An otherworldly invasion
The Folio Society has released a beautiful new edition of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's classic novel Roadside Picnic
A couple of weeks ago, I got a spectacular book in the mail: a new edition of Roadside Picnic, published by The Folio Society. I've written quite a bit about the specialty publisher over the years, and I'm always interested in seeing what new volumes they release over the course of the year.
Based in London, the company was founded in 1947, originally as a subscription service. Its goal was to reprint new "editions of the world's great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman," and in the decades that followed, it produced a range of editions of some of the world's best-known authors and stories.
Over the last decade or so, the company has begun to increasingly publish genre works, starting with a stunning edition of Frank Herbert's Dune and followed up with editions of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (and has since produced more of Le Guin's books) and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The idea of a genre's canon inevitably comes into play when you're reaching back into a movement's best-known works, and The Folio Society has dutifully picks up some of science fiction and fantasy's best-known works, like Asimov's Foundation trilogy and I, Robot, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, and others. There's certainly plenty of others that would be ripe for the opportunity: I'd love to see what they could do with Larry Niven's Ringworld, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower – the list goes on.
It's easy to retread over familiar territory: the list of science fiction classics is enormous. What interests me the most is when a publisher decides to take a look past some of the first names on the list and goes for some of the deeper cuts. Tor's Essentials lineup is an excellent example of this, while Library of America's Science Fiction of the 1950s and 1960s are also wonderful.
So, I was pretty excited when Folio revealed that one of its next big science fiction releases would be one of those deeper cuts in the form of Roadside Picnic.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were brothers born in the Soviet Union in 1925 and 1933, respectively. (Arkady was born in Batumi, Georgia, while Boris was born in St. Petersburg, Russia). The family was torn apart during World War II: as German forces laid siege to the city of Leningrad, their mother, Aleksandra Litvinchova, remained in the city with an eight-year-old Boris, while their father, Natan Strugatsky headed to Vologda Arkady. Natan was killed, and Arkady was drafted. Both brothers survived the war, and went on to college. Arkady studied Japanese and English in Moscow, while Boris physics and astronomy in Leningrad, and worked as an astronomer.
Science fiction as a literary genre underwent a number of fits and starts over the years under Joseph Stalin's regime, but in late 1950s, it began to experience something of a resurgence. The two brothers began collaborating on stories, publishing their first story, Страна багровыхтуч (Land of the Crimson Clouds) in 1957, and two years later, published their first story in the United States, Спонтанный рефлекс (Initiative) in Amazing Stories, which trumpeted that it was the "first Soviet S-F story ever translated for the U.S."
Writing in her book Soviet Fiction Since Stalin: Science, Politics and Literature Rosalind J. Marsh noted that the brothers work "displayed a heightened awareness of ethical and political concerns, reflecting the influence of [Nikita] Khruschev’s de-Stalinization campaign, the publication in Warsaw of [Stanislaw] Lem’s Solaris, and translations of Western science fiction.” The SF Encyclopedia notes that while their earlier work displayed a sense of optimism with stories about humanity against nature, their next phase was markedly darker, "in which utopian hopefulness did not survive unscathed."
The brothers turned to writing full time by the 1960s, and in 1972, had published what's probably their best-known work: Пикник на обочине (Roadside Picnic when translated into English in 1977).
The story has an intriguing premise: Earth experiences a series of extraterrestrial arrivals in which aliens landed around the planet, then left, leaving behind six "zones" which were littered with mysterious objects and properties that made it dangerous to enter. Boris recounted that he and his brother had come up with the idea during a snowstorm in 1970: "Thirty years after the alien visit, the remains of the junk they left behind are at the center of quests and adventures, investigations and misfortunes. The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. Abandoned ecosystems (an almost dead battery), reanimated corpses from a wide variety of time periods."
The novel follows a man named Red, a "Stalker" who travels in and out of these restricted zones looking for valuable items to trade on the black market. His job has left a mark: the stresses of the job are mounting, and his daughter has some particular mutations. But, he keeps at it, trying to find some mythological golden sphere that is rumored to grant wishes.
The book was eventually adapted a number of times: in 1977, it was made into a Czechoslovakian miniseries, while the brothers adapted the screenplay for Andrei Tarkovsky for the movie Stalker, released in 1979 (and recently restored by the Criterion Collection). There was an effort at an adaptation back in 2015, but that seems to have stalled out.
I first read the book when Chicago Review Press issued a new edition with a new translation by Olena Bormashenko in 2012, and was blown away by the ideas that the brothers had laid down. They introduce the book with an interesting analogy: imagine stopping on the side of a road for camping trip, and do all the things that you'd do on such an outing: start a fire, set up camp, leave behind crumbs and batteries, and other detritus. The ants who witness that arrival simply won't have a frame of reference and can't comprehend what has occurred, or the use of the things that have been discarded or left behind.
I think about this a lot when I think about life in the universe: just how would we recognize extraterrestrial intelligence? Science fiction often imagines our alien peers as being like us, but I've been thinking more and more that we'd have an enormous amount of difficulty recognizing such an intelligence, let alone parse what their technology might look like or how it might function. The book's been enormously influential ever since it was published, and novels like Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, Simon Stålenhag's Tales from the Loop, M. John Harrison's Nova Swing, and others have taken some cues from it.
This particular edition is gorgeous, and I really like that Folio Society has tapped artist Dave McKean introduce the book and to provide the artwork for it. He employs a wonderfully surreal style, one that neatly fits with the themes and uncertainty around the world and characters. It really makes the book stand out on the shelf.
This book is part of Folio Society 2023 Spring Collection, which includes some other excellent-looking novels: Iain M. Banks' Consider Phebas and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End are amongst the offerings.