If you're going to read just one Soviet-era Russian science fiction novel, it should be Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's dark, ambiguous Roadside Picnic. Originally written in the early 1970s, it's back in print in English after 30 years, with a brand-new translation by Olena Bormashenko and a riveting afterword by Boris Strugatsky about how the book was butchered by Soviet censors. It's a seriously intense tale of a man who risks his life and freedom to smuggle artifacts out of mysterious "Zones" where aliens landed.
Red is a "stalker," a man who is one of the most successful players in the black market for alien technologies. He trades in the inexplicable objects left behind by mysterious visitors in now-contaminated Zones all over the Earth, where even the laws of physics have been warped by whatever the aliens were doing. The life of a stalker is almost always deadly, because the Zones are full of toxic gunk, gravitational anomalies, and other dangers. Plus, exposure to the Zones causes the stalkers' children to be born as inhuman mutants, and corpses buried in the Zones come back to life and shuffle aimlessly around their old homes. Still, Red thinks the whole deal is worth it — the artifacts fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly because they've allowed scientists to invent everything from infinite, self-replicating batteries to a perpetual motion machine.
Nobody has any idea why the aliens came, nor why they left. At one point, a Nobel prize winning physicist who works on the Zone technologies admits that the items may have been left behind as garbage. The aliens might have been the equivalent of humans on a picnic leaving behind foil wrap, batteries, motor oil, and other bizarre bits of junk that confuse the local animals.
The brilliance of this novel is that it doesn't matter whether you believe the Zones are garbage we animals are picking over, or a message the aliens want us to decode. The point is that you are forced to guess at the aliens' intentions, and deal with the discomfort of not ever getting a pat answer. It's the same discomfort that is wrecking Red's life, and warping everyone around him as they try to create value and meaning from what might, after all, be nothing but (literal) alien shit. Things only get worse when some of the stalkers decide to hunt down the "sphere," an artifact that supposedly grants wishes.
Fast-paced and exciting, Roadside Picnic is also a compelling character study of Red and his family as the stalker's life changes them. It's a novel of disturbing ideas about both extraterrestrial life and our own pathetically puny place in the universe. Gritty and realistic but also fantastical, this is a novel you won't easily put down — or forget.
It's also one of the Strugatskys' most popular books outside Russia, partly because it inspired Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (as well as a series of videogames). But its publishing history, according to Boris, nearly drove the brothers insane. Apparently, it took eight years to get the book past the censors, and not for the reasons you'd think. Russian authorities had no problem with the ideology of the book, which can be interpreted as anti-capitalist and depicts Western life as a horror show. Instead, they were angered by the idea that kids might be harmed by reading a book that was so dark, full of violence, drinking, crime, and cursing. They gave the brothers a list of hundreds of scenes and phrases that had to be changed before the book would be published — including turning the zombies to cyborgs (less disturbing) and making the novel's ending decidedly unambiguous in a really cheesy way.
In the afterword, Boris Strugatsky explains that there are worse things than ideological censors — there are the literary gatekeepers who want every work of fiction to be banal and reassuring, never forcing the reader to go outside his or her comfort zone. But Roadside Picnic, now restored to the authors' original version, is all about going into the Zones that are far beyond the reaches of your safe little life. To venture into the Zone is to confront who we really are, and what our place is in the universe. And the answers will disturb the hell out of you. Which is as it should be.
You can pick up a copy of the new translation of Roadside Picnic via IPG, from Chicago Review Press.