Roadside Picnic (Russian: Пикник на обочине, Piknik na obochine, IPA: pʲikˈnʲik na ɐˈbotɕɪnʲe) is a short science fiction novel written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971. As of 1998, 38 editions of the novel were published in 20 countries. The novel was first translated to English by Antonina W. Bouis. The preface to the first American edition of the novel (MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York, 1977) was written by Theodore Sturgeon. The film Stalker is loosely based on the novel, with a screenplay written by the Strugatskys.
1 Book title,
2.3 Section 1,
2.4 Section 2,
2.5 Section 3,
2.6 Section 4,
3 Artifacts left by Visitors in the Zones
4 Writing the novel and Soviet censorship,
5 Awards and nominations,
6 Cultural influence,
7.1 English releases,
9 External links,
Roadside Picnic is a work of fiction based on the aftermath of an extraterrestrial event (called the Visitation) which simultaneously took place in half a dozen separate locations around Earth for a two-day period. Neither the Visitors themselves nor their means of arrival or departure were ever seen by the local population who lived inside the relatively small (a few square kilometers) area of each of the six Visitation Zones. Such zones exhibit strange and dangerous phenomena not understood by humans, and contain artifacts with inexplicable, seemingly supernatural properties. The name of the novel derives from an analogy proposed by the character Dr. Valentine Pilman who compares the extraterrestrial event to a picnic.
A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess--apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody's handkerchief, somebody's penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.
In this analogy, the nervous animals are the humans who venture forth after the Visitors left, discovering items and anomalies which are ordinary to those who discarded them, but incomprehensible or deadly to those who find them.
This explanation implies that the Visitors may not have paid any attention to or even noticed the human inhabitants of the planet during their "visit" just as humans do not notice or pay attention to grasshoppers or ladybugs during a picnic. The artifacts and phenomena left behind by the Visitors in the Zones were garbage, discarded and forgotten without any preconceived intergalactic plan to advance or damage humanity. There is little chance that the Visitors will return again, since for them it was a brief stop for reasons unknown on the way to their actual destination.
The novel is set in a post-visitation world where there are now six Zones known on Earth (each zone is approximately five square miles/kilometers in size) which are still full of unexplained phenomena and where strange happenings have briefly occurred, assumed to have been visitations by aliens. World governments and the UN try to keep tight control over them to prevent leakage of artifacts from the Zones, fearful of unforeseen consequences. A subculture of stalkers, thieves going into the Zones to get the artifacts, evolves around the Zones.
The novel is set in and around a specific Zone in Harmont, a town in a fictitious Commonwealth country, and follows the main protagonist over an eight-year period.
The introduction is a live radio interview with Dr. Pilman who is credited with the discovery that the six Visitation Zones' locations weren't random. He explains it so: "Imagine that you spin a huge globe and you start firing bullets into it. The bullet holes would lie on the surface in a smooth curve. The whole point (is that) all six Visitation Zones are situated on the surface of our planet as though someone had taken six shots at Earth from a pistol located somewhere along the Earth-Deneb line. Deneb is the alpha star in Cygnus."
The story revolves around Redrick "Red" Schuhart, a tough and experienced stalker who regularly enters the Zone illegally at night in search for valuable artifacts for profit. Trying to clean up his act, he becomes employed as a lab assistant at the International Institute, which studies the Zone. To help the career of his boss, whom he considers a friend, he goes into the Zone with him on an official expedition to recover a unique artifact (a full "empty"), which leads to his friend's death later on. This comes as a heavy shock when the news reaches Redrick, heavily drunk in a bar, and he blames himself for his friend's fate. While at the bar, a police force enters looking for any stalkers about. Redrick is forced to use an "itcher" to make a hasty getaway.
Red's girlfriend Guta is pregnant and decides to keep the baby no matter what. It is widely rumored that frequent incursions into the Zone by stalkers carry a high risk of mutations in their children. They decide to marry.
Redrick pulls a fellow stalker named Burbridge the Buzzard out of the Zone after the latter steps into a substance known as "witches' jelly" which slowly turns his legs into rubber. Amputation must be urgently performed to avoid certain death. He drops him off at a surgeon, avoiding the patrols. Later on Redrick is confronted by Burbridge's daughter who gets angry at him for saving her father.
