“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music.
In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind…
And of course, the usual mess – apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”
So, um… I read this book LAST AUGUST. I already knew I was way way way behind on my book reviews, but I didn’t realize just how far behind I was until I looked through my drafts this morning and found this one!
I don’t have a copy of Roadside Picnic at the moment, so I’ll just review it to the best of my ability and hope I didn’t misremember anything. (Also, thank god Goodreads exists, because some of the other reviews helped refresh my memory.)
I read this book on vacation last year because A) I’d already read all the books I that I brought and B) my brother recommended it to me. My brother doesn’t read that much, and he hardly ever reads stories – mostly he reads programming magazines that I don’t even understand. But he really really loves this book, so I decided to give it a try.
Roadside Picnic was written in the 1970s by two brothers from Russia – hence the “new translation” bit on the cover above. It was made into a movie that I haven’t yet seen. It’s quite short – only about two hundred pages long – and it’s told through a mixture of interviews, a first-person POV, and a third-person POV.
And it’s really, really weird.
Roadside Picnic is science fiction – more specifically, dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction. Now, I know I probably shouldn’t love dystopian fiction so much because, well, DYSTOPIAN WORLDS WOULD BE TERRIBLE TO LIVE IN, but I can’t help it! I love dystopian novels. And this one was a nice change from all the YA dystopians I read!
Roadside Picnic takes place in a world that has just been visited by aliens… but they didn’t STAY. In countless other books, films, and TV shows, we’ve imagined that when aliens visit, they will want to kill us. Or enslave us. At the very least, they’ll want to negotiate with us and spend a lot of time following us around and wanting to learn more about our culture.
But what if the aliens ignored us?
In Roadside Picnic, scientists eventually realize that the aliens aren’t coming back. They visited Earth for a short time – for a picnic, if you will – and gave humans as much attention as we ourselves would give to ants at a picnic. Which is to say, not very much.
When they departed, they left their trash behind and it really, really screwed up the world. Accidentally, though. They didn’t mean to; it just happened.
Red, the protagonist of Roadside Picnic, is a “stalker” who illegally enters Russia’s “Visitation Zone” to look for artifacts, which he then sells to scientists and collectors.
There is a reason it’s illegal to enter a Zone, though – actually, there are loads and loads of reasons. People die in the Zone. Objects are warped by forces that no one quite understands. Stalkers’ children are born with genetic mutations.
It’s hard to describe Roadside Picnic, but “unsettling” may be the most apt word here. Red’s uncertainty and hopelessness and fear lingered in my mind for a long, long time. For a story that isn’t shelved in the horror section, this book certainly is creepy.
Like… there’s just so much the characters – even the scientists – don’t know. It’s just alien trash, so why does it harm people who get too close to it? What, specifically, harms these people? The dead come alive, children become something decidedly not human, and all because of some bits and pieces the aliens left scattered in their wake.
DON’T LITTER, PEOPLE. ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE FROM ANOTHER PLANET. LOL.
…anyway. I loved Roadside Picnic, loved its bizarre feeling and nightmarish setting and confused characters. I loooooved its ambiguity – I mean, wow, THAT ENDING.
I know this isn’t exactly the latest, most-hyped fiction, and it’s not YA, and it’s not about a plucky teenage girl who punches people and overthrows the government (…even I don’t know which one I’m specifying here, there are so many of those characters), but… really, you should give Roadside Picnic a try. Look for it at the library, or find it at a cheap used-book website. (I love AbeBooks.com for this sort of thing.)
I love finding books that are like nothing else in their respective genre, and Roadside Picnic has this in spades. Sure, it’s not the newest story, but it IS a really, really good one. Whether you adore classic sci fi or just want a break from the standard YA dystopian fare, I think you’d find Roadside Picnic a compelling story.