My life in outer space

Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)

Roadside Picnic

‘Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those strange misfits who are compelled by some unknown force to venture illegally into the Zone and, in spite of the extreme danger, collect the mysterious artefacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the Zone and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his mutant daughter has been determined by the Zone. And it is for her that Red makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile depths’

Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collector’s Edition

This is not, as one might have first supposed from the cosy title, a particularly easy read, but is a very fine novel, if somewhat grim.
It’s refreshing for one used to mainly to a Western style of Science Fiction to read a book which is stylish, full of symbolism and metaphor and able to be read on different levels.
Redrick Schuhart is a stalker. At some point in the recent past of the novel, aliens (it is determined that they have come from the direction of Deneb) visited the Earth at six locations, leaving behind them ‘litter’ within an area called a Zone.
Redrick’s Zone is located in Canada. The litter has severe effects on anyone entering the Zone and indeed, those living just outside it. Stalkers like Redrick enter the Zone and bring back artefacts for sale or scientific study, and so are the shop-floor level workers of an industry which has developed from the sale and exploitation of such artefacts.
Redrick takes pride in his abilities. When we first encounter him he is employed by a local scientific institute to retrieve items legally from the Zone, but has to augment his meagre pay by illegal nocturnal visits and sales of items via a local fence.
The items themselves are for the most part unfathomable. ‘Empties’ are pairs of copper discs, rather like the top and bottom of a soft-drinks can, bound together by some unknown force with an empty cylindrical space between them. Full ‘empties’ contain a sluggish blue liquid of which no-one can discover the composition.
On an expedition with his friend Kirill to find a full ‘empty’, Kirill is careless and brushes against an alien web which seems to have no immediate effect. Shortly after his return to the lab, Kirill dies.
Kirill is perhaps, Redrick’s feeling of hope for the future and a symbol of idealism. Kirill for Redrick represented morality & integrity and his death signifies much, for most of the other characters seem ruthless, selfish and competitive.
The aliens themselves, like the ocean of Solaris, are ultimately unimportant. It is the human reaction to their presence that counts. Here, the aliens are not even present. It is their detritus, their rubbish, which obsesses mankind.
An ex-stalker, Gutalin, conducts a minor religious crusade against the Zone, leading groups of men in to smash the ‘devil’s’ artefacts.
The Strugatskys wrote this novel at a time when they were becoming disillusioned with Brezhnev’s policies on Science. It is significant that Pilman, the scientist, displays a personal philosophy in which he is concerned more for the security of scientific discoveries than the sharing of knowledge and experimentation.

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