Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: "Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

An alien visitation story without any aliens, Roadside Picnic is one of the better SciFi books I've read. Sometime in the future, mankind is still learning how to deal with the mysterious aftermath of an extremely brief alien visit (they appear to have just stopped by Earth as a “roadside picnic” on their way elsewhere). Each alien landing site is filled with bizarrely deadly phenomena, like the deadly "Greenie" slime, or the spots of intense gravity called "Mosquito Mange". However, the zones are are also filled with highly sought after artifacts, such as the perpetual-energy machines called Batteries, so they are prospected by "stalkers" who illegally sneaks into these zones and steals alien technologies for the black market. The book is divided between highly entertaining excursions into the Zone, and scenes pondering the implications of the visitation on both a personal and societal level.

Part of the reason the book is so mesmerizing is the first person perspective of Red Schuhart, a drunken, paranoid and stressed-out Stalker. Red's struggle for meaning despite his deep fatalism wins you over despite his many unlikable qualities as the prose skillfully depicts the thought process that leads to his actions. Another reason is the convincing world the Strugatsky's create: one dominated by both an overreaching government and a pervasive black market capitalism. The price that such a dualistic societal setup exacts on its citizens feels convincing; after all, the Strugatsky's were writing in 1970s USSR (the absurdity of which is detailed in a wry afterward). Overall, the sheer inventiveness and psychological depth build all the way to the last chapter – a riveting highlight of this taught little book that’s stuck with me ever since I closed its cover. Part of the credit must go to Olena Bormashenko, whose translation never feels stilted or makes you aware that it's a translation. Highly recommended.

Cross posted on Thought Ambience

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