Guta has given birth to a beautiful, happy and intelligent daughter, fully normal save for the short and light full body hair. They lovingly call her Monkey. Redrick's dead father comes home from the cemetery, now situated inside the Zone, as copies of other deceased are now slowly returning to their homes too. As she grows up, Redrick's daughter seems to resemble a monkey more and more, becomes reclusive while barely talking to anyone anymore, screaming strange screams at night together with Redrick's father.
Redrick is arrested, but escapes, and before he is recaptured contacts a mysterious buyer with an offer of a small porcelain container of "witches' jelly" which he'd smuggled out previously. Redrick asks that the proceeds from the sale be sent to Guta.
Red's old friend Richard Noonan (a supply contractor with offices inside The Institute), is revealed as a covert operative of an unnamed, presumably governmental, secret organization working hard to stop the contraband flow of artifacts from the Zone. Content he's almost succeeded in his multi-year assignment, he is confronted by his boss, who reveals to him the flow is stronger than ever, and is tasked with finding who is responsible and how they achieve it.
Redrick is released from jail and makes a secret deal with Burbridge. Guta is depressed because recent medical examinations of her daughter indicate that she is no longer human.
It is implied that the weekend picnics-for-tourists business set up by Burbridge are a cover for the new generation of stalkers to learn and go into the zone. They jokingly refer to the setup as "Sunday school".
Red goes into the Zone one last time in order to reach the wish-granting "Golden Sphere". He has a map, given to him by Burbridge, whose son joins him on the expedition. Red knows one of them will have to die in order for the other to reach the sphere, to deactivate a phenomenon known as "meatgrinder", and keeps this a secret from his companion.
After they get to the location surviving many obstacles, the young man rushes towards the sphere shouting out his wishes only to be savagely dispatched by the meatgrinder phenomenon. Spent and disillusioned, Red looks back on his broken life struggling to find meaning and hope, hoping the Sphere will find something good in his heart - it is the hidden wish that it grants, supposedly - and in the end can't think of anything other than repeating the now dead youngster's words: "HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND LET NO ONE GO AWAY UNSATISFIED (be left out)!".
Artifacts left by Visitors in the Zones:
The artifacts left behind by the Visitors can be broken down into four categories:
Objects beneficial to humans, yet whose original purpose, how precisely they work or how to manufacture them is not understood. The 'So-So' and 'Bracelets' are among the artifacts that fall into this category.,
Objects whose functionality, original purpose or how to use them to benefit humans can not yet be understood. The 'Black Sprays' and 'Needles' are among the artifacts that fall into this category.,
Objects that are unique. Their existence is passed along as legends by Stalkers; were never seen by scientists, whose functionality is so dangerous and so far beyond human comprehension that they are better off left undisturbed. The 'Golden Sphere' and the 'Jolly Ghost' are among the artifacts that fall into this category.,
Not object but effects on people who were present inside the Zones during the Visitation. Humans who survived the Visitation without going blind(apparently from a loud noise) or infected by the plague caused unexplained problems if they emigrated away. A barber who survived the Visitation emigrated to a far off city and within a year 90% of his customers died in mysterious circumstances as well as a number of natural disasters foreign to the area (typhoons, tornadoes) hit his city. Even people who were never present during the Visitation but frequently visit the Zone are changed somehow, for example by having mutated children or by having duplicates of their dead relatives return to their homes.,
Batteries - A round black stick (also called So-So) that produced endless energy and can be used to power vehicles instead of an engine. Small, easily portable, and able to replicate through a process similar to cell division. Its power to propel vehicles appears to last indefinitely.
Death Lamp - "Eight years ago a Stalker by the name of Stefan Norman, nicknamed Four-Eyes, brought out an apparatus from the Zone that, as far as can be judged, was some kind of ray-emitting system fatal to earth organisms. This Four-Eyes offered the apparatus to the Institute. They did not agree on the price. Four-eyes re-entered the Zone and never came out again. The present whereabouts of the apparatus is unknown. People at the Institute are still tearing their hair out over failing to buy it, and now are offering any amount for it that could be written on a check."
Empties -- Two copper discs the size of Frisbees, about a quarter inch thick, which permanently maintain an empty space of a foot and a half between each other. It is unknown how the two discs are attracted to each other or what holds them in place. No force seems to be able to push them closer together or pull them apart. It is possible to pass any object through the empty space between the two discs. The device seems to possess no other unusual properties and has the mass of two copper discs of the appropriate size. Possibly a type of a container. One unique specimen, the "full empty," has been found, "filled" with blue liquid. The blue substance sifted cloudily in slow streams between the discs, like a glass jar with blue syrup inside. The "full" specimen was too heavy for one strong man to move, and almost too heavy for two men to move.
