Book review: Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине, 1971) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Roadside Picnic is a very tasty story, and one of my favorite of Strugatskys’ works.

A complex idea presented in a very entertaining way, Roadside Picnic also has a killer ending. (The 1979 film, Stalker, is nothing like it, by the way, and is not nearly as good as the novel. Why? Well, how should I put it…A scientist, a writer and a stalker walk into a bar. Then they spend the next two hours sloshing around knee deep in muddy water (both literally and metaphorically speaking), saying things like, “Art is a selfless pursuit.” There’s none of the palpable physical danger that haunts the stalkers entering the Zone in the book, and besides, they mostly don’t have time to talk about stuff like that due to the constant danger of getting killed by traps.)

The story takes place in the fictional town of Harmont, where an alien Visitation has left part of the town devastated. This area has been sealed off by the authorities and is called the Zone. It is guarded and dangerous. However, certain people called stalkers sneak into the Zone at night in pursuit of the valuable alien items found there. Some of these gadgets are useful (like a perpetual battery for your car, for example), others are lethal, and still others are just plain mysterious and have no known use or purpose. These items are sold on the illegal market to collectors and other interested parties, while those that are recovered “legally” by day are studied by researchers at the adjacent institute, established to study the Zone and its (mostly awful) effects on people.

The main hero is twenty-something Redrick Schuhart, or “Red,” an experienced, freckly stalker just trying to make a living for himself and his family. A charismatic, foul mouthed and all in all extremely likable character. Among all the strange and sometimes useful items found in the Zone, there is a certain Golden Sphere, which supposedly grants wishes. But, this thing ain’t no Genie. It will only grant a person’s most true, real wishes, things they may be afraid to admit, even to themselves. Some people end up with a very nasty outcome as a result of visiting the Sphere, and one stalker even commits suicide after a “wrong” wish if his is granted. (One cool thing about the film, Stalker, is that instead of the Golden Sphere, the wish granting device is an empty room.)

It is a great read. Enjoyable, creepy and fascinating.

Rating: Five very big stars out of five.

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