Sunday, January 1, 2012

Roadside Picnic

This is the creepy-coolest sci-fi story I have ever read... you read it, too, and I think you'll agree with me that no matter how much sci-fi you've read, you've never encountered anything else quite like it.

Roadside Picnic was written behind the Iron Curtain in 1971 by two Russian brothers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, legends of Soviet-era sci-fi. It's set in Canada, some years after an alien visitation. Strangely enough, the aliens paid humanity no mind at all... they came down in six sites called "Zones" that are distributed around the globe, then left, as if they had merely stopped for a roadside picnic while on their way to some unknown destination. In the Zones, they left behind many artifacts, some useful, many that are dangerous to humans, and virtually all of which are utterly mysterious and inexplicable. The Zones also feature strange and scary physical phenomena, that seemingly defy or distort the laws of physics, such as spots of concentrated gravity capable of crushing a man who stumbles into one. In other places, shadows are twisted and distorted in such a way that they point in directions contrary to the light. The aliens also appear to have left behind extraterrestrial plants, such as the lethal Devil's Spitting Cabbage, and the Black Brambles that mark the boundaries of the Zones.

Outside the Zones, there are strange happenings, too, such as the appearance of Replicas of people buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Zone, beings that exist in a zombie-like state... One of the scientists chalks this up to some sort of local reversal of entropy... very creepy.

The human response to all of this is fascinating... How do we react to things that are totally inexplicable, that we simply cannot explain, yet are undeniably real? Well, the scientists want more or less exclusive access to study the Zones, while others want to mine them for valuable artifacts, and the police and military authorities wish it would all just go away. For those of a sinister bent, certain artifacts might have applications as weapons, others have some valuable property that can be commercially exploited, such as the battery-like cylinders called "So-So's", which generate electricity, seemingly without exhaustion.

The authorities have sealed-off the Zones to protect the public from the dangers, and to keep control of the artifacts. But they just can't keep everyone out when there is so much at stake, and so much of value hidden behind the barriers and military patrols... a whole criminal subculture of smugglers called "Stalkers" creep into the Zones under cover of darkness to steal artifacts and sell them on a black market that's sprung up around them. Between the military and police patrols with shoot-to-kill authority, and the dangers within the Zones, the life expectancy of a Stalker is rather short.

The protagonist of this story is Redrick "Red" Schuhart, an assistant at the International Institute for Extraterrestrial Culture by day, and a Stalker by night. He's a living legend among Stalkers, chiefly by virtue of just having stayed alive despite years of hair-raising trips in and out of the Zone. He seeks to find the greatest of artifacts, the rumored "Golden Ball," hidden deep within the Canadian Zone, which is said to grant wishes. But to get to it, one has to make it past the "Meat Grinder," a kind of turbulent phenomenon that ambushes anyone who approaches the site...

There have been rumors that John Travolta is making a Roadside Picnic movie, but my searches on that subject seem to indicate that's not getting anywhere. Too bad...

Gamers: The popular S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games were inspired by Roadside Picnic.

The book is still in print, I've embedded an Amazon link below. But, a complete Adobe Acrobat pdf version is in the public domain: click here.

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