A moody morass rallying against the gray walls of reality, in perfect tone.
This book lilts like a weather-beaten gravestone, sunk in a forest cemetery littered amongst the broken fragments of classic science fiction tropes. Originality shines through in the story line and voice of the authors (and translator—I read the 2012 translation). The plot laps in along the written words in understated waves, cutting into the psyche as silent and nondescript as a straight razor.
The characters are displaced misfits revolving in orbital magnetism around demarcated zones. These “zones” are the site of past visitations from unidentified extraterrestrial beings. In the wake of these visits the aliens have left behind foreign objects that imbue strange physics of unknown purpose. An interesting premise that immediately goes off the rails when it’s revealed that nobody knows anything about the aliens; and that none of this is precipitating a massive invasion. The aliens came and went without saying hello, goodbye or cleaning up after themselves when they exited the planet. What’s left is their junk. Commence story.
The science fiction elements in this tale are subtle and yet present in perfect form. There is no ambiguous allusion to the weird or otherworldly. Strange things happen that are not of this earth, but not in any kind of grandiose fashion. Yes, the planet and mankind’s destiny is forever changed, but not in the way that some Hollywood script might explore. Also absent are long diatribes mining over the murkier parts of dark science. This is not hard sci-fi.
The focus tends to be more on the interpersonal relationships of the characters who live on the fringes of the alien zones and how their immediate, domestic lives are affected. Relationships, work, local politics all center around a black market of trade that has evolved and devolved based on the supply and demand of skilled human workers who can negotiate the dangerous obstacles in the zones and retrieve some of the coveted alien pieces for further study.
There is no quest. Well, that’s not entirely true, but the story is not so much about getting the sacred “boon” to save the world as it is about what we happen to learn about ourselves in our quest to know and understand—everything. Lots of questions are posed and the actions of the characters feel almost like poetic gestures poised against the eternal esoteric void of the universe. I’ve seen some reviewers read a “faith-type” journey into this story. I also feel compelled toward this view, but not in any specific denominational sense. I felt that the protagonist was on a spiritual journey of some sort. Almost like a vision quest. He throws himself into the dangerous zones as if he is throwing himself at the universe. Daring to be understood.
So much of the story is beyond the words and obtuse. Much is left to interpretation. Yet, things are not so abstract as to put off a straight reading. Very concrete events happen that can be tracked and followed. There just seems to be the perfect amount of an ethereal aura present that the story is transported up out of the gloomy-gray of the abandoned and ever-decaying zones, and lifted into an eternity of human existence. The experience is haunting and thought provoking.
This is one of the few books I’d like to come back and re-read to see what I’ve missed and what other universal truths I could glean from the prose. And yet, it’s not because the writing is so complex or the ideas so foreign. This work contains significant bones, multi-layered in the simple genius that I long for in a masterpiece.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).
Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/review-roadside-picnic-arkady-and-boris-strugatsky/