Roadside Picnic, by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky, Orlena Bormashenko (Translator)

The Strugatsky brothers, hidden away in what was then still the Soviet Union, were part of a new wave of science fiction writers putting out works in the 60s and 70s. Roadside Picnic was one of their earlier works. It was finished around 1971 but took several years to wind its way through Soviet censors before coming out as a severely trimmed novel. This book contains a new translation with the original text. Boris covers some of the bizarre things the Soviets wanted trimmed in the afterword. After publication it was the basis of the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.

At some time before the narrative there were a series of alien arrivals on earth across an arc of cities. The aliens arrived, destroyed things, killed people, then left. They left behind a strange collection of artifacts, some deadly and some fascinating. Did they leave them on purpose to instruct us? One scientist compares their visit to humans having a roadside picnic, and once they leave the ants crawl over what’s been left behind with no understanding of any of it.

One thing is certain. There are things left inside the dangerous zones created by the invasion that people are willing to pay for, and that has created a black market of stalkers who sneak into the areas to retrieve what is inside. Red Schuhart is one of those stalkers, and he keeps hearing one old stalker talk about a wish-fulfilling globe. He’s about to suit up with two novices to face the skin-melting slime and burning ash to retrieve the globe for a sale that will enrich him for a lifetime.

On the way to this goal Red interacts with people still living just outside the dangerous epicenter, not the least his wife and fur-covered daughter, the strange empty children of the older stalker, along with other stalkers, buyers, and scientists living on the fringe while the dangers of the zone seem to be spreading worldwide.

It’s a strange narrative for a strange and damaged future world. In his afterword Boris talks about his surprise at the bureaucratic edits made to the book as he and Arkady thought they were creating a parable for the dangers of capitalism. That seems to have gone over the head of the censors who were more concerned with swearing and people hitting each other. What’s left in the restored book is a gem of a sci-fi classic, a completely straight narrative in a world that no longer works right.