Thursday, June 27, 2024

Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

What if humans were so uninteresting—or perhaps simply unrecognizable as intelligent—to aliens that Earth was simply a rest stop on a longer journey? It’s a great premise, and it spawns a fascinating world: the garbage the aliens leave behind enthrall scientists and smugglers alike, and society is irrevocably altered by both alien technology and the knowledge that humans are not alone in the world.

While the premise is fascinating, the exploration of the relationship between humans and alien technology felt a little shallow. We are presented briefly with the mutagenic properties of the alien wasteland, perpetual motion machines and infinite energy sources, zombies, gravity traps, and wish-granting orbs. At first, the world feels rich and weird and scary and captivating. The prose (and translation) is tight and vivid, the pacing fast, the balance between exposition and mystery perfect. But we move through each new thought quickly, passing them by before really getting to explore them. An exception is the third section of this book, notable for being the only one told through the eyes of Noonan, a scientific equipment contractor and spy who tracks alien tech smuggling operations, and not Redrick, a smuggler (or stalker, in the book’s tongue). In Noonan’s wheelings and dealings, we zoom out from the smuggling underbelly to see how society has shifted around the alien technology, and the “roadside picnic” explanation for the alien encounter is examined. We see an adaptable and resilient humanity, and a humanity that is largely incurious about the nature of aliens but for how their technology can produce new commodities and ensure an endless availability of alcohol and prostitutes.

My disappointment here is certainly a matter of taste, and helped me understand my own interests in science fiction a little better. I like big stories, with the fantastical elements of the world highly interconnected with society and examined in depth and from every angle. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, and Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem series fit these criteria. By the end of the stories, the mysteries feel understood, crystal clear. The mysteries of The Zone remain murky, and so the conclusion felt abrupt.

One of the alien mysteries is the wish-granting sphere, which a side character uses to create for himself two perfect children (having beaten his wife to death). The narrative implies the children are inhuman. The daughter is incredibly beautiful, and Redrick sexualizes her and sleeps with her but finds it an empty experience, she is a shell of a person. The boy seems a little naive, and Redrick sacrifices him in The Zone to save himself (towards the end of ensuring the life of his daughter). An allegorical interpretation is that they are the neglected children of a wealthy businessman — a dime a dozen in gated communities. Sure, it’s a way to critique trophy wives and status symbols. But the reader must rely on Redrick’s word for their inhumanity. Furthermore, the allegory feels a bit mixed and messy since no one appears to be particularly human by the end (the revived dead, Redrick’s mutant daughter) and the “inhuman” teen has a wiser and more human prescription for how to fix society, which Redrick unthinkingly adopts: “happiness, free for everyone, and let no one be forgotten.”

Though I feel like there is a much more interesting story that could spring from the premise, I’ll judge it for what it is instead: Roadside Picnic is about a sharp but anti-intellectual alcoholic with a fierce, protective love of his family, and a hatred for society, who doesn’t know what he wants in the world and doesn’t discover the answer. It’s fine.

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