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“Roadside Picnic” is a panorama of Cold War paranoia

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

From the late 1940’s to the early 1990’s, Russian and United States citizens and government officials lived in constant fear of each other’s nuclear arsenal. Paranoia about being the target of a missile strike pervaded the day-to-day activities of the local populace. Within this era of Red Scares and atomic tests, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky wrote and released their post-apocalyptic novel “Roadside Picnic.” The novel’s world of illegal mercenaries and dangerous terrain perfectly capture the mood of 20th century Soviet Russia.

First published in 1972, “Roadside Picnic” hones in on the life of Rederick “Red” Schuhart. Red masquerades as an assistant researcher to cover up his true identity as an illegal mercenary, known as a Stalker. Stalkers frequently venture into the irradiated area known as the Zone to receive strange artifacts left behind by aliens that came to Earth years prior in an event known as “The Visitation.” Stalkers often have to evade the savage mutants that prowl through the Zone. One aspect that makes Roadside Picnic so fascinating to me is the fact that the mutants are never shown. Even when it is clear that they are stalking and ambushing Red’s team, they stay in the shadows.

Image by Malcolm Streitfield

This Lovecraftian approach to horror is in sharp contrast to the video game adaptation of “Roadside Picnic,” the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, wherein the mutants always get the heart pumping in a different way by frequently being in plain sight of the player character. The most fascinating thing about Roadside Picnic is the Zone itself. It seems to me like the Zone has a mind of its own. That’s not to say it has its own corporeal form; rather, it seems to possess something akin to a “consciousness.” I don’t know how or why, but the Zone feels almost alive. It's very difficult to put into writing. Only by reading the book for yourself will

you get what I mean. Let’s just say there’s something at work in the Zone outside of mutants and alien artifacts. Perhaps the aliens haven’t completely left the planet…

Joining Red is his team of adventurers. Joining him on numerous expeditions into the Zone is Kirill, a scientist determined to dissect and study mutants to learn more about their anatomy, and Tender, an experienced veteran with a wife and two kids. Perhaps he is called “Tender” because he is fresh meat for the Zone, but that’s speculation on my part. The three are constantly looking over their shoulders to avoid being caught off guard

and slaughtered like so many Stalkers who have come before them. It's a dog-eat-dog world out in the wildlands of the Zone and everyone is at high risk of death, whether it be from mutants, radiation or whatever else is lurking amidst the rubble and debris. Stalkers have to be ready to run at any moment.

I learned about the video game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. a while back, though I never played it. I was eventually introduced to a fanfiction music series set in the same world as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., known as “Parties are for Losers.” Finally, after being a fan of the series for a while, I found out about “Roadside Picnic,” the original novel. “Roadside Picnic” is a tense read. Readers will be constantly waiting in dreaded anticipation to find out when the mutants will strike next. If you’re looking for a solemn and surreal ride through a community in shambles, then “Roadside Picnic” is definitely the book for you.


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