Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

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Translated by Elena Bormaschenko

Illustrated and Introduced by Dave McKean

Reviewed by Annabel

I have long meant to read this SF classic by the Strugatsky brothers, published in 1972, and in this case, restored and re-translated into English in 2012 for Gollancz. The arrival of Roadside Picnic in the Folio Society’s catalogue in a superbly illustrated and produced reprint edition was the spur I needed. But let me tell you about the novel before I return to this reprint mentioned above.

Roadside Picnic is almost a novel of first contact – I say almost – as the alien visitors who landed on a handful of spots on Earth didn’t bother to say hello, they just had a ‘roadside picnic’ and left all their rubbish behind. The ‘Zones’ as they have become known where they landed are now toxic and deadly in many places and have been contained and strictly policed ever since. However, there are those that will trespass in the Zone, and Red Schuhart is one of them – the stalkers. The black market for alien artefacts and technology brought out of the Zone is huge; Red is one of the best stalkers still alive, the Zone has taken many.

However, as the novel begins, he is trying to clean up his act. Now working for the Institute, he takes his scientist friend and boss Kirill into the Zone on an official daytime excursion to collect objects. Going in daylight using hoverboot transport, it’s just too easy, compared with going at night on foot. However, the dangers are still there, it’s not a straightforward trip. Official trips don’t pay as well though.

Red will make more unofficial trips into the Zone. The first is with Burbridge aka ‘The Vulture’, another veteran stalker, but this time isn’t Burbridge’s lucky day, he slips into the ‘hell slime’ and Red has to drag him out; he survives but loses his legs. Meanwhile Red does what he must to provide for girlfriend Guta and their daughter, known affectionately as the Monkey, who was born with fur and large black eyes and is becoming more mutant and less human as the months go by.

Later, he is persuaded by Burbridge to do one last trip, taking Burbridge’s son Arthur with him. Burbridge has a map of where to find the fabled golden sphere, the most desired artefact that no-one has yet managed to retrieve. Its mythology is such that it is said it’ll grant wishes – and Red would wish for his daughter to be normal. Thus, the final parts of the narrative turn into a defacto grail quest, and Red becomes quite philosophical as he thinks about what it all means.

Reading Roadside Picnic post-1986 after the Chornobyl disaster has a particular resonance. The alien-contaminated Zones, although more deadly, resemble the Chornobyl exclusion zone closely. Last year I read a book called Stalking the Atomic City by Ukrainian author Markiyan Kamysh, which recounts his many visits to that zone; outwitting the police to get through the barriers, sometimes being caught, sometimes getting a slight dose of radiation sickness. It is a compulsion for him to experience the weird freedom of being in the zone, much as Red finds too. Kamysh, still a young man, didn’t regret his irradiation, relishing the adventure. Red, on the other hand, realises his exposure caused his daughter’s mutations.

The 2012 translation restores the text to its original state. As Boris Strugatsky recounts in his Afterword, the censors struggle with SF and didn’t understand it, simplifying much of the language to the Strugatskys’ dismay. He also explains in a nice anecdote how he and his brother were responsible for introducing the word ‘stalker’ into the Russian language, through a misunderstanding of their own translation of the title of Kipling’s Stalky and Co. The brothers would go on to write the screenplay for Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, based on their novel also. I tried to watch the film, but it’s very long and slow by modern standards. I did, however, like the nod to the Wizard of Oz in how Tarkovsky changes from monochrome to colour when they enter the zone. The Folio edition also reproduces Ursula K. Le Guin’s introduction to the 2012 translation, which she herself revised from her 1977 foreword to the first English edition.

This brings me to Dave McKean’s distinctive artwork, and Folio has extended this to the slipcase as well; the cover has matching designs. Seven full-colour spreads spaced throughout illustrate some key moments in the text, accompanied by single-colour endpapers and all-around sprayed edges full of meandering lines and dots, almost resembling snail trails – but cosmic ones! Indeed, McKean in his illustrator’s introduction discusses the concept of rewilding, which you can see plays a part in some of his work here and is also evident in lush undergrowth in places in Tarkovsky’s film, giving additional food for thought.

As always, when reading a Folio Society edition, the additional sensory experiences I get from the design, illustrations and high production standards all serve to heighten my reading experience. I will long continue to ponder the philosophical questions of freedom that the story raises, and whether there is alien life out there — surely there is — somewhere!

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Annabel is one of Shiny’s co-founders and editors.

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, rev. 2012, (Folio Society, 2023) Hardback, illus, 218 pp..

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  1. Oh, I’m glad this has an illustrator’s introduction, I wish all Folio editions would include those. I always want to know more about what lies behind the illustrator’s choices.

    I hadn’t been sure this is for me, but your description is most intriguing and it sounds like a book with lots to say for our time. I’m also glad to hear of the improvemed translation; we miss out on so many treasures of world literature that are poorly translated or not at all. Thanks so much for this thoughtful review!

    1. I’m with you on the illustrator’s intro.
      On the translation: Gollancz, in their SF Masterworks series have several of the Strugatskys’ novels, all in more recent restored translations, with afterwords by Boris.

  2. This looks amazing, Annabel – I’ve yet to read the book (and must check which translation I have) but I did watch Stalker many years ago and was hypnotised by the imagery. Plus the images look stunning!

    1. The images in Stalker are hypnotising, but because it just takes one bit of the plot of the book and de-SFs it, it was strange and very slow. (I’ve now read Geoff Dyer’s Zona – which dissects the film in detail – which was fascinating. On my blog soon!)
      The book which presents so much more of the life of Red, the stalker, has more plot, more characterisation and subtext (for me at least).

  3. Chicago Review Press have published 9 Strugatsky titles in recent years. The latest 2 were published in April – The Waves Extinguish the Wind (aka The Time Wanderers) and The Beetle in the Anthill.

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