Imagine you’re on a picnic. You don’t notice the ants beneath the blanket, the butterflies fluttering by or the birds in the trees. You leave behind reminders of your fleeting visit: cigarette butts, sweet wrappers, a tin opener… Now imagine that you’re like the ant in this scenario, baffled and bewildered by what was left behind following an alien visitation. That’s the concept of the Strugatsky brothers’ 1972 classic science-fiction novel.
The events of ‘Roadside Picnic’ take place in a small town close to a Zone, which is the name given to areas affected by the Visit. An unnoticed alien species disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as it arrived. Tantalising waste remnants of a vastly more civilised species are left in its wake. To humans, these relics are baffling and often lethal. Not only that, but the usual physical laws no longer apply in the Zones even once the aliens have left. Navigating them can be fatal. The authorities close them off to the public. Into this vacuum of elicit opportunity step the Stalkers, down-on-their-luck men who risk their lives breaking into the Zones to smuggle out alien matter for profit. They are playing a dangerous game though, because everyone who lives in an around the Zones experiences unsettling phenomena, such as dead relatives returning in placid zombie form, or children who grow up with oddly simian features.
‘Roadside Picnic’ is a widely-read Russian novel that has been translated into multiple languages and has generally been in print since it first appeared just over half a century ago. Its cultural significance was heightened by its loose adaptation for the 1979 film ‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovsky, for which the Strugatsky brothers provided the screenplay.
Redrick “Red” Schuhart, an experienced stalker, is the protagonist. A complex, interweaving plot plays out over four parts. Having one foot inside the scientific world as well as being a stalker for additional income, Red straddles the normal and the unearthly whilst trying to keep on the right side of the authorities. It’s when he loses his good friend and mentor Kirill, a warning that any time spent in the Zone is likely to be fatal, and later when he is incarcerated for selling hell slime that he has illegally retrieved that Red starts to lose his sense of humanity. Even at home he is unable to protect Guta his girlfriend or their curiously inhuman daughter. There is an element of self-destruction that compels him to keep returning to the Zone, even on increasingly mad and dangerous missions undertaken at the behest of others who may well be manipulating him.
As with all good science-fiction, ‘Roadside Picnic’ is both full of interesting ideas and concepts whilst also offering readers a commentary on the real world. An intriguing afterword by Boris Strugatsky (written in 2012, the year that he died) provides a glimpse into the Soviet censorship of publishing and the iterations that the book had to go through in order to be released. The version of the text that The Folio Society has published is based on the authors’ preferred manuscript. It was not possible in those days to be critical of the state. The brothers bypass this in ‘Roadside Picnic’ by setting their story outside of the USSR. Nevertheless, the restrictions on every day life and the reality of living in a police state are obviously inspired by the reality of the world in which they were writing. The authorities’ interest in turning the alien matter into weapons is a reminder of the Cold War-era nuclear arms race. The days of lessening tensions between East and West under Reagan and Gorbachev were still some years away. In a memorable climax, Red is unable to articulate what he wants, having lost much of his own humanity. He would not be out of place in a story by Solzhenitsyn.
This story will resonate with anybody who enjoys high concept and original science-fiction ideas. Appropriately, an introduction by the late celebrated author Ursula K. Le Guin details her opinion of the book upon its publication. ‘Roadside Picnic’ teases its readers in pushing alien civilisations to the background, leaving only the aftermath of the visit at the heart of events. The prose is also ambiguous, especially when extrapolating some of the curious side-effects of the Zone. This obfuscation may frustrate readers who prefer clarity in storytelling. In detailing the ordinary life of Red, the book tends not to be plot-driven but rather centres around ekeing out concepts. The allegory behind the title ‘Roadside Picnic’ results from a conversation in part three between secret state operative Noonan and the scientific researcher Dr Valentine Pilman. Their conversation about the existential nature of the Visit temporarily sidelines Red’s story. The protagonist’s mission to return to the Zone and seek out a Golden Sphere comes quite late in the book, and is something suggested to Red, rather than an action he chooses or needs to take. ‘Roadside Picnic’ is therefore best enjoyed by science-fiction readers who are happy to absorb a literary style that moves between concepts, framed by a protagonist who is lead by events rather than driving a central plot through clear aims and motivations.
Whatever one’s preferences for genre fiction, ‘Roadside Picnic’ is a novel full of memorable sequences. Although Red is a character who is quite hard to get to know, it’s oddly when he protects and looks after his late father, whose re-animated corpse attempts to drink a glass of water, that his humanity is most obvious. So too in his affection for ‘Monkey’, his young daughter who becomes less obviously human as she grows older. Revealing a character’s empathy through familial connections despite the taboo of death and the horror of being parent to an alien is an ingenious way of ingraining the story into readers’ minds.
The Folio Society routinely produces collectible editions of much-loved books to a high standard, but ‘Roadside Picnic’ is one of their most stunning designs yet. It’s hard to over-exaggerate how much the high production values of a hardcover, slipcase and thick pages adds to the reading experience. Better yet, the events of ‘Roadside Picnic’ are brought to life by the much-sought-after talents of illustrator Dave McKean. From the damaged earth as embossed onto the front and back covers to the full-colour illustrations inside, there are constant visual clues about the strange world the Strugatsky brothers created. One illustration towards the end of the book folds out, revealing Red’s last mission into the Zone on both sides. McKean’s breathtaking and imaginative visual concepts for not easily-articulated science-fiction ideas reveal that he was a natural choice to illustrate this title. Even the edges of the pages are printed with a chaotic depiction of the Zone, and the sections of the book are similarly embellished by superb design work. The Folio Society’s ‘Roadside Picnic’ is a stunningly attractive book. A novel that was born out of the USSR continues to resonate with modern readers thanks to its tantalising depiction of first contact, but also for its insights into the human condition, about which the authors provide no easy answers. This edition does full justice to bringing to life a complex, unsettling and compelling story that never lets us forget how vulnerable we are, not only from outside threats, but also from one another, and ourselves.
The Folio Society edition of ‘Roadside Picnic’, illustrated by Dave McKean, is exclusively available from foliosociety.com.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication date: March 2023 Buy ‘Roadside Picnic’