Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

what if aliens came to earth, landed in several different spots, hung around for a bit (unfortunately extinguishing the towns they landed on), and then left, without so much as a thank-you note? and oh yes, they leave circles of semi-destruction in their wake, and a lot of detritus from the picnic.

what a beautiful premise.

in this novel by the brothers Strugatsky, scientists descend upon the “picnic” Zones. as do “stalkers,” people lured to the areas who wish to scavenge the aforementioned detritus and sell it to the highest bidder. the scientists and the stalkers are equally ignorant of what these objects are all about: what was their purpose? how do they work? is there any useful technology to be gained from them? why were they left behind?

which all sounds like a second picnic, except for one thing: scavenging in the Zones can be lethal in unpredictable ways. horrible ways. ways that defy what we know of laws of nature, of physics, of causality. my own personal favorite is the “bug trap,” an area (visually undetectable) within which gravity is increased a bazillion-fold: toss a bolt into a bug trap and, from midair, it will slam down a hole a foot wide into the earth.

the best thing about this book is that it is told almost entirely from the point of view of a stalker: a lowlife guy, relatively uneducated, broke, and a little greedy. he is not risking his ass in the Zone for glory, or for science, or for the betterment of humankind–he’s doing it for money, the more the better. and he knows it. he has no illusions about why he’s there.

but he’s not unprincipled, nor is he beggared by his own low station. he has pride, and he should, because he is one of the best, which means the longest-lived. he loves his wife and daughter. he genuinely enjoys a tipple and a smoke (do not read this book while you’re trying to quit smoking). in short, he’s as human as the rest of us; rougher around the edges than most, perhaps, but also oddly sweet, and a guy who would be way fun to party with.

so! aliens, lowlifes, and mysterious artifacts. some huge questions about how we would know an intelligent lifeform, and what we might do if they could not or did not communicate with us. a lot of sf does have this bias–that intelligence is identifiable on our own terms (i.e., they’re like smart humans), that we can recognize social goals, that interchange between intelligent species is something to be desired by both parties.

i’ve never been comfortable with this, because if aliens are alien, surely they should be really alien? and if they are really alien, how do we communicate? the structure of language is inextricable from thought and perception. but what if their thought is utterly unlike ours? what if they do not think linear thoughts at all, but instead think in simultaneous combinations of smells? what if they do not want to explore other planets for conquest/exchange/discovery at all, but want instead to make an olfactory quilt of what they find? it’s a silly example, but hey, maybe it wouldn’t be, to them.

anyway, digressions aside. it’s an interesting book, and despite being written in 1970, it does have a pretty timeless feel. despite being written in Russia, it has a placeless feel as do a lot of Murakami’s works. best of all, it does have many moments of a skin-crawlingly alien feel, which a lot of science fiction sadly lacks.

p.s.–my edition is other than the cover depicted above–Chicago Review Press has reprinted the book with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky. i recommend this edition for both fore- and afterword.