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Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
(Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions, 9.99, 145 pages, paperback; ISBN 0-575-07053-6; first published 1977, this edition August 2000.)

I remember, when just beginning some academic study a few years back, coming across the name "The Strugatsky Brothers" in textbooks; time after time they were held up as paragons of the genre. I think it was regarding them that I first formulated my (since disproved!) inverse square law of sf quality - which was basically that the quality of sf tended to be in inverse proportion to its availability.

This was purely based on hearsay since the Strugatsky's books have proven to be amongst the most elusive I've ever come across. This, in fact, is the first I've ever come across.

So, does the inverse square law hold? By Clarke, yes!

Roadside Picnic is a brilliantly and beautifully written account of the aftermath of an extraterrestrial visitation. "The Visitors" had appeared, seemed to have gone on the alien equivalent of a stag party at six locations around Earth and then departed as mysteriously as they had arrived, leaving a terrible mess behind them.

The title refers to one researchers' analogy for their visit: that the mysterious, dangerous and awful junk left in their wake is the equivalent of the wrappers, tins and plastic cutlery that such a human excursion might leave behind - similarly mysterious, dangerous and awful to the simple woodland creatures who would have to deal with that.

The landing sites, or Zones, have been hysterically quarantined since the aliens left 30 years ago but are gradually being opened up by "legitimate" scientific research (the consequences of harnessing the alien technology is only given a moral dimension by humanity) and by "Stalkers", criminalised misfits who risk everything in the Zones to bring out mostly incomprehensible scraps of alien technology for sale to the highest bidder.

And the bidding is very high.

The main character is the Stalker Redrick Schuart. His episodic experiences over the course of about 10 years make up the bulk of the book. A fiery and increasingly hardboiled narrator, we watch as Schuart is slowly torn apart inside by his encounters with the Zone, even as all his contemporaries are mutilated externally.

Roadside Picnic bears similarities to Budrys' Rogue Moon, William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land and even Fred Pohl's Gateway in the apparently insane rules of the Zone, but (as much as I enjoyed those books) this is a more powerful examination of what it is to be human - comparable to almost anything in "mainstream" literature. The science fictional elements are ever-present, and to be sure they're the turning point of the story, but they're far from the gee-whiz pyrotechnics that a fair percentage of the genre relies on.

The Zones are places of dark magic and miracles, almost inevitably fatal, where nothing makes sense. But these very same qualities are the ones that enable them to hold such a glamour over grubby and grubbing humanity and drag in endless victims to satisfy the curiosity of the scientists outside.

These scientists make few appearances (it's a very short book!) and when they do they are portrayed as decent people dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge as a worthwhile end in itself. However, the Zones exact a terrible toll on the Stalkers and agents of science alike, not to mention the occasional disaster caused by misunderstood Zone technology, such that the pursuit of knowledge is seen to inevitably have a mortal price.

I'm not the first person to mention the price of these Gollancz reissues (9.99 for less than 150 pages is a bit steep) but this is a truly superb work of science fiction - of any sort of fiction - and I can only conjecture that it's because the Strugatskys are foreign - they're Russian - that they're not (more widely) acknowledged as masters of their art.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 30 September 2000