Friday, 12 July 2013

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Being below the concern of alien beings is not a new science fiction theme (although it is a relatively rare one), but I've never read a book that examined the idea quite like this. Ursula K. Le Guin's foreword is right - most of the time, the people who interact with alien technology are highly skilled and educated, even if, as in Rendezvous With Rama, the aliens couldn't care less about us.

Not so in Roadside Picnic. Alien artifacts lie littered in several "Zones" along the surface of the earth (which lie, states a scientist in the book, along a line that would match up with objects being shot at a spinning object from a very great distance). The aliens who brought them have gone, leaving their refuse behind, like the remnants of a roadside picnic - hence the name of the book.

Are the artifacts there as a test of knowledge? A test of faith? Or just discarded, carelessly, with no thought for the havoc they could cause?

Because cause havoc they do. For every useful discovery, like the spacell batteries, there are gravity distortions that could crush unwary trespassers. Or, you know, hellslime. I'm pretty sure the name says it all. In addition, the children of those who get too close are likely to be born...different. And corpses start to walk. And bad luck accompanies those who try to leave.

But as dangerous as the Zones are, people go in. And most of those who dare are the Stalkers, who go in by night, not only likely to be killed by the hellslime or other unpredictable hazards, but also by guards patrolling the fence. But they go, because what they bring back could make them rich.

They are desperate, they are scared (if they're going to survive.) And some of them, such as Red, the protagonist of the story, seem to have a special affinity to the Zone and its hazards.

This book feels hollow. Not shallow, but the world that is created, through what comes across in translation as very spare prose, has hollowness at its centre. There is no moral centre. There is no social centre. Near the Zone, the Zone is the centre, and it provides little but fear and frustration. The scientists can barely ever figure out what they're looking at, and even when they make something work, they have no idea if it has any relation to the original purpose.

Humans who live near the Zone have to live face to face with, not only knowledge that they aren't alone in the universe, but the knowledge that it couldn't care less, and is suddenly and abruptly likely to bite.

Roadside Picnic is a quick read, but it's one that is likely to stay with me for a while. The world that is created comes into being in quick strokes, but remains vivid in my memory.

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