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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Future's No 'Roadside Picnic'

Classic Soviet sci-fi reissued in paperback

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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, reissued in a paperback English-language edition by Chicago Review Press, is a classic Soviet-era science fiction novel that rivals the work of Bradbury, Asimov and Ellison. It's hard not to notice the Cold War references in its description of the slow dismantling of machines of mass destruction (with a few still floating in the black market).

The story concerns a forbidden, environmentally damaged "Zone," littered with debris left by mysterious alien "Visitors," and a secretive government agency controlling all information about "The Visit." Large areas have been destroyed and many people died as a result of this Visit, mostly from radiation poisoning and blunt trauma. The hero of this tale, Redrick Schuhart, is a "Stalker"—an adventurer who uses the cover of darkness to go into dead zones to scavenge anything that can be carried out in pockets, backpacks, cars, etc. Many people are without jobs, homes or money, and Schuhart does what he can to help family and friends survive starvation and resist the mutations found in the environment.

Although it passed inspection from Soviet censors, the novel contained many references to a system that was failing. Roadside Picnic was the basis for a classic Soviet film, director Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, and has inspired the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It remains a powerful and disturbing vision of the future.