Itchers -- A few centimeters in diameter. Squeezing it several times causes strange effects in a radius of a few hundred yards. Dogs start howling and barking as they sense its activation, before humans notice any effects. It affects humans in different ways: some get nose-bleeds, others starts hysterically screaming, some fall into deep depression, others go berserk, and some panic.
Black Sprays -- Black beads that are sometimes used in jewelry. A ray of light shone into one of these beads will be delayed in time and distorted. The transmission of the light is delayed depending on the bead's weight, size, and several other parameters. The light which exits the bead is always less than what entered. No other known properties.
Sponges -- Mentioned, but never described in the novel.
Pins -- Slightly blue and occasionally spattered with other colors--yellow, red, and green. When squeezed with fingers, a few pins generated "weak red bolts illuminating the pin that were suddenly replaced by slower green pulses." The majority required special machines to cause this effect. Unknown functionality.
Bracelets -- Somehow causes the person wearing one to become healthier over time.
Lobster Eyes - Unknown function. Very rare item.
Rattling Napkins - Unknown function. Very rare item.
Wriggling Magnet - Very rare or possibly unique item. Removed from the Zone by Stalker nicknamed Buzzard. Redrick suspects that Buzzard was granted a wish by the Golden Sphere to be able to safely retrieve and remove this unique item since it could not otherwise be reached without being killed. This theory is supported by the fact that Buzzard mentions to Redrick in the second act, "I've been to places you could only dream of". As Redrick was one of the most talented Stalkers, having explored most of the Zone, it would seem to imply that Buzzard used a wish to enter otherwise inaccessible areas of the Zone. Functionality unknown.
Dick the Tramp -- Never actually seen, this artifact (if that is even what it is) seems to cause noise and shaking inside the industrial plant in the Zone. A Nobel Prize winning scientist jokes that it could be a wind-up toy that a Visitor child accidentally left behind. Possibly the only long term 'inhabitant' of the Zone.
Golden Sphere -- Also known as the Wish Machine, this universally coveted artifact allegedly grants a wish of a person standing in front of it. It is a copper-colored sphere located behind a bulldozer at the entrance to a quarry inside the Zone. To reach it requires at least two people: The first person will be killed by a phenomenon called the "Meat Grinder" (located next to the bulldozer) which twists and crushes the person until what is left resembles ground meat. Killing someone in this fashion deactivates the Meat Grinder for some time. While the Meat Grinder is dormant, the second person can safely reach the Golden Sphere and make a wish.
The Stalker known as Buzzard supposedly made multiple wishes that came true including wishing for a grown son and daughter. Redrick describes his impression of the Wish Machine as: "It lay at the foot of the quarry's far wall, cozily resting amidst piles of rocks. It lay where it had fallen. Maybe it accidentally fell out of some monstrously huge pocket and got lost or rolled away during a game between giants. It had not been carefully placed here, it had been left behind, littering up the Zone like all the empties, bracelets, batteries, and other rubbish remaining after the Visitation."
Hypersensitivity -- This is not made very clear in the English translation, but stalkers who have braved the Zone for many years undergo changes, mutation, of both phenotype and genotype. In the end of the novel, Redrick is seen sniffing the air like a dog, able to discern what is dangerous and what isn't, through the fog.
Jolly Ghost -- A deadly, abnormal air turbulence that occurs in random parts of the Zone. Some Stalkers believe it to only be a legend but Redrick spots one from a safe distance in the last chapter.
Witches' Jelly - The scientists refer to this as a colloidal gas. The substance penetrates any organic material, plus plastic, metal and concrete. Only special ceramic vessels seem to contain it. Almost everything that it touches transforms into more Witches' Jelly. It seems to collect in low-lying areas such as basements. At night it looks like alcohol burning with blue tongues. Apparently volatile (not volatile as it does not readily evaporate), as Redrick mentions it "splashing out of the pit" in the garage on its own. Burbridge loses his legs to this in the second section.
Greenie - A green colored substance that slithers like a long, thick snake randomly on the surface of the Zone. Possibly dangerous to humans, other properties unknown.
Mosquito Mange - called gravi-concentrates by scientists. A spot within the Zone which exhibits extremely strong gravity, capable of crushing a person into a pancake or even pulling overhead helicopters violently to the ground. Stalkers search for mosquito manges by throwing small iron bolts ahead of them. If the bolt shoots into the ground at unnaturally high speed, the spot is avoided.
