Roadside Picnic is a 1971 science-fiction novel written by the Brothers Strugartsky, and is considered one of the best science-fiction novels to come from Russia. Its publication history in the then-USSR as well as in the United States and other countries is a complicated tale, beset by both political censorship, as well as poor translations and editorial battles.

In 2012, a new English translation of the work, by Olena Bormashenko, was published. It was put out by an independent press, the Chicago Review Press, and included a foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin, as well as an afterword by its surviving author. Although the book had long been considered a classic, much of its reputation was based on its innovative concept, and the movie made from it. The new translation restores the book to its original prose, which should give more insight into the book on a literary level.

On the subject of its original prose, this is one book that I wish I could have read the afterword to before reading the text proper. Throughout the book, I was put off by the casual violence and brutality that the book displayed. But after reading the afterword, what I took from my contemporary perspective to be thoughtless violence and crassness was a principled stand on the point of the authors: while "grim and gritty" seems to be a strategy for cheap shocks for me, at a time when the Soviet government was only slowly releasing its censorship, having characters who behaved badly was a stand for literary realism against the standard of having characters who were bland, propagandistic heroes. The afterword also states that the censorship of the book was not a matter of ideology so much as that the editors and publishers of the Soviet Union were prudish and wanted to drag their feet on a work that was an unknown quantity.

While this book has long been considered a classic, the new translation and material explaining its background make it easier to understand and appreciate.

The Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине) is a short novel by Arkadiy and Boris Strugatzkiy (the Brothers Strugatsky). It is a work of science fiction.

The plot is essentially this: Some strange areas, called Zones, have appeared throughout the Earth, and these contain strange temporal distortions, as well as strange artifacts and plants. They have been cordoned off by the governments of the areas. People called stalkers (using English words was fashionable at the time this was written) make their living by sneaking into these areas and taking things, then reselling them. This has terrible consequences for their well-being, and their children are frequently born deformed. The story, structured as an interview, follows the life of one stalker, Redrick Schuhart, first in his youth, then at 28, then as a 30 year old.

The first episode describes how he and a friend and colleague of his from the research institution where he 'works'. His friend is completely new to the game. Their trip yields some interesting finds, but Schuhart thinks he sees his friend step in something. When they go back, they get their money and Schuhart drinks in his room. Soon, he finds out that his friend is dead. He never forgives the Zone for the murder.

The second episode shows Schuhart as a slightly older man. He is already married and has a daughter (albeit a fur-bearing one), as well as a dead father he pretends is alive. This is a classic old-thief-comes-out-for-one-last-heist deal, except he fails. He is arrested, but the mysterious figure ordering the heist takes care of his family (the tradeoff for the deal). This features the interesting character of Barbridge: he is a stalker who has reached the near-mythical Wish Machine, a golden orb that grants wishes (once again, a classic twist--it turns them into evil things). He has a beautiful wife, children, etc., but there is something wrong with the family.

At this point, there is an interlude. It follows a Richard Noonan, who seems to be responsible for controlling the stalkers. It fills us in on some developments: the prototype robo-stalkers, the retirement or death of most of the professionals (however, there is an unknown source still providing loot from the Zone), and the fact that the areas near which Zones sprung up have gone sharply downhill in prosperity, &c. It also contains a conversation with a scientist, who makes the titular assertion that the Zones may just be someplace the aliens landed, and, well, had a picnic, not intending to influence humanity in any way (not even thinking about it). He also proposes several other theories, but obviously the above is most important.

The last episode is the most critical. It shows an aging Schuhart (elderly at 30), who has agreed to take Arthur, the Wish Machine-produced glossy lawyer son of Barbridge, to find the Wish Machine (irony?). Arthur fails, but Schuhart, with his last words, makes a wish that the machine can't pervert:

HAPPINESS FOR EVERYONE, FREE, AND LET NO ONE WALK AWAY UNSATISFIED!

Andrei Tarkovsky made a movie based on this, although it has little to do with the story. The way he designed it completely destroyed the dynamic between Schuhart's various stages of life, which is something important to the story. He reduced it mostly to long, drawn-out camera shots and turned the simple theme of the story into postmodern bullshit. A good movie in its own right, but the book was better.

The complete Russian text can be found (along with all the other Strugatzkiy texts) at http://www.rusf.ru/abs/books/pno00.htm.

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