Roadside picnic
(Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, 1977)

The Strugatsky brothers are, I'm told, Russia's leading exponents of sf, and this novel has been translated remarkably well into colloquial American by one Antonina W. Bouis.

The story concerns the after-effects of an alien 'visitation'. No alien creatures appear in the story, nor are they recorded as having been witnessed; but six places on Earth are suddenly and terribly transfigured. Within each Visitation Zone, strange and deadly things exist; many things which kill, and some artifacts which are apparently products of a technology more advanced than ours, and therefore of great value.

The story is set in the vicinity of one of these Zones (in Canada, for no obvious reason), and concerns the cautious and perilous exploration and exploitation of the Zone by two rival groups: government scientists, and criminal adventurers out to make a fortune on the black market.

One of the scientists suggests that the Zones are abandoned picnic sites — the aliens dropped in one night, then went their way oblivious of humanity, carelessly leaving their litter behind.

Whatever the explanation, over a period of years the Zones become almost familiar parts of life. Common types of artifact are familiarly named, some are understood and used, others are used without being understood, others are too lethal to touch. The book dwells on the seedy lives of the desperadoes who sneak into the nightmare world of the Zone for death or profit. It's very vivid, very believable, and would translate easily into a film (given a good special effects budget). I regret to say that I finished it with much the same reaction that humanity displayed to the Visitation: it's powerful, but what does it mean?

Originally published in Thurb 4 in February 1985