Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Roadside Picnic comes at a second turning point in the writing career of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who started out writing fairly conventional science fiction in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Their work of that era, as it is collected in the anthology Putna Amalteiu (1960; Destination Amalthea, 1962), resembles such classic American science-fiction stories as Robert A. Heinlein’s “juvenile” novels or Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy (1951-1953), which tell about man’s future conflicts among the stars while keeping intact the beliefs of the ideology of the writer’s home country.

When Soviet censorship became less stringent in the 1960’s, the Strugatsky’s tales turned darker and began to explore such hitherto taboo topics as the conflict between utopia and twentieth century experience. At the end of that cycle came Ulitka na sklone (1966-1968; The Snail on the Slope, 1980), a caustic satire on Soviet bureaucracy, which is also one of the most humorous pieces of science fiction yet written. With Roadside Picnic, however, the Strugatskys turn back to a more classical approach to science fiction, and their vision, although still bitter at times, becomes ultimately more gentle, as the hero is allowed a final moment of redemption, and absolute humanitarian values triumph, as they should, over petty bureaucracy and all-too-human limitations.

As a science-fiction novel, Roadside Picnic convinces because of its masterfully drawn technological background, out of which the larger intellectual questions organically arise. The Strugatskys’ novel is a welcome presentation of the fundamental conflict between individualism and commitment to a higher societal good, which can demand the sacrifice of personal happiness; this intellectual content is convincingly built into the depiction of the protagonist and his environment, which have a definite taste of human reality. The novel served as the basis for Andrey Tarkovsky’s much-praised film, Stalker (1981).