Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Roadside Picnic

My copy--pretty good for 1977

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Ekaterina at In My Book reviewed this Russian SF classic for Vintage SF Month, and I was intrigued but didn't expect to get to read it very soon.  Then I started back to work for the new semester and found a copy in the stacks!  Wow!  I feel so lucky.  It's the first English edition from 1977, and includes another short novel, Tale of the Troika.  I'll be reading that too.

In the not-too-distant future, a bunch of alien artifacts landed on Earth in 6 locations, as though shot in packets.  Redrick Schuhart has grown up right next to one of the Zones, and he's a stalker--he makes illegal runs into the Zone to find alien artifacts to smuggle and sell.  Stalking is an incredibly dangerous job; the Zone is filled with bizarre phenomena and invisible deadly dangers.  You might find so-so's, which act like batteries and multiply spontaneously, but you might also fall into a ditch and have your bones disintegrated by witches' jelly.  Although the Zone emits no detectable radiation, stalkers' DNA mutates and their children are not quite human.  So why did this stuff just fall from the sky?  Is it just so much alien garbage, left by the roadside?

New edition cover
The story follows Redrick and other inhabitants of the town over years.  The characterization is great!  Red is just your average crum-bum trying to make a living, and he feels like a real person you might know.  There is a really nice blend of both concept and character that isn't always easy to find in SF.  It's a great limited-perspective story, too; it doesn't give much away and only lets you see what happens in this one town.  They could have milked the concept for a whole series.  (The novel did spawn a movie, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games, and the dangerous Russian sport of exploring abandoned and crumbling Soviet installations.)

As far as I can tell, the story is set in Canada, with some characters from all over the world, drawn by the Zone.  From the setting and plot, you might never realize that the authors are Russians, except that I felt like the whole atmosphere was very Russian indeed.  The story feels Russian to me.  But I wonder if I would have thought that if I hadn't known already?

My last chance to use cool image
I see that the new edition says, "This authoritative new translation corrects many errors and omissions and has been supplemented with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and a new afterword by Boris Strugatsky explaining the strange history of the novel’s publication in Russia."  Now I want to read it too, to find out what the omissions were, though I though this translation was perfectly fine.  And I'd really like to read that afterword.

This is a very influential book, and also an excellent story.  I think you should read it, and I'm looking forward to reading more Strugatsky works.




3 comments:

Ekaterina Egorova said...

Yay! It's great that you've found it! I've never thought in what country the fictitious city may be situated, but I've always imagined it somewhere in the Eastern Europe :) It's funny that you felt is to be closer to Canada :)

Jean said...

There was only one reason I thought it was in Canada--other than that it could have been anywhere. But when Red runs into the cops right after his trip with Kirill, he thinks (in my translation) "Where in Canada do they find these guys? Have they been sent out here to breed?"

genrebending said...

There's also a new translation of Hard to Be a God (another Strugatskys' work for your enjoyment) coming out in the summer. Same translator as for the new Roadside Picnic.