Replicas - Autonomous replicas of people buried in cemeteries inside the Zone before the Visitation. The replicas slowly shuffle about, seemingly possessing no intelligence but will return to the former residence of the deceased. Body parts of the replica are completely autonomous, and continue to function even if cut off. They move in a clumsy, jerky fashion after long pauses. Also known as Moulage.
Silver Web - Encountered in the first act. Resembles a large spider web. It is invisible to some people. When the scientist Kirill backed into it, it made a "crackling" sound and vanished but he didn't see anything. Hours later, he died of a heart attack.
Spitting Devil's Cabbage - Never explained in the novel. Redrick mentions how the special suits are decent protection against it.
Black Bramble - Never explained in the novel. The black bramble indicates the Zone's border.
Cotton - Mysterious substance that tends to grow on metal, especially antennas. Some Stalkers aboard a helicopter once tried to retrieve an antenna with cotton growing on using a hook on a cable. The cable started smoking and "hissing poisonously", and the cotton started to grow up the cable.
Burning Fluff - Some kind of irritating white fluff. For some reason, the wind never blows it out of the Zone. Redrick mentions how the special suits provide 100% protection against it, so it would seem to be much less threatening than some other Zone phenomena.
Shadows - In several areas in the Zone, shadows are warped and twisted, in the opposite direction of where they should be. Buzzard claims that this phenomenon is "weird but harmless".
Exploding Rainbows - Near the end of the novel, Redrick encounters a section of air "that shimmers and undulates, with hundreds of tiny rainbows exploding and dying". Although the novel doesn't explain it, it's assumed to be dangerous as Redrick leads Arthur around it.
Fire - An area of spontaneous combustion. It is unknown whether the spontaneous fires are triggered by the presence of people or not, but Redrick, the experienced Stalker, prefers to move away from anomalous fires, believing more may occur if he stays.
Lightning - A form of pseudo-sentient lightning that originates from purplish-red dots. Found near the swamp leading to the quarry and the Golden Ball.
Shimmer - "Over the pile of old refuse, over broken glass and rags, crawled a shimmering, a trembling, sort of like hot air at noon over a tin roof. It crossed over the hillock and moved on and on toward us, right next to the pylon; it hovered for a second over the road - or did I just imagine it? - and slithered into the field, behind the bushes and the rotten fences, back there toward the automobile graveyard."
Meat Grinder - a deadly anomaly. Outwardly, almost invisible. Anything that enters into the Meat Grinder's target area instantly twists, deforms and breaks into pieces, leaving behind only bloody smears. Only one stalker, Dixon, has ever survived the Meat Grinder, becoming a permanently deformed monstrosity. He always believed that Burbridge saved him. The Meat Grinder is located across the only path leading to the Golden Sphere. After the Meat Grinder is "triggered", it becomes inactive for a long time, allowing people walking behind the victim to safely pass through. The stalker Burbridge lured unsuspecting companions to their deaths by the Meat Grinder to reach the Golden Sphere alone.
Writing the novel and Soviet censorship:
The story was written by the Strugatsky brothers in 1971 (the first outlines written January 18-27, 1971 in Leningrad, with the final version completed between October 28 and November 3, 1971 in Komarovo.) It was first published in the Avrora literary magazine in 1972, issues 7-10. Parts of it were published in the Library of Modern Science Fiction book series, vol. 25, 1973. It was also printed in the newspaper Youth of Estonia in 1977-1978.
In 1977, the novel was first published in the United States in English.
Roadside Picnic was refused publication in book form in the Soviet Union for eight years due to government censorship and numerous delays. The heavily censored versions published between 1980 and 1990 significantly departed from the original version written by the authors. The Russian-language versions endorsed by the Strugatsky brothers as the original were published in the 1990s.
