What if aliens visited our planet, but they didn’t want to make contact? What if they came just as intergalactic travelers, stopping by for a little pitstop? What if they left a lot of dangerous stuff behind, that’s solely dangerous because we can’t understand it, and have no way of understanding it?
That’s the premise of Roadside Picnic. A decent little sci-fi story from the Soviet Union. Aliens landed around the world, and then left. But the spots where they landed are filled with extraordinary items, and horrible deaths for those who venture in. It’s illegal of course, but the rewards are vast for the stalkers who go into the dead zones. Our hero, Red, is one of the best. But he has to deal with the consequences of going into an area full of phenomena that no one has a hope of piecing together.
It’s a quite interesting story. A character explains it in human terms like this: insects watch a truck of men camping in the woods, they go to investigate and stumble into some oil spilled by the vehicle, how would they react? They wouldn’t understand it, they would just flounder and die. And that’s what is happening to us. But our air of superiority due to our place on the evolutionary ladder is shattered. How could an intelligent race fail to recognize that we are also intelligent? Probably exactly how we view dolphins.
Unfortunately, if you’ve read one Russian translated novel, you feel like you’ve read them all. There’s a lot of internal dialogue culminating in basically one thought: damn him/her for making me think/feel this way. Which is hard to relate to when the main character isn’t very sympathetic, also a trait of Russian novels. But hey, at least they portray flaws well.
But it’s influence on Russian science fiction is undeniable. Movies, films, and books have been inspired by this novel. It’s a quick read with a partially satisfying conclusion (if you’re a little fatalistic). If you want to catch up on your science fiction history, I’d recommend picking it up.
2 1/2 out of 4 stars.