Long wishlisted and newly available on the Kindle*, The Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic is to its filmed version, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is to Scott’s Bladerunner. From the movies, you’d expect Dashiell Hammet in the 21st century for the Dick and ordure-tinged, post-apocaplyptic Dostoevsky for the Strugatskys, but you get humour from both, and Stalker didn’t have zombies**. Roadside Picnic is, like Dick’s work, serious in theme but light in touch, its speculative nature firmly on the soft science side of Lem’s taxonomy. Aliens have visited six spots on Earth, Zones, and left mysterious artifacts – or detritus from titans briefly resting during inter-galactic travel, whence the title – which bring joy and sorrow. In five narratively distinct, crisply written parts the novel tells of one Zone in nowheresville USA and the life of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker, one who ventures into a Zone to get the desired artifacts/baubles/waste, intuitively navigating through dangers and phenomena. The ultimate goal is a mythic golden sphere said to grant a person’s deepest wish. And therein is the angry dark soul of humanity. The brutal, amorphous ending flays you open***.
*Part of a series called ‘Rediscovered Classics’. It’s a very limited list of books on which I was ecstatic to find Theodore Roszak’s Flicker. The novel is a terrific and terrifying book about dangerous cults and experimental film – Foucault’s Pendulum meets Raygun and The Ring — which I had long ago found in a secondhand bookstore, loved, and lent out and never gotten back. Despair ebooks and I will give you a hearty raspberry and a hale ‘fuck you’ and happily read.
**They aren’t a big feature but remarkably similar to contemporary zombies. One description of an amputated hand flipping researchers the bird is straight out of Evil Dead II/Dead Alive.
***The new afterword by Boris Strugatsky outlines the quest of getting the novel published in the Soviet Union, one full of more traps than the Zone. Fortunately, the Stugatskys were the greatest of Stalkers.