Roadside Picnic

by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (tr. Olena Bormashenko)

Rating: ★★★

In Roadside Picnic, aliens have visited Earth and moved on, leaving behind five Zones filled with strange and dangerous rubbish, cast-offs of unknown purpose which create great hazards for the young men sneaking in to pilfer the sites.

Having read that paragraph, there is no need to read the book. Aside from the admittedly novel and intriguing conceit, there is essentially no content to the story. Our hero is an everyman of no especial insight or interest, his adventures all rely on applying knowledge he already has rather than figuring out new puzzles in the field. There is some effort to portray second-order effects of the smuggling, study and distribution of artefacts, but very little detail is given to this compared to the great focus on a rather dull cops-and-robbers dynamic. Nothing really happens in the novel.

Which would be okay if the story instead mostly dwelt on the effects of the contact, the technological and social repercussions, the causes and reactions. It doesn't. There is one segment in a bar, where a dialogue with a professor covers some of these bases, and a few allusions to the changes to the local area and how certain gadgets have been understood, but that is essentially it.

The best I can say of the writing is that it is no We or Crime and Punishment -- the characters actually make a certain amount of sense. There are no poetic flights, no witty humour, no poignant moments. The afterword in this version alludes to troubles getting the story published over various trivialities like mentions of violence or vulgarity, which certainly should be kept in but in no way rescue the essentially unremarkable (in translation) prose.

Not terrible, and built on an intriguing premise, but essentially falls flat. It is however short and simple, and suitable if you want a scifi read for a short distraction.