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Wednesday
May022012

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

First serialized in Russian in 1971; published in tarnslation by Chicago Review Press on May 1, 2012

Soviet science fiction tended to be dark and surreal and ironic, a response to the oppressive environment in which it was born. Roadside Picnic, written by the Strugastky brothers in 1971, is no exception.

When aliens visited Earth, stopping briefly for (some speculate) a roadside picnic, they left their detritus behind in an area now known as the Zone. Surrounded by a wall and guarded by police, the Zone is accessible only to scientists and other employees of the Institute, including the explorers for alien artifacts who have been dubbed stalkers. A stalker who enters the Zone looking for alien treasure -- either as an employee of the Institute or to smuggle out items at night -- is always at risk: pockets of accelerated gravity, hell slime, and death lamps pose a constant threat. Apart from causing mutations in stalkers and their children, contact with the Zone leads to other anomalies, including animated corpses and -- for those who move away -- a tendency to attract accidents and natural disasters.

Red Schuhart is a stalker until, having seen enough friends die, he quits. After fathering a furry daughter, Schuhart returns to his old ways, dodging the police outside the Zone and death inside. He knows that stalkers who continue to push their luck end up dead, but when a final prize is dangled before him -- the mythical Golden Sphere that is said to grant wishes -- Schuhart cannot resist one last journey into the Zone.

Why does Schuhart risk his life as a stalker? Because self-reliance is all that has ever saved him from oblivion. He has always wanted to be his own boss, free from the slavery he associates with reporting to an employer. He considers himself an animal, riffraff, but he has never sold his soul, and that is the source of his strength. Perhaps the Zone represents the black market -- the illegal and dangerous entrepreneurship, full of hidden hazards -- that was often the only path to upward mobility in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Institute that seeks to control the artifacts removed from the Zone represents the Soviet government and its belief that power should reside in a central authority. Or perhaps this is just a good, apolitical story that happens to have been authored by Soviet writers. The novel's last words are unmistakably political, but they can also be read as a manifesto in support of intellectual freedom.

Roadside Picnic contains some interesting (but far from original) conversations about the nature of intelligence. It ends on a similar note, as Schuhart ponders his own intelligence, his own humanity, almost challenging the departed aliens to understand what it means to be human. Roadside Picnic is a philosophical novel as much as it is an action story, and it therefore isn't surprising that the ending is ambiguous, albeit powerful. This is a seminal work of Soviet science fiction, but it has much to offer sf fans the world over.

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