This took me by surprise. If it weren’t for Luke Burrage’s Science Fiction Book Review Podcast (it’s great, you should check it out) and the new translation of this novel mentioned on io9, this wouldn’t have my next pick out of the SFF Masterworks series. But slim as the novel is, I picked it up as a sci-fi counterweight to all the fantasy and fairy tales I’m currently reading and I was more than pleasantly surprised.
original title: Пикник на обочине
translated by: Olena Bormashenko
published: Chicago Review Press, 2012 (1972)
my rating: 7,5/10
first sentence: Interviewer: I suppose that your first important discovery, Dr. Pillman, was the celebrated Pillman radiant?
Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those misfits who are compelled, in spite of the extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone and collect the mysterious artefacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. Even the nature of his mutant daughter has been determined by the Zone. And it is for her that he makes his last, tragic foray into the hazardous and hostile territory.
I can’t say I’ve read many first contact novels. This novel is kind of a roundabout way of being “first contact”. Aliens have visited the Earth but they didn’t stay. Instead, they left all manner of alien artifacts lying around in what is now called the Zones, areas where strange things happen ever since the visit. The laws of physics seem to go haywire, there is strange slime left scattered about, and TV antennae seem to have grown fine, electrically charged hair.
We start the story a few years after the visit happened with Redrick “Red” Shuhart working for the International Insitute that studies alien artifacts and the effects of the Zone. He is one of the stalkers who go into the zone, risking their lives, to retrieve whatever it was the Aliens left behind. There are so many great concepts and ideas involving the Zones, I was taken in immediately. The Strugatsky brothers’ description of a so-called “empty” still leaves me baffled. And yet, not being able to describe it properly himself, they managed to draw a picture in my head.
Red’s ventures into the Zone were edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and even though he warns us readers about who has already died in the Zone, the moments in that Zone we spend with him and his small crew were terrifying and reminded me more of a thriller than a sci-fi novel. I was absolutely gripped and feared for Red’s life on more than one occasion. In such a small novel, I consider this quite an impressive feat. Some authors don’t manage to build up this much suspense on a lote more pages. But the Strugatsky brothers didn’t leave me hanging.
Ever chapter can almost be seen as a story of its own, a little vignette, if you like. We change perspectives, usually returning to Red in one way or another, and get to see what happens at the Institute, on the black market, and in the town of Harmont where these aliens decided to land and have their “roadside picnic”.
My greatest compliments to the translator – I don’t speak Russian (not even a little) but the language felt natural and had a nice flow to it. Characters use the occasional swear-word and except for a few too many repetitions (especially about lighting a cigarette or “lighting up” and “taking a sip” which happens on every other page) I didn’t feel like ever putting the book down. The terror of the Zone left me wanting more, discovering – just like the Insitute – what it is that these aliens left on Earth and especially, why they didn’t stay themselves.
The ending let me down a bit. I loved seeing the reverberations of the Zone on local people and on the stalkers especially, who spend a considerable amount of time within the Zones, touching all manner of strange things and having horrible accidents. While there is a finished story arc, I would have wanted more closure at the end. Or maybe a sequel…
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this enthralling and quick read and the SFF Masterworks series continues to grow in my esteem.
THE GOOD: The story sucks you in, scares the shit out of you and leaves you wanting more. Great descriptions, building up atmosphere within very few pages.
THE BAD: Kind of loose ending. Even though it goes with the overall theme and tone, I was hoping for something more.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended sci-fi novel that keeps you guessing and entertained until the very end.
RATING: 7,5/10 Very good book (leaning towards excellent)