Friday, 20 August 2010

"Roadside Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

I had never read any Science Fiction coming out of the former Soviet Union until I finally sat down and read "Roadside Picnic", one of the few remaining books in the Sci-Fi Masterworks series.

The Strugatsky brothers describe a world scarred by alien visitation. The central metaphor is of a roadside picnic viewed by the ants, for whom each piece of trash left behind is an artifact of a god-like intelligence. The unseen aliens are the picnickers, and we are the ants. The picnickers left behind scarred, altered places, littered with strange artifacts and dangers. The artifacts bring new discoveries, new technologies, new money to those daring enough to find, study and exploit them. Enter the "stalkers", fortune hunters who brave strange death to retrieve alien artifacts and sell them to those who would study them.

What makes this book great is that the dynamic it describes is only marginally related to alien technology or even science. "Roadside Picnic" is really a study of how money is exchanged for life. Some sell their lives as a hopeful gesture, thinking that their sacrifice will mean greater things for themselves and their family. Some sell their lives for drink, and smoke, and women, and then risk it all for another day of the same. All are making the same choices that people have made for millenia, and are recognizably human and full of life, love, and fear. Put another way, it's a study of the potential of capitalism, and the terrible costs.

As with many translated works, the language, expressions, and meter are a bit strained at times, but it rarely detracts from the book. It's a great book, a quick read, and well worth the time.

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