard Noonan, which also returns back to the topic of Schuhart soon enough, is a marvel to me. The Strugatsky brothers managed to characterize the world and living conditions around the Harmont Zone in such a strong way without ever picking up a top-down perspective. Instead everything is filtered through dialogue, monologues and the central characters' experiences. They show us the crudity of society around the visitation zones, the changes wrought over the years both to the town and the Stalkers, without giving the reader a bird's eye view. The Picnic honestly has no need for it, because all the little details and deliberations described are on point and powerful enough to paint the entire relevant picture for the reader.

In the end, I am both surprised and happy about how little the novel actually was about the alien visit, the artifacts scavenged by the Stalkers, the black market for alien technology, the mutants or walking dead. Instead, it was a book that put the focus squarely on human nature, personal tragedies and life on a knife's edge in an unforgiving world, right down to how neighbors would treat a destitute housewife. It highlights a society that shares a key obsession at the cost of human compassion and, while superficially striving for understanding of outside factors, forgets to pay attention to what is closer at heart.

The theme of alien leftovers found on earth and the resulting societal focus on the findings has been picked up a lot since Roadside Picnic, of course. It is an obviously popular topic, one that holds an immediate appeal in how transformative an event it can be for human existence, opening up myriad possibilities for writers in any medium imaginable. I could point towards half a dozen instances of similar ideas across my shelves right now. The way the brothers Strugatsky rendered the visit, the Zone, the human element, however, stands apart by how it does not reach for the heavens, but grounds the reader in the relative mundanity of life in its periphery, and how relatable their characters' struggles are even today, over 40 years since Roadside Picnic first saw the light of day.

Roadside Picnic is a brilliant work of science fiction. It hit many themes that could be seen as fundamental subjects for the genre. Highlighting the innate fears of human existence, it will remain relevant for ages to come, even well past our own first visitation, should it ever occur. I am glad I set aside the time to finally read it, despite a busy schedule.

Roadside Picnic on Goodreads

About the Author
DarkChaplain is a big nerd who spends too much time reading and thinking about books, organizing them on his ever-growing shelves, and yet increases his backlog by the month. DC is also an avid Gamer and owns more PC games than he'll ever be able to play. He is certainly spoiled for choice!
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain

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