Review : Roadside Picnic (Novel)

(By Samuel Bourassa)

People whom I see daily pretty much all know that I deeply enjoy science-fiction and specifically one of its sub-genres, post-apocalyptic. As recent video games like Metro 2033, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise and everything that relates to slavic science-fiction captivates me, this genre is also present in all shapes of art. It is very interesting to investigate the genealogy of literature’s genres and sub-genres.

The games I named earlier are all directly adapted from major works of slavic science-fiction like Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie named Stalker or the novel Metro 2033 written by Dmitry Glukhovsky and published in 2005. They both share a common ancestor which is actually the origin of the whole post-apocalyptic slavic literature genealogy. It is Roadside Picnic.

Roadside Picnic is a novel written by the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris, in 1971. From a historical point of view, it is interesting to look upon the fact that the year fits right in the prime years of the U.S.S.R. For the most curious of our readers, the authors have revealed, several years later, the censorship targeting them at that time and how they had to leave their country to be able to get their work published.

Although, this text is a critic. Initially, I developed an interest in the video games above-mentioned and then I went back through the post-apocalyptic genealogy until I reached Roadside Picnic. Honestly, at first, I dreaded the read. I was scared to start reading only to find out the book was an old relic that had lent its qualities to its descendants and that it wouldn’t have anything left to offer. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A few years before the start of the novel, an event happened : the « Visit ». Extraterrestrial beings have landed in half a dozen locations on earth. Although, nobody has seen or heard anything until the visitors left. The places they have visited are now called the Zones. A few kilometers square, those Zones are home to artifacts which are extraterrestrial objects left behind. Several individuals, honest or not, don’t mind paying a lot of money for those relics with strange powers. The Visit also changed the fauna and the flora leading to strange phenomena which are very dangerous. In short, the Zones are places filled with as many dangers as there are treasures.

Logically, those Zones attracted curious men and quickly enough the organized crime and the government got involved. On the outside appears a new social group, the « Stalkers ». These bold individuals enter the Zone frequently and face its many dangers to have the chance to bring back an artifact or two which can lead to great wealth if sold. The main character, Redrick Schuhart, is one of those « Stalkers ».

I was sure Roadside Picnic would be an action novel. But it isn’t. It is a remarkable work of fiction that harnesses the mystery surrounding its world, the vibrant psychology of its characters and the simplicity of its plot. There are no strings being pulled or exciting firefights in this book. Although you will uncover great character development that will suck you in and have you feel what it is to be a Stalker in the Zone. There is a limited number of characters, but each of them is as colorful as it is unique. Also, I believe the heart and the soul of this work of fiction is the lack of answers delivered to the reader. As you read, questions will inevitably develop in your head, although, the authors took the right decision by not revealing too much. A bit of unknown works for the best. In the end, readers must deal with the few shards of truth they will find through the delightful dialogues of Roadside Picnic.

Anyway, I was anxious as I started the book. But I was immediately hooked in a way I cannot even describe. I consumed page after page and as I saw the novel melting each time I would turn a page, I was wondering where the authors were leading me. There had to be a revealing finale or a shocking climax. I’ll let everyone of you appreciate the ending without spoiling it. All I will say is that I had to read a few of the last chapters a second time to make sure I had not missed a clue. What I realized is that the confusion that had struck me through my first reading was absolutely normal. Roadside Picnic is not meant to bring satisfaction to its readers. The book aims to destabilize its public. Its goal is to have the readers think about the human psychology theme existing beneath the plot. It is several weeks later that I realized that Roadside Picnic was one of the best works of fiction I had ever read. My skepticism for the methods used by the authors gave place to a resonating satisfaction. The aura of mystery through which I failed to see is now only getting praise from me.

You can probably tell that I like this book. And you can probably guess that I strongly recommend any fan of fiction literature to give Roadside Picnic a try. It is a very solid novel while also being the origin of a whole literary genre. What Tolkien is for fantasy, Roadside Picnic is for post-apocalyptic fiction.

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