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Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Monday, April 23, 2012

Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a little thrown by this one. It was cool in a lot of ways. There were a lot of really neat ideas that were fun to ponder. But I'm not sure if I liked it.

So, the backstory. This is a re-release of a book that was written by two Russian brothers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, in the early 1970s. According to the really interesting afterword by Boris Strugatsky, by the time they actually got the story published in 1980, the brothers were really unhappy with the edits that were forced on them by various government officials and publishers. It's a pretty wild Soviet publishing battle tale, especially since the story in question wasn't even political. Yet the brothers prevailed and eventually a story was published, although not one that they were happy with. And yet it became very popular, in part because it became the basis of the movie Stalker. But luckily we now have the opportunity to read the book as the brothers originally intended, this version is "completely restored and returned to the author's version." So you should definitely look for the May 2012 publication of the book; in English it's the translation by Olena Bormashenko.

The book was a good choice for a re-release because it doesn't feel very outdated. There isn't a lot of technology mentioned in the book, it's really mostly just cars and trucks, so there isn't anything that jumps out and says "outdated." The tone is quite old-fashioned, but I think that was deliberate even when it was written. I has a feel of a 1950s sci-fi novel in some ways to me in the tone, something about the jaded prospector and then the really innocent kid who comes in at the end, calling him Mr. And of course everyone smokes, that wouldn't happen in a modern book. But generally it held up quite well.

OK, I think I'm pulling together my thoughts a bit. It's really a tough one. Summary: What I liked were the ideas. What I didn't like was the storytelling.

There were so many super cool ideas in this book. The basic concept of the roadside picnic and what that would do to us is brilliant. The idea of the Zones and the Stalkers. Following that through is just super interesting. I liked a lot of the ideas the scientist expressed about the aliens and what it might mean. But it also got a bit crazy. I liked all of the stuff found in the Zones. But there was no rhyme or reason to it. Which I guess was the point to some degree, it's supposed to be so weird that it obsesses people and makes them crazy. But batteries and bracelets are one thing, slimes and gravity zones are another. And then there's the corpses. And the thing that happens to emigrants. I don't know, it's just a little much. Yes, it all comes together for force Red into this desperate place. But the excuse of it not having to make sense because it's alien bugs me.

Which gets into my dislike, the storytelling. I was interested in Red, I couldn't help but like him and root for him. But the story was often confusing and wanders a lot and I didn't always get the point. Maybe it's just deep, and honestly, I'm not the type who's good at being analytical or picking up on literary stuff. But I was often left with a feeling of, "what was the point of that?" For example, I didn't understand the point of the whole section with Noonan, his character is left hanging. And the end was totally abrupt and kind of cheesy. Not that I expected answers, because I didn't, that wouldn't have worked with the premise. But I really enjoyed the last section all the way up until the very last passage. It was just so... I don't know. Ursula Le Guin did the intro to the book and she tells me I should love the end. But it didn't ring true to Red for me. Maybe part of the problem was that it was a novella and not a full novel, if it had been drawn out into a full book then maybe some of the things that bothered me could have been explored more completely. On the other hand, part of what was cool about the style was the snapshot-like views into what was happening in Red's life and the city around the Zone, so the shorter style did suit it.

So I guess my review is kind of a confusing mess, I'm sorry. I really just don't quite know what to think about this one. It was kind of fascinating and kind of confusing. I was never bored reading it but it wasn't a huge page-turner. It was interesting. It was definitely interesting. And it did get me very curious to try more of the Strugatsky brothers' work.

I received this book from NetGalley.

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