Waxing Press

Book Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky

book reviewsIan WissmanComment

I picked this one up because of Tarkovsky's much lauded film, Stalker, for which this book served the basis. I've not seen Tarkovsky's interpretation, but having seen his Solaris, I decided I wanted to see the source before I saw the film, since his films are pretty heady and exquisitely surreal in their beauty.

Roadside Picnic is a head above your run-of-the-mill pulp—it's surely still pulpy, but one that elevates itself in certain ways. The premise here is that alien life has visited Earth, though there has been no direct contact with the beings. In their wake, there are "Zones" where various alien artifacts, technology, and ephemera are scattered. Men, known as Stalkers, navigate these zones at much peril for within it are strange, weird effects and surreal alien junk like hell slime, a kind of multiplying colloidal liquid that can't be contained. The book elevates particularly in the philosophy of extraterrestrial life and what it would actually mean to humanity.

Minor spoilers below:

The title of the book is at once confounding and out-of-place, but pops up about 80% into the book, likening the visitation to the perspective of insects and animals who observe humans wandering into their forest for a picnic, leaving behind items that the animals themselves can't comprehend, such as plastic wrappers or jellied knives, or a wicker basket. No intent was put into the leaving by the humans. No expectation is set upon the animals for what to do with the left-behind junk. What's left, though, will certainly have an effect on the wildlife and its ecosystem. I thought it was an interesting existential turn in the question of the significance of knowing alien life exists. 

This was a light and airy read while I was waiting in airports and train stations and lounging on beaches or chewing on croissants aux amandes. It reads a little choppy, particularly in the first 1/4th. I'm not sure if this is due to translation, or style, but the noir-ish shtick doesn't land until after the first chunk of the book. However, when digging into this kind of fare, I usually give it a wider berth to impress me. Four stars because, dammit, the imagination of the alien leftovers and their imagery as well as the unique Soviet existentialism that live on the page. Can't wait to watch Tarkovsky's interpretation.