Awards and nominations:
The novel was nominated for a John W. Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of 1978 and won second place.,
In 1978 the Strugatskys were accepted as honorary members of the Mark Twain Society for their "outstanding contribution to world science fiction literature.",
A 1979 Scandinavian congress on science fiction literature awarded the Swedish translation the Jules Verne prize for best novel of the year published in Swedish.,
In 1981 at the sixth festival of science fiction literature in Metz the novel won the award for best foreign book of the year.,
A 1979 science fiction film, Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, with a screenplay written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, is loosely based on their novel Roadside Picnic.,
While not a direct adaptation, the video game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is heavily influenced by Roadside Picnic. The first game in the series, "S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl", references many important plot points from the book, such as the wish granter and the unknown force blocking the path to the center of the zone. It also contains elements such as anomalies and artifacts that are similar to those described in the book, but are created by an experimental science station, not alien visitors.,
The book is referenced in the post-apocalyptic video game Metro 2033. A character shuffles through a shelf of books in a ruined library and finds Roadside Picnic. He states that it is "something familiar". Metro 2033 was created by individuals who had worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. before founding their own video game development company.,
In 2003, the Finnish theater company Circus Maximus produced a stage version of Roadside Picnic, called Stalker. Authorship of the play was credited to the Strugatskys and to Mikko Viljanen and Mikko Kanninen.,
M. John Harrison's novel Nova Swing, published 2006, is so similar to the Roadside Picnic that one reviewer quipped that Nova Swings at a Roadside Picnic would be a more appropriate title. The plot features an "Event Zone" where strange and unpredictable events occur and bounty hunters risk their life to retrieve unusual artifacts for profit.,
A tabletop roleplaying game in 2012 called Stalker was developed by Ville Vuorela of Burger Games with the permission of Boris Strugatsky. The game was originally released in 2008 in Finnish by the same author.,
A Finnish low-budget indie film Vyöhyke (Zone), directed by Esa Luttinen, was released in 2012. The film is set in a Finnish visitation zone, and refers to material in the novel as well as the Tarkovsky film.,
British progressive rock band Guapo 2013 album "History Of The Visitation", is based on the novel.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic / Tale of the Troika (Best of Soviet Science Fiction) translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Macmillan Pub Co, 1977, 245 pp. ISBN 0-02-615170-7. LCCN: 77000543.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic. London: Gollancz, April 13, 1978, 150 pp. ISBN 0-575-02445-3.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic / Tale of the Troika. New York: Pocket Books, February 1, 1978. ISBN 0-671-81976-3.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic. London: Penguin Books, September 27, 1979, 160 pp. ISBN 0-14-005135-X.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic. New York: Pocket Books (Timescape), September 1, 1982, 156 pp. ISBN 0-671-45842-6.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic (SF Collector's Edition). London: Gollancz, August 24, 2000, 145 pp. ISBN 0-575-07053-6.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic (S.F. Masterworks). London: Gollancz, February 8, 2007. ISBN 0-575-07978-9.,
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic. Translated by Olena Bormashenko, foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin, afterword by Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, May 1, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61374-341-6.,
Michael Andre-Driussi explains that while rereading the 1977 translation of Roadside Picnic, he "discovered a magic key resolving a central problem that has baffled essayists for decades. The main sticking point is the novel's ambiguous ending." Andre-Driussi gives examples by Stephen W. Potts, Professor Carl Darryl Malmgren, Professor Brooks Landon, and Roland Boer as luminaries who missed an important internal-chronology clue that explains why the ending appears to be ambiguous:
Section 0: Year 30 after the alien Visitation,
Section 1: Red is 23 years old,
Section 2: Red is 28, and it is Year 18,
Section 3: Red has spent 2 years in prison, so it is Year 20,
Section 4: Red is 31, so it is Year 21.,
"Should a reader accept the introduction as an afterword, nearly all of the ambiguity is removed." However, when Andre-Driussi continued with his close reading, he realized that the introduction necessarily comes first, unless the authors were "to lie outright" to the reader. "One must be thorough. While I cannot read Russian, I found online a side-by-side version of Roadside Picnic in Russian and English. I found the suspect lines in Russian and fed them into Google Translation":
"thirtieth anniversary" (p. 4): thirteenth,
"these thirty years" (p. 5): thirteen,
"exposed for thirty years" (p. 14): thirteen,
"way it was thirty years ago" (p. 14): thirteen.,
Andre-Driussi concludes, "It seems as though the English translation had these errors from the start, and they have never been corrected. ... Where does this leave us? The ambiguous ending has been restored."
The 2012 English language printing is from a 2012 translation by Olena Bormashenko. In the introduction, the four references to the time of the visit are now translated as "thirteenth anniversary" (p. 2), "the last thirteen years" (p. 3), "Thirteen years they've stood" (p. 16), and "the same as thirteen years ago" (p. 16). This agrees with the translations Andre-Driussi generated from the side-by-side version, placing both the introduction and Section 1 at Year 13, indicating, as he concluded, that the original 1977 English translation was in error.