SFM Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky trans. Olena Bormashenko (1972/2012)

Should we read older SF? Gollancz seems to think so. Their SF Masterworks line has, for the last 14 years, highlighted SF classics and kept them in print. This series of posts is here to try to do two things. One to expand this authors’ knowledge of classical SF, especially eighties SF, and secondly to ask the question are classics worth reading?

Roadside Picnic

Title: Roadside Picnic
Author: Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Translator: Olena Bormashenko
Publisher: Gollancz

There are some novels you put off reading. You don’t know why. You just do. Roadside Picnic is one of those books. And to be honest, personally, I don’t think it was worth the wait.

I didn’t expect to be saying that. It reminds me of Blood Music in a way with its focal changes but unlike Blood Music, which kept tight control on time but moves to different view points to show unfolding events Roadside Picnic takes some leaps in time sticking with our protagonist, Redrick “Red” Schuhart, apart from a chapter with Richard Noonan, as we see points in his life that are have significance with his relationship with the zone.

Taken individually those leaps looking at the life of Red (even Richard’s chapter is about Red really) are interesting enough as Red venturers into the Zone repeatedly and suffers the consequences of him doing so.

The Zone is what’s left after an alien visitors have been and gone, seemingly in an instant, scattering around mysterious artefacts before they left.  And Red is one of the scavengers, called Stalkers, who enter the Zone illegally to find and bring back objects. It’s not the only Zone in world but it is the only one we see and it’s how the Russian’s interact with it that makes it of interest.

But then I sort of fail to see what’s interesting about it. Maybe it needs to be seen in light of it’s struggle for publication with a Russian edition being censored from the 70s until coming out properly in Russia in the 90s. Though the English translation was released in 1978

The only interesting scene for me involves Richard Noonan and Valantine Pillman sharing a drink in a bar discussing if the aliens had taken any notice of the humans when they visited or was what was left the equivalent of the remnants of  a roadside picnic that ignored the wildlife and just get on with refuelling for their travels?

I think the problem is that all that potential of these alien visitors and the scattering of objects, apart from the Noonan/Pillman discussion, didn’t come to anything meaningful. There is a lot of interesting things like Monkey and what the transformation of the children of stalkers could mean but doen’t lead anywhere. The ending quest is obvious and the consequences so vague it feels a little premature.

But maybe that’s the point, that everything is depressing and no matter what you have at your disposal happiness isn’t a magic bullet away?

Lots of people love this book and I’m glad I read it for the bar scene but I’m sorry to say that I found the idea more powerful than the act.

Earlier reviews of books in  the SF Masterworks series can found on my other blog GavReads.

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