Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Another gem introduced to me by my friends at Goodreads. This short novel is a "how-to" on sidelong insinuations, information gaps, and inferences that make for a wholly satisfying story. The main character, Redrick Schuhart, starts out as an entrepreneurial collector of alien artifacts, and becomes a hardened, curmudgeonly, but effective artifact hunter searching for (view spoiler)[the ultimate prize, a golden ball that purportedly gives the owner his wishes (hide spoiler)]. The Strugatsky brothers use multiple Points-of-View, switching from first person to third person, moving in and out of people's thoughts as they go. I tend to like stories done in this way, when it's done well, and it is done well here. In this case, the shifting viewpoints allow the authors to focus in or telescope out on events and attitudes, as needed. The result is a very rich narration, especially for such a short book.
The premise is simple. Aliens have left some things behind. They reside in "The Zone," a contaminated area from which the government is trying to protect its citizens. "Stalkers" go in and collect the artifacts, then resell them. No one quite knows the full functionality of the artifacts, and no one understands the full dangers of "The Zone". This makes for some intriguing and intense moments throughout.
The tone of the book is akin to that of some noir works, dark, gritty, getting darker and grittier as the tale wears on. I suspect that many of the discussions and plot line centering around the artifact trade are reflective of the Soviet-era underground economy (i.e., Black Market). I have no proof of this, but I wonder. Some friends of mine in high school traveled to the USSR in the late '80s. They had heard rumors about what a pair of American jeans could buy over there, so a few took over extra pairs, in case opportunity presented itself. One came back with one less pair of jeans and one more Soviet "bear hat" from one of the border guards that "inspected" their bus. Crazy, and true. But I digress.
Like many great books, the meaning of the ending is left up to the reader. Is this novel about triumph over existential angst? Or is it about the inevitability of our naivete conquering our logic and good sense? I don't know. But the fact that I am left meditating upon these questions shows clearly that Roadside Picnic was no mere picnic.
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