A being darkly wise

Roadside Picnic
by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.
Translated by Olena Bormashenko,
foreword by Ursula K Le Guin,
afterword by Boris Strugatsky, 2012.
Gollancz, 2012 (1972).

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

From ‘An Essay on Man: Epistle II’ by Alexander Pope

Superficially a speculative thriller, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic for me turned out to be a deeply philosophical novel under its science-fictiony veneer. For the most part it focuses on a character called Redrick, a chancer who lives for the pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, gambling and occasional sex, living at some unspecified future time somewhere in North America. So, initially, a not very edifying tale.

The ostensible premise is that extraterrestrial visitors have touched down at six points on the Earth’s surface and then just as mysteriously departed, leaving behind their detritus in what turn out to be highly dangerous, disturbance-filled Zones. It is for this debris that Redrick and others enter the Zone adjacent to Harmont, to retrieve alien junk for the black market.

But there are deeper matters to think about than mere cupidity. At the central point of the novel we find ourselves listening to a conversation about the implications of this First Contact, implications that should matter to all humankind but which if ever considered are soon forgotten. In its underhand way Roadside Picnic encourages us to quietly consider those implications.

When Alexander Pope wrote about quintessential Man as “Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, | A being darkly wise, and rudely great” he could easily have had in mind not just the human race in general but someone like Redrick in particular. Red is a Stalker, one of the best, expert at navigating through the toxic Harmont Zone to retrieve desired objects exhibiting perpetual motion, everlasting energy and other impossible attributes. He is happy to sell to the local branch of the International Institute of Extraterritorial Cultures or to the highest bidder, and despite official clampdowns he is generally lucky in getting away with his illegal forays.

In her foreword to this edition Ursula Le Guin describes Red as “ordinary to the point of being ornery,” and it would be easy to think this is about him and the various and varied people he comes into contact with. It would be equally easy to think this is about the absent aliens and their marvellous artefacts and thus typical of ‘hard sf’ with its focus on mechanics, astrophysics and the like. But we would be wrong to think along these lines, for this novel challenges us to think about our humanity.

For, contrary to the thinking of xenologists who might, as with certain religionists, imagine alien minds – or those of deities – to ultimately function in a way similar to humans, it may be that there’ll be in fact no way for aliens to communicate with us, or indeed for them to be aware of us. The Visit that occurred for the people of Harmont and others, and the debris they left behind, could be likened to a roadside picnic by day trippers or holidaymakers with their discarded litter, with no message of significance intended. So are we supposed to regard the novel as essentially nihilistic in tone?

I don’t think so. In many ways Roadside Picnic is a modern equivalent to the medieval quest for the holy grail. The last section of the novel is, in amongst Red’s stream of consciousness musings, a physical search for an object that might grant wishes, the attainment of which could result in the quester’s transfiguration, or the healing of mankind’s woes, or maybe nothing at all. That Red is accompanied by a young man called Arthur may or mayn’t be relevant; but that Redrick is himself a Perceval or Galahad surely can’t be in doubt.

And what is the story’s notional goal? Is it about man’s search for meaning? Is it to discover the soul of humanity? Or is it instead a chimaera, an insubstantial construct? Written before his death, Boris Strugatsky’s afterword mentions the initial notes he and his brother made for Roadside Picnic: “Thirty years after the alien visit, the remains of the junk they left behind are at the center of quests and adventures, investigations and misfortunes. The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it. …” In other words, quests which may end in failure, and questions may have no answers.

Alexander Pope in his 1733 Essay on Man wrote that Man, “With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, | With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, | He hangs between,” adding that this in-between state rendered the individual “in doubt to act, or rest; | In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast …”

God or beast? Redrick may not have decided on which side he leans, but perhaps he asks himself whether he’s primarily a sceptic or a stoic. As this reader has often done.

Image: Simon Fetscher

Read for the tenth anniversary of #SciFiMonth, hosted by Lisa at deargeekplace.com and Imyrel at onemore.org. I’m currently reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) for the centenary of his birth in November 1922.

33 thoughts on “A being darkly wise

    1. Oh, how mean of you, Bart – yet another title to investigate! Still, I’ve yet to read any Harrison (who I used to mix up with Harry Harrison) though I’ve heard of his Viroconium books.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Are Earth dolphins and whales trying to figure out how to pick anything useful from our floating islands of plastic waste?

    And the closing line of A Canticle for Leibowitz, about the shark being very hungry that season. Is there an end before the apocalypse – or only without humans?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Watching filmed sequences of a pod of orca working together to dislodge seals from ice floes suggests that they could be brighter than some humans I know …

      Yet to read A Canticle for Leibowitz, Alicia, though I’ll be sure to place it higher in my wishlist now!


    2. One of the best literary science fiction novels ever, and deals with humans and their tendency to create chaos while trying to tame it with religion. You have a treat coming. Absolutely timeless. And I heartily recommend Miller’s amazingly creative and dense short stories.

