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.
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.