(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Roadside Picnic tells the story of humankind’s dealing with the strange and sometimes quite dangerous leftovers from an alien “visitation” at six isolated spots on Earth. Thirty years after the event, a central bureaucracy has set up the International Institute for Extraterrestrial Cultures at the site of one such visitation at Harmont in Canada. There, scientists and their supporting local police and United Nations security forces compete with independent adventurers, called stalkers, for the abandoned alien artifacts, the workings of which still elude human understanding. The salvaging process poses many dangers, since the men have to enter the deadly terrain of the Zone, as the now-deserted ground has been named.

A radio interview with witty head scientist Dr. Valentine Pilman leads to Harmont, where native son Redrick Schuhart works as a laboratory assistant for Kirill Panov. Out of pity for the overworked and unsuccessful Russian scientist, Red (as his friends call him) proposes a trip into the Zone, where he knows about an artifact of interest for his employer. Kirill agrees to what is the novel’s first of three excursions, even though Red has clearly compromised himself with his knowledge. As a former stalker who previously went into the Zone—which is off limits for all private citizens—Red sold his booty, called swag, on the black market; this illegal activity earned for him not only thorough knowledge of the deadly patch of stricken land but also a jail term and the suspicion of his antagonist from the police force, Captain Quarterblad.

In the Zone, Red guides his team through the perils created by the land’s contact with the Visitors; “mosquito manges,” centers of deadly enhanced gravity, and “witches’ jelly,” a man-eating slimy substance lurking in ditches and crevices, are all part of a vividly described and literally alienated yet terrestrial...

(The entire section is 783 words.)