      The Canticle was published in 1959; here is a 2014 piece in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/science-fiction-classic-still-smolders.

      Don’t want to bury you, but Wikipedia states, “The book is considered one of the classics of science fiction and has never been out of print. Appealing to mainstream and genre critics and readers alike, it won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, and its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state have generated a significant body of scholarly research. A sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was published posthumously in 1997.” [In my opinion, skip the sequel – it will, like Go Set a Watchman, disappoint. And was finished posthumously by someone else.]

      I think you will like how the Canticle connects and resonates – into the medieval world you are so familiar with. Read the book before digging into the huge body of commentary – don’t let anyone else tell you what to think.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It really deserves its plaudits, Annabel. Sadly this is the only bit of speculative fiction I’ve fitted in this month; as you say there’s too much else going on. But there’s always Vintage SciFi Month in January – oh wait, somebody’s doing a Scandinavian FINDS theme then, aren’t they…


  2. I loved Roadside Picnic sort of the same way I love the SF story Goldfish Bowl, by Robert Heinlein, about how maybe aliens are treating the humans who have penetrated their consciousness the way we treat goldfish. Reading these stories upended my perspective.

    Another vote for reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s also an old favorite that formed some of my perspectives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, another title for me to be considering, Jeanne, along with the Miller – so much out there for me to discover for myself! We’re probably not alone, but even if we were (there’s no guarantee there’ll ever be a First Contact, of course) it does us good to not believe we’re the pinnacle of creation or of whatever forces brought us into being.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    What I read of Russian SF was generally more philosophy than SF… I remember reading an essay exploring why it was so, but too long ago to remember much. In communist Poland SF was often anti-regime in a veiled way (“The totalitarian regime on this planet that absolutely-is-not-Earth is totally not based on our glorious communist government, wink, wink” 😉 )

    Anyway, a couple of days ago FSB shot dead a couple of airsoft players playing an outdoor game loosely based on “Roadside Picnic”, and I think that’s so Russia, it’s worth mentioning here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The edition of this translation includes Boris Strugatsky’s 2012 afterword (published the year he died) and he details the problems the pair had with the authorities before it appeared in book form – mainly to do with it not being wholesome enough more than it being directly critical of Mother Russia in the Soviet era. So yes, this is a philosophical take on speculative fiction and, dare I say it, more international than parochial with it’s implied North American setting, its Kipling influences, its implicit criticism of corporate and individual greed. That Polish SF of the time had a different approach is interesting, Piotrek, and to me intriguing.

      I thought airsoft weapons were a different colour to conventional arms and so less likely to be mistaken for the real thing, so I wonder at the FSB incident. But then, if security forces are more jittery than usual because the current mess Putin has engineered then this news item doesn’t surprise me.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. piotrek

        About Polish 1980ties SF – I do not necessarily recommend reading it, as most of these books were pretty plain, audience was satisfied with simple satire, censors allowed it to be published as SF was niche enough, and criticism not direct. Most Polish genre lit has right-wing tendencies and poor literary value since then, Sapkowski’s Witcher being a proud exception. It’s changing, but slowly. How Russian genre changed after the Soviet era, I don’t know, I’ve only read Glukhovsky (Metro 2033) and he was serviceable, but not great.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. It is exactly that, Jo, except that we never meet the aliens let alone have any notion of their physicality. In fact other than that they appear to originate from the Tau Ceti solar system about 12 light-years away all that can be understood about them is that they are like day trippers leaving their litter behind – so not a lot unlike humans after all!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember Arrival being heavily trailed but never got round to watching it – but at least I enjoyed Gravity which I think was around the same time! Spielberg did a few of those more thoughtful early First Contact films, didn’t he (ET, Close Encounters) and Bowie did The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the there were a load of even earlier novels which successfully played on the theme which I remember reading, including The Kraken Wakes, The Black Cloud and others.


  4. I’m toying with reading Roadside Picnic this month for Vintage SciFi Month – and your thoughts here have made it extra tempting.
    (Also reading through the comments has given me a bit of a reading list! 🤣)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh do read it, it’s a thoughtful, haunting tale – at least I found it so! And I envy your relative youth being able to read this 1972 novel for Vintage SciFi Month, I’m really struggling to find decent titles pre-1948 and am reduced to classics by the likes of H G Wells and Verne. But I’m pleased the comments have given you more fodder for you to forge!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I find November’s SciFiMonth more open, while the vintage version definitely limits SF to before I was born. Still, I’m reposting a review of Asimov’s 1951 work Foundation as most of it was written and published as short stories in the mid-forties.


            1. I read a few Foundation titles some years ago and they were heavy going even back then, with social attitudes and behaviours very much of the time they were written. But you may be able to judge better when my review reappears in a few days time!

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (translated by Antonina W Bouis) – bookforager

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