Oliver's Reviews > Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
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Nov 28, 2010

really liked it
Read from November 15 to 25, 2010

Years ago a friend invited me to see Tarkovsky's film Stalker at a special screening in the National Gallery. The film was made in the late 70s and is still today a thing of beauty, though its slow pace (like all Tarkovsky's films) would drive most current cinema goers insane. It's the story of a group of men - the stalkers - who illegally go into a zone previously invaded and abandoned by aliens (which nobody ever met) to collect items which can be sold in the black market. Bracelets that spin eternally. Canisters that spray weird black liquid. That sort of stuff. The setting - some kind of muddy, gray cemetery for Soviet machines - is nightmarish and fascinating in the film, dangerous to any of the stalkers who make a wrong move (the reason why they are stalkers is because they know how to navigate this "zone"). I made a mental note to check out the novella, Roadside Picnic, after seeing the film but only got around to doing it this month when I suggested it as a read for my bookclub.

The film is based on just the first part of the novella. The nightmarish quality, though, remains in the book - that sense of things being slightly off kilter, reality not making 100% sense and foreboding hanging heavy over every thing. I wondered whether "the zone" stood for Western society, its amazing trinkets the sought-after prizes in a crumbling Soviet world. Or was it the other way round? In less than 130 pages, the Strugatsky brothers conjured a believable and intriguing world where the same questions we have today (science vs profit) rule and propel the planet towards a frightening no-going-back future. The novella's only weakness are female characters that are stereotypical sketches of American housewives and femme fatales from the 1950s. The pulpy element raised by them, though, is welcome.
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