Roadside Picnic is considered one of the great examples of Soviet science fiction. First published in English in 1972, the book received new translation in 2012, along with a forward by Ursula K. LeGuin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the struggles of getting the book through Soviet censorship controls. All three are a fascinating read.
The book has also resonated in the realm of pop culture, inspiring the Soviet film Stalker (1979) and the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (2007). The story concerns a researcher paid to explore the site of an extraterrestrial visit and bring artifacts back to safe zones for study. However, he finds a growing temptation to return to illegally recovering the artifacts for sale on the black market as his life begins to spin out of control.
Roadside Picnic deals with the aftermath of six brief alien encounters known as Visitations, told through the eyes of Redrick “Red” Schuhart. The landing sites, or Zones, profoundly altered the known laws of physics, rendering the areas uninhabitable. Weird physical phenomena and alien plant life growing in the Zones can potentially maim or kill those that venture in. However, the danger and the value of artifacts left within the Zones tempt young adventurers.
Red is one of these adventurers. Drawn to a Zone in the town of Harmont (located somewhere in the British Commonwealth) soon after the Visitation, Red has settled down. Rather than entering the zone illegally and collecting as a Stalker, he works in a paid job recovering artifacts for the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. However, he finds the job intellectually stifling, with each excursion into the zone carefully planned and executed. Worse, the pay is a pittance of what he would earn as a Stalker, and the revenue stream is badly needed when he finds out his long-time girlfriend is pregnant.
Roadside Picnic is a grim novel, as it shows the lives of those that work with the Zone slowly crumble. Red in particular is shown to be a shell of his former self by the end of the book, utterly broken by the way working the Zones have adversely affected his life. Some of Red’s former coworkers show the same signs of strain, although from different sources, such as dealing with the overly restrictive bureaucracy of the Institute.
Honestly, the Strugatskys do a wonderful job at deconstructing the idea of “alien visit is a good thing for humanity”. One of the common tropes of sci-fi is the idea that humans are desperately looking for answers to their social problems. The typical first-encounter story of this era was that humanity had these problems solved by a technological messiah descending from outer space. But in Roadside Picnic, we get something of the opposite – the presence of alien technology makes our social problems worse. Yes, we get some benefits out of the artifacts that we pull from the zone (seemingly perpetual energy being one), but the benefit to humanity is negated by the squabbles we have over them: who gets to use the rare perpetual motion device? In a way, Roadside Picnic reminds me of a more deadpan version of The Gods Must Be Crazy.
The encounter is even more destructive to some people on a personal level. Red’s repeated exposure to the physical phenomena in the Zone have altered his genome, while seeing fellow explorers die beside him has left him a little unhinged. It’s also hinted that the people present in the Zones during the Visitations died horribly, die suddenly years after the fact, or have become something other than human.
Another point brought up is the inability of humanity to understand the artifacts left behind, or even the anomalies that occur all over the Zone. If we have no context to base our research on, does the information we gain from it even have use? Several characters in the book question whether or not we’re even using the artifacts in their intended manner. We could be very well be using a coke bottle as a hammer. The title is a references a parable given to describe this situation. A family makes a stop on the roadside for a picnic, and during their stay leave all sorts of litter and debris around. After the family leaves, ants swarm the picnic site, looking for food. Some of the debris they carry back to the nest may sustain the colony, while other litter is highly harmful to the ants. The ants have no way of knowing what is useful or not, except through trial and error.
In effect, Roadside Picnic questions whether or not meeting an advanced species is even good for humanity. Rather than answering with the traditional science fiction standard of “yes!”, the Strugatskys belabor the point that it’s not necessarily a good thing. Even if extraterrestrials were to give us the answers to everything, would we necessarily be able to understand those answers? Even if we did, would we apply those answers in a way consistent with fixing our social problems, or would we use those answers in a way that exacerbates the problem?
The answer the Strugatskys came up with makes a lot of sense, especially when viewed through the context of the Soviet system going into the 70s. The Soviet government was rapidly developing serious structural, combined with a failing economy that increasingly became concentrated in the military-industrial sector (David Hoffman’s The Dead Hand is a fascinating glimpse into the Soviet government’s mindset during this time period, and what I base a lot of this interpretation off of.). The result was a growing black market unable to be controlled by inflexible policy making at every level of government.
These trends are reflected in Roadside Picnic, which features a number of problems caused by the Institute. For example, the Institute barely pays a survival wage for explorers, while the overly bureaucratic procedures of the Institute focus on punishing the lawbreakers while ignoring the underlying cause of the smuggling problem. Viewed in this context, Roadside Picnic is highly subversive, and really explains why the Strugatskys had so much trouble getting the book into wide publication in the USSR. Boris Strugatsky’s retrospective on this is particularly interesting: the book was initially approved and published with only cosmetic alterations. However, when the book was selected for inclusion in a much more widely circulated anothology, the hammer came down from the censors. By the time the Strugatskys had pushed the anthology to completion, Roadside Picnic had been edited beyond recognition.
Soviet sci-fi authors are generally considered masters of the allegory, for good reason. While a story that could be viewed as too critical of the government might lead to imprisonment (an extreme circumstance in the 1970s, nowhere near as prevalent during the Stalin era), it was more likely to lead to a drain on the writer’s resources; an inability to publish the story and increased scrutiny in later stories was the usual result.
Roadside Picnic, in my opinion, is one of the better allegorical pieces to come out of the USSR in the late Soviet era. It addresses a lot of the problems that the common man might have faced during this era of Soviet history, but does so in such a way that even people in the West can identify with its protagonist. It speaks directly to the human condition, no matter the economic circumstances of one’s upbringing. I think this book is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in science fiction, especially those interested in what it has to say about our present cultural problems.