Tag Archives: Boris Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Roadside Picnic [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky, trans Olena Bormashenko, foreword Ursula K Le Guin.

Strugatsky Roadside Picnic

I had encountered enough references to Roadside Picnic for it to have been on my wishlist for years. It was clearly an influence on some of my favorite 21st-century sf, notably VanderMeer’s Annihilation and Harrison’s Nova Swing.

The version I read was the 2012 “new translation” which freed the original Russian text from hostile Soviet publisher’s edits. An afterword by Boris Strugatsky provides a partial account of the authors’ struggle with publishing authorities. It wasn’t Soviet political ideology they ran afoul of. LeGuin in her 2012 foreword (drawing on a 1977 review) calls the story “indifferent to ideology” (vi), and it is in fact rather hostile to liberal economics and bourgeois morality. Surprisingly, it was a blinkered escapist editorial aesthetic that interfered with the Strugatskys’ work in the publishing environment of 1970s Soviet sf.

On the whole, I read the book’s philosophy to be one of cosmic indifferentism verging on existentialism. The “stalker” protagonist Red isn’t really an anti-hero, although he is a criminal without revolutionary aspirations. A “stalker” in this book is a freelance looter of artifacts resulting from a Visit by some inscrutable extraterrestrial power.

The book is short and reads quickly, with a prologue for some background and four longish chapters set over a twelve-year span in the town of Harmont, which has been partly absorbed by one of the Zones of alien effects and residues.

I haven’t seen the Tartovsky film Stalker (1979) based on this book, but I am now curious to do so. To no small degree, the story strikes me as what you’d get if Eugene O’Neill wrote a science fiction novel.

These reactionaries preserved their moral purity (as reactionaries so often do) by not reading, so they didn’t have to see that Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind.

Ursula K Le Guin introducing Arkady Strugatsky & Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Le Guin Strugatsky Roadside Picnic reactionaries preserved moral purity not reading soviet writers using science fiction for years write relative freedom ideology