A Roadside Picnic | Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

“‘The risen dead have no place to return,’ he enunciated, ‘and that is why they’re sorrowful and stern.'” Chapter 3, Page 107

Concept art from a proposed “Roadside Picnic” TV Show, by Alexey Andreyev

I began reading this book in November of 2020. I read two chapters, put the book down for a couple months and then finished in January. I love the Strugatsky brothers. I first read their novel “Hard to Be God” in college. I got lost in that book with its grim take on human nature and society with the hero’s search for hope underlining the expansive world and alternate history. So naturally I was excited to pick up the brothers’ most famous work. But the book didn’t hook me like “Hard to Be God” did. There is enough share of the muck, mud, and foul human nature required for Strugatsky realism. A point of contrast being that in “Hard to Be God” the main character is a fair and enlightened undercover historian trying to preserve another world through its dark ages, the very definition of hopeful heroism. However, in “Roadside Picnic” the readers are confronted with their own present world and with characters slucking through the same daily muck but to merely scavenge and sell discarded alien trash. Without a hero to really cheer for, my mind wasn’t so easily captivated. But I guess this was the point. To show how shallow our modern world really is.

Roadside Picnic just makes me think about how loathsome humans are or at least seem to be. In a parallel modern world that reeks of scientific-conceit, self-obsession, and social manipulation, the book demonstrates how a chance encounter from something bigger than ourselves would leave the way we live and how we see the world in utter turmoil. Our understanding of the sciences and the universe unraveled; people in the book begin using discarded shards of space-time (whole galaxies) for trinkets. Even our loves and relationships would be changed beyond recognition; I can’t forget the scene where the main character’s mutated monkey-child leans her head on the reanimated corpse of his father, both unexpected consequences of the encounter. How utterly dumb our lives could seem with just the knowledge that something so beyond us is just down the road in the our little galaxy.

It makes me think about a lecture I recently attended by Orthodox theologian Fr. John Behr. In the lecture, Father Behr remarked on how removed the average modern is from death. We don’t see it, we have nurses care for our elderly and morticians clean them up after the deed is done. And this is apart of the greater alienation we experience from our own bodies and lives. We have mechanized and compartmentalized everything. From birth to death, through schools, jobs, religions, the talking boxes big or small we sit in front of, every facet of life is automated and ordered as an expert has so determined for the best aggregate life. We don’t mind for the most part, so long as we find meaning and comfort in the midst of our assembly-line. Then a couple of transcendent beings decide to have a picnic on a random sphere of dirt and that world and the meaning we give it is outmoded. Whatever scrap the aliens left behind made our scheme for self-centered Utopia frivolous, naked. And we are left with the now rusting social mechanisms and our own selfish selves.

I’ll need to the read the book again in a couple of years. And although dreary I do recommend it. I have no doubt many of the themes and ideas have passed me by. But its story and ambiance have been added to my new forming collection of Strugatsky dreamscapes. I’ll watch Andrei Tarkovsky critically acclaimed film “Stalker” which was based on the book sometime in the near future, so I may add some new comments then. Let me know if you’ve read the book or have any thoughts or questions. I’d love to hear your perspective.

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