Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (translated by Antonina W Bouis)

(I’ve tagged this up as a Digging for Gold post as well as a Vintage SciFi Month one because I wouldn’t even have a copy of Roadside Picnic if it weren’t for the Motherload. Sorry for any visual confusion this may cause!)

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were both far too glum for me when I was at university, so I’m not overly surprised that I didn’t vibe with the brothers Strugatsky in the same way that I have with other vintage scifi authors like, say, C J Cherryh and Samuel R Delany. I fully recognise that this is down to my very Western, very Anglo bias, but I still found a lot to appreciate in this famous piece of Soviet science fiction from the Seventies.

Far better people than me can and have written about Roadside Picnic’s profundity. I particularly enjoyed Calmgrove’s thoughts, which swayed me to read it for this year’s Vintage SciFi Month. I read it for enjoyment and with an eye to what it might have brought to the ongoing feast of science fiction, but I’m certainly not going to pretend I understood all of what I read. Which we’ll get to.

The cast of characters aren’t the nicest bunch of people I’ve ever spent time with, but they’re by no means the worst either. The Strugatsky brothers are good at sketching characters quickly and making them believable. Redrick, Guta, Dr Pilman, Richard Noonan, even Buzzard Burbridge are all people of the everyday, not caricatures or exemplars, and I appreciated that a lot (I’m side-eyeing Poul Anderson here). Redrick, our stalker MC, is hot-tempered and he likes a drink or twelve; he also loves his wife Guta and their daughter Monkey; he’s also prepared to sacrifice someone else’s life for his own survival. But that’s part of why he’s good at what he does: the Zone, that messed-up, off-limits area that aliens visited briefly some thirty years before the story starts, is a ruthless and nonsensical place after all.

If there is one thing I will take away from this book, it’s the Zone. Every time Red went in, officially or unofficially, the tension ratcheted up. Each new peculiarity – spots where gravity works differently, puddles of “witch’s jelly” that can turn a person’s limbs boneless, patches of sudden blistering heat, “itchers” and “spitting devil’s cabbage”, zombies and “empties” – seemed more terrifying and mystifying than the last, hinting at scientific knowledge we can’t begin to fathom. An extra layer of scary is added by the likelihood that such things are merely alien rubbish, not significantly placed for us to discover, but forgotten like a sandwich wrapper and an empty drinks can.

The Zone also has a melancholic feel to it. A large, once inhabited area that has now been made out-of-bounds, it is equally littered with human things – with houses and roads and vehicles – some of which still appear pristine, even after thirty years, while others show signs of age and decay; (I recently found a photographer on Instagram who works in Japan and has started sharing photos of Akiya – abandoned houses in rural areas – which are often still furnished, and these photos have definitely played a part in how I imagined the Zone).

The book is split into six sections, covering a period of approximately eight years (Red is 23 when we first meet him, and 31 when we leave him), over which time attitudes towards the Zones and the stalkers who venture into them shift. People flock to the Zones, then away from them, the market for alien artefacts thrives, and later apparently declines (there is a finite number of artefacts, after all, and the powers that be work to staunch the flow), stalkers find new ways of working, the world ebbs and flows.

But the ending has me stumped.




Throughout the book a mythical item has been mentioned – a golden sphere that can grant wishes – that is buried deep within the dangerous, peculiar Zone. This artifact sounded like hokum to me, a kind of fairytale item left by benevolent visitors (a wish in itself), rather than another piece of alien trash, and I was fully expecting the book to end with this revelation. Instead, Red actually finds it and the book ends with him making his wish.

At least, I think so.

What I’m supposed to take away from this, I have no clue –

That despite everything that he’s been through, Red is still able to make a selfless wish? That doesn’t feel likely after the downbeat road that Red has travelled from young lab assistant to weary, older stalker.

That at the end of this final, traumatic trip into the Zone he’s unable to think for himself, and ‘borrows’ the wish his companion was going to make? That doesn’t really feel like it either.

That when actually faced with the possibility of something good happening, if he can only ask for the right thing, he can’t find the words to articulate what he wants? I feel like this is pretty close to what the text actually says, but I still feel like I’m missing something.

And I still can’t help but wonder why there’d be a wish-granting thing at all. Despite all the other weirdness, this is a step beyond where my brain can go.


So, answers on a postcard please! Why a wish-granting golden ball? And what does it all mean?




  1. Hah, I’m glad you’re indulging in a bit of head-scratching too! You’ll have seen that my review of this also didn’t reach a positive conclusion (another reason the Soviet censors weren’t happy with it back then) but tried to evoke grail quests, Alexander Pope, cod philosophy et al.

    But, frankly, I don’t think this story could’ve ended anyway else but inconclusively except to imply that First Contact with anything alien would mess with the human mind and squeeze the bejabers out of logical thought processes.

    I’m currently reading Christopher Priest’s The Evidence, another in his Dream Archipelago series, and the sense of *nothing* quite making sense, in a world where gravitational and temporal anomalies abound, is so reminiscent of this Strugatsky novel.

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    • I agree, a conclusive ending wouldn’t have worked.
      I’m very interested in the parallels you’ve noticed with your current read. The echoes of ideas over time and across authors is fascinating.

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  2. I have not read anything by the Strugatsky’s, so I can’t off any insights.

    Good to see some older SF being posted about and NOT in that clinically detached, let’s dissect this like it is actually important, kind of way that I have found many bloggers treat vintage SF nowadays. Keep up the good work.

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  3. I’m Eastern European and I also don’t get Russians… I’ve read a few examples of Russian Soviet-time SF and it all was more mysticism/philosophy and not a kind of solid SF like you’d get from their Western contemporaries. Strugaccy definitely showed how incomprehensible a truly alien civilization might be for us, but for me Russia itself is alien, cold and incomprehensible.

    The ending… I read it to long ago to remember, sadly, sorry 😉

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