The attempts to gain publication of Roadside Picnic is a story in itself; like most Russian literature this novel was originally serialised in a literary magazine. Attempts to publish in book form took over eight years, mainly due to denial by the Department for Agitation and Propaganda. The heavily censored book that originally was published was a significant departure to what the authors originally wrote. I am unclear as to whether the new translation I read corrected this censorship, to quote the back of the book “this authoritative new translation corrects many errors and omissions”. I know some of the corrections made included to the original translation starting thirty years after the visitation rather than thirteen but unsure what else was changed. However, despite the censorship and notwithstanding the fact this novel was out-of-print in America for thirty years; Roadside Picnic is wildly regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.
Reading this again after finishing Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance), the debt is obvious. If VanderMeer hasn’t read Roadside Picnic, there’s a whole bunch of similarities: the central idea, that maybe humans and aliens won’t/can’t understand each other, the mysterious and unknowable purpose behind the alien presence, the transformations of people in and around the Zone, even the revenant people who
The most interesting thing about Roadside Picnic is the parallels it has with Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (2011), which it predates by about 40 years. That book is about a strange area known as Area X, where bizarre physical phenomena occur and many expeditions have gone in but have never returned. Of course it is not revealed whether Area X was due to aliens or other more occult sources, and the novel is stylistically much closer to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and the New Weird school of fiction. Vandermeer loves to mix genres, injecting lots of horror and mystery elements, and has some fantastic descriptive writing. But Annihilation and Roadside Picnic do share the same DNA: a refusal to disclose their mysteries to the reader. They show the limitations of human knowledge, and our powerlessness when faced with a superior and mysterious force. The characters of Annihilation are more unreliable narrators than Red, and less easy to relate to. In the end, it wasn’t my favorite book, but it is still worth reading if you are interested in classic Russian SF.
So was Roadside Picnic good? I thought the central concept was excellent, but I’d be hard-pressed to say I enjoyed the book. It spent a lot of time with Red drunk in the bar, commiserating with various others in the strange subculture that develops around the Zones, which are generally desolate and sparsely populated. The various shady buyers and their schemes to get artifacts weren’t as interesting as I hoped, and the actual time within the Zones was frequently anticlimactic. His family life with his wife and mutant daughter was more promising, but didn’t really develop enough dramatic depth. And the ending… I had to go back and re-listen twice just to make sure I hadn’t skipped a final chapter by mistake.