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Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

This novel is set in a town called Harmont, where, thirteen years prior to the start of the story, aliens landed and then departed a short while later. There were a total of six such landing spots. The aliens left behind a number of horrific and/or fascinating new technologies, which...

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This novel is set in a town called Harmont, where, thirteen years prior to the start of the story, aliens landed and then departed a short while later. There were a total of six such landing spots. The aliens left behind a number of horrific and/or fascinating new technologies, which are being collected and studied by the Harmont branch of the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. The Zone (where the aliens landed) is an incredibly dangerous place, and the men who go into it to harvest the alien items must be ready to accept death as a possibility. There is also a large black market for items from the Zone, and the novel focuses on about eight years in the life of Redrick Schuhart, known as "a stalker," a man who works for the institute and also sneaks into the Zone in order to collect items to sell on the black market. "Red" eventually goes to jail for a few years, but when he's let out, he goes into the Zone for one last mission—to try to retrieve a legendary item called the Golden Sphere, which is supposed to grant one's wishes. He finds it, but, when he does, he is unable to formulate any wishes, unable to figure out what it is that he even wants the most.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

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 environment. At their destination, an abandoned garage, Red and Kirill salvage a magnetic trap holding a blue fluid; because of Red’s oversight, his partner touches an alien substance, a silvery web. Returned to the safety of the Borscht, his favorite hangout, Red receives the news of Kirill’s death. Drunk and enraged, he leaves the bar just in time to be caught by Guta, his girlfriend, who tells him she is pregnant. Despite known birth defects among children of men exposed to the Zone, they decide for marriage and against abortion—a fateful step which leaves Red with “Monkey,” his ape-haired mutant daughter.

An illegal trip into the Zone five years later nets Red a bag full of swag and the loss of his legs while rescuing Buzzard Burbridge, a victim of witches’ jelly. Dragged to safety by his companion, Burbridge promises Red the location of the Golden Ball, a seemingly magical alien leftover with the power to grant human wishes. Indeed, Burbridge’s “wished” children, although they are brats, testify to the Golden Ball’s potency. Pursued by Quarterblad after he has sold most of his booty to undercover officials who doublecross their own state bureaucracy, Red strikes a final deal with the agents before going to prison.

Three years later, at the time of Red’s release from prison, bureaucrat Richard Noonan experiences great difficulties in stopping the stalkers’ illegal salvage activity, which is, like its official counterpart, increasingly mechanized. Noonan and Dr. Pilman meet at the Borscht, and the conversation between commonsensical bureaucrat and top-notch unorthodox scientist reveals Pilman’s belief that the Visitations were quite literally the high-tech equivalent of a group of humans’ roadside picnics in a forest clearing, leaving behind their various debris ranging from discarded batteries to windup teddybears, all of which undoubtedly raise a stupid curiosity among the returning animals, who are far too primitive to begin to comprehend the human detritus. Indeed, humans have learned nothing from the alien artifacts in almost four decades of intensive studies. Valentine describes the use made thus far of the alien objects as analogous to using a microscope for a hammer.

Roadside Picnic climaxes with a turn of events slightly reminiscent of the biblical story of Isaac. On his last trip into the Zone, Red plans to sacrifice Burbridge’s son Arthur to gain access to the Golden Ball, since the alien wish machine is guarded by a “meatgrinder.” Within sight of the alien artifact, Red has to make his decision. As he has planned all along, he lets Arthur run into the trap and thus opens a passage to the Ball. Red is shamed by the selflessness of Arthur’s wishes, uttered seconds before his death, and he decides against his original plans when he shouts “Happiness for everybody, free, and no one will go away unsatisfied!”—which are Arthur’s words.

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