Roadside Picnic is not your usual science fiction. Most first contact stories are founded on the fundamental assumption that aliens will find the human race worthy of their attention and interesting enough to engage with—even when the first contact being militaristic in nature, we know at least we are worth having resources wasted on us. But maybe what if they just came, stopped for a picnic, and moved on, leaving behind their equivalent to our plastic wrappers, used batteries, monkey wrenches and pocket knives?
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky don’t approach the alien visitation concept in a grandiose way. This example of a first contact story differs greatly from its western action-packed counterpart; it isn’t heavy on explosions and space lasers.
The book starts several years after “the Visit”, the brief, unobserved landing of aliens in different sites across the planet that created six eerie and blighted landscapes, or “Zones”. The “Zones” are pervaded with dangerous, imperceptible anomalies, like the gravi-concentrates, a spot that suffers from extremely strong gravity, or Witch's Jelly, a colloidal gas that penetrates any material and turns it into more Witch's Jelly.
They are also abounding in odd artifacts left behind by the Visitor, from relatively commonplace objects that are nonetheless valuable to humans and that are worth a lot of money to the right buyer, to unique artifacts that are passed along as legend, like the Golden Sphere, also known as the wish machine.
Roadside Picnic shows a duality in optimism and fatalism. While several characters like to load the alien visitation with purpose and the Zones that were created as a result, there seems to be no message to decode.
One scientist, in particular, believes there was no intent behind these disturbances. To him, the aliens are akin to a group of day trippers, and the prevailing metaphysical longing, the desire to make sense of humanity’s place in the universe, remains unfulfilled. It's the same discomfort that is wrecking everyone’s life as they try to ascribe value and meaning to what might, after all, be nothing but alien junk.
Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart is the main anti-hero and a laboratory assistant at the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures which was established to study the Zones of the world. He is also a Stalker. Red navigates the Zone and brings back artifacts to sell on the black market. He remains disgruntled throughout the book, intoxicated by the Zone and its semblance of infinite possibilities and simultaneously hoping for the big score that will allow him to quit his sideline job. This inevitably draws him to the search out for the legendary Golden Sphere and its ability to grant any wish, and Red’s last and desperate hope is a sort of plea that humanity will continue to move forward against the universe’s indifference.
Look into my soul, I know — everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want — because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his — HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!
Roadside Picnic is also a reflection on the sociological repercussions of advanced technology carelessly discarded in our own corner of the galaxy by creatures from outer space. It focuses attentively on the unscrupulous and fiercely competitive atmosphere that would settle among us humans on our rush to turn alien litter into profit to escape poverty and starvation.
The setting and how it influences and informs the characters about life, happiness and freedom might seem analogous to the oppressive conditions in Soviet Russia, but if it renders us a glimpse of the stagnation of the Soviet era in the 70s, it does so by concentrating on how short, scarce and unpredictable are the lives of the fictional men charging into the Zone by need and by greed.
I don’t mean to say it is a book remarkably free of politics, which is not the case, but the focus of the book is largely directed towards the time concerns of unchecked scientific research and nuclear fallout.
Those who know the video game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R., especially the first game in the series, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl”, will recognize several main parallel plot points - such as the wish granter - and familiar elements, like the artifacts, the gravitational anomalies, and the ability to throw bolts to scout for anomalies on the trail to the center of the zone. This book did, in fact, inspire the movie that, in turn, inspired the game, so if you liked the game, the suggestion to buy this book is doubled.