Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

If it is true that science fiction has become the contemporary medium of myths, Roadside Picnic tells the age-old tale of a quest for knowledge intertwined with the conflict between individual happiness and responsibility toward the community. Embarking on a futuristic rite of passage, Red ultimately comes to terms with his existence as a societal being in a less-than-ideal community. His encounter with the Golden Ball can be translated as his final voluntary submission to the principle of collective well-being, when he sees that personal happiness is too selfish and too small a wish.

Kirill, the devoted “pure” scientist, fits this mythological pattern, as well as the sage Dr. Pilman, whose wisdom has shown him the limitations of exploration and knowledge but who nevertheless is able to live with the truth. His intellectual position of acceptance and Red’s heroic act of self-denial are the answer to what could otherwise be seen as the deep pessimism of Roadside Picnic; even though the alien artifacts are mere refuse, humankind will be able to live with this fact and gain new strength out of the wonders of the Zone, which are wrought through the acts of its heroes.

Though the novel is set in the surreal Canadian town of Harmont, complete with Royal Air Force and Royal Tank Units, the atmosphere has a specifically Russian flavor. On one level, then, Roadside Picnic becomes a fascinating fable of the relationship between the extraordinary or fantastic and a bureaucratic society trying rigidly to control both exploration and exploitation of a strange and dangerous source of potentially beneficial material.