Review: Roadside Picnic

Book review
Written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Gollancz paperback
Release date Out now

Following a mysterious alien visitation, a strange and dangerous place called the Zone is fenced off to outsiders. But that doesn’t deter the “Stalkers” who risk their lives in search of the strange and valuable artefacts littered inside the Zone…

This strange and paranoid novel from 1972 deserves to be recognised as one of the greats of science fiction literature. Nominally based in Canada, the small town setting feels closer to the Strugatsky brothers’ birthplace of Stalinist Russia. When protagonist Red Schuhart declares “I never sold my soul to anyone!” it’s clear that he represents individuality in an autocratic society, divided into those who slavishly serve and those who are just out for their own selfish gain.

What’s perhaps surprising (especially if you’ve seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s philosophical film interpretation of the novel) is how hardboiled the Strugatsky brothers’ prose is. This is especially true in the first chapter, which is narrated by Red himself. Red is tough, cynical and hard drinking, but he’s also a character with a heart. There’s real affection whenever he refers to his devoted wife Guta and mutated daughter Monkey, and part of the reason that he ventures into the Zone is to provide for them (in contrast to the more avaricious motivations of his companion Buzzard Burbridge).

Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of paranoia and hopelessness that pervades the book, there’s also a sense of humour at work. The novel is littered with talk of fallen Stalkers with names like Slimy, Poodle and Four-eyes, and the mysterious, unexplained artefacts come with names such as Lobster Eyes and Rattling Napkins.

Like Kafka’s The Castle (though nowhere near as impenetrable), Roadside Picnic is a novel in which truth is only ever hinted at, and the exact nature of what has happened lies tantalising just out of reach. We don’t know why the Visitors came, why the Zone causes such strange side effects or exactly what the artefacts are intended for.

Rather, the story concerns itself with Red’s increasing alienation from the world and his gradual quest to find a sense of meaning inside the Zone. These metaphysical undertones are never off-putting, however, and for all its intelligence, Roadside Picnic remains gripping and compulsive reading. Matt McAllister

VERDICT: 9/10
Sometimes funny and often disturbing, Roadside Picnic plays out like a strange and feverish melding of Charles Bukowski and Franz Kafka.

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