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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Roadside Picnic

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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To purchase Roadside Picnic

Title: Roadside Picnic
Authors: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 214 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Roadside Picnic - US
Roadside Picnic - UK
Roadside Picnic - Canada
Roadside Picnic - India
Stalker - France
Picknick am Wegesrand - Deutschland
Picnic sul ciglio della strada - Italia
DVD: Stalker - US
Stalker - UK
  • Russian title: Пикник на обочине
  • Translated by Olena Bormashenko
  • With a Foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • With an Afterword by Boris Strugatsky
  • Previously translated by Antonina W. Bouis (1977)
  • Roadside Picnic was made into the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979

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Our Assessment:

A- : wonderful idea, well executed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 22/5/1977 Gerald Jonas
Publishers Weekly . 20/2/2012 .
The Times* . 18/5/1978 Tom Hutchinson
World Literature Today . 11-12/2012 Michael A. Morrison

*: review of Bouis' earlier translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "(N)ot easy reading, but it is well worth the effort." - Gerald Jonas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "As this vivid new translation demonstrates, it also remains a powerful study of human behavior in the presence of superhuman power." - Publishers Weekly

  • "A poetic, alarming book which, ath the very least, shows the power of Soviet SF; not a trace of dialectical materialism that I could find." - Tom Hutchinson, The Times

  • "Even if you’ve read the earlier translation by Antonina W. Bouis (1977), treat yourself to this new one, which is based on the authors’ original text. Olena Bormashenko’s myriad improvements in word choice, punctuation, and phraseology make her rendition more fluent, vivid, and substantive." - Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Roadside Picnic is a classic alien-encounter story, with a beautiful twist: the aliens drop by on earth -- for what becomes called 'the Visit' -- but then just as abruptly leave, without any attempts at making contact or, possibly, even noticing (or caring) there were other life-forms here. All that's left behind are half a dozen 'Zones', filled with ... well, it's not clear what; maybe just what happened to get left behind after the aliens had the equivalent of a 'roadside picnic' along the way, detritus and waste. Except that much of it has qualities and powers unknown to humans, a technology far beyond our ken.
       The novel spans close to a decade, beginning a few years after the Visit, and centers on the Harmont-Zone, and Redrick Schuhart. Red, as he's known, is one of those who ventures into the Zone. When he's first introduced, as a twenty-three year old laboratory assistant at the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures, he does so officially, too, but at heart he's a 'stalker', illegally entering the Zone, collecting items, and then reselling them (which pays much better than when he does the same thing in his official capacity).
       The Zone is a hell of a dangerous place -- and much as the technology that is collected there is unfamiliar, so are many of the dangers. Few stalkers last very long: touch the wrong thing, make the wrong turn, and bad things happen to you and your body. Red lasts longer than most, but it takes a toll on him too, seeing what happens to the other stalkers -- and it's also presumably what's behind his daughter's condition (she's known -- not just affectionately -- as 'Monkey' ...). (In fact, an inexplicable Zone-influence is something that locals seem to carry with them even when they emigrate, an apparent cause behind rather undesirable (but also inexplicable) effects when they have moved elsewhere.)
       Beside the usual knick knacks that they find -- batteries that last forever, for example -- there's also rumor of a holy grail-type item out there: the Golden Sphere:

A mythical object in the Zone, which appears in the form of a certain golden sphere and which is rumored to grant human wishes.
       But the entire Zone is an ambiguous genie-in-a-bottle, the Golden Sphere merely one manifestation thereof. And, of course, the Zone exerts a special hold on those who live around it, or deal with it. As Red complains:
Damn that Zone, there's no getting away from it. Wherever you go, whoever you talk to -- it's always the Zone, the Zone, the Zone ...
       Indeed, it's his destiny.
       Each section of the novel jumps ahead a few years, and the narrative is from different perspectives -- an introductory Q & A with a Nobel-winning physicist, first- and third-person accounts. Parts of the novel go into great detail -- Red's forays into and out of the Zone, a variety of encounters -- but the Strugatskys expertly avoid bogging down the narrative in too much explanation; the jumps, from one section to the next, of years also help with that. The story is a character-study of Red, and what the Zone has made of him, but enough others figure prominently too to keep him from being too dominant a figure.
       Beautifully conceived, without trying to explain too much -- the technology remains entirely beyond the humans: they learn how to harness some of it, but stilll haven't come close to figuring out how or why it actually works --, Roadside Picnic remains an exemplary work of science fiction. It has also held up very well, the Strugatskys' approach meaning that the alien details still work as well now as they did when the novel first appeared.
       (Boris Strugatsky's Afterword, which chronicles the writing and publication-history of the book, is also a nice addition to the new translation -- and it's interesting to learn that, while the most popular of the Strugatsky-novels abroad (in no small part because of the Tarkovsky film, no doubt) it "lags behind" some of their other work in Russia itself.)
       No doubt: a powerful, classic work of science fiction. Certainly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 April 2012

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Roadside Picnic: Reviews (asterisk (*) indicates review of the Bouis translation): Stalker - the film: Other books by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Arkady Strugatsky (Аркадий Натанович Стругацкий, 1925-1991) and Boris Strugatsky (Борис Натанович Стругацкий, 1931-2012) were leading Soviet science fiction authors.

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