Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the place and the thriving black market in the alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.
First published in 1972, Roadside Picnic is still widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels, despite the fact that it has been out of print in the United States for almost thirty years. This authoritative new translation corrects many errors and omissions and has been supplemented with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin and a new afterword by Boris Strugatsky explaining the strange history of the novel’s publication in Russia.
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By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1972 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
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REDRICK SCHUHART, 23 YEARS OLD, SINGLE, LABORATORY ASSISTANT IN THE HARMONT BRANCH OF THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL CULTURES.
The other day, we're standing in the repository; it's evening already, nothing left to do but dump the lab suits, then I can head down to the Borscht for my daily dose of booze. I'm relaxing, leaning on the wall, my work all done and a cigarette at the ready, dying for a smoke — I haven't smoked for two hours — while he keeps fiddling with his treasures. One safe is loaded, locked, and sealed shut, and he's loading yet another one — taking the empties from our transporter, inspecting each one from every angle (and they are heavy bastards, by the way, fourteen pounds each), and, grunting slightly, carefully depositing them on the shelf.
He's been struggling with these empties for ages, and all, in my opinion, with no benefit to humanity or himself. In his place, I would have bailed a long time ago and gotten another job with the same pay. Although on the other hand, if you think about it, an empty really is a puzzling and even a mysterious thing. I've handled them lots of times myself, but every time I see one — I can't help it, I'm still amazed. It's just these two copper disks the size of a saucer, a quarter inch thick, about eighteen inches apart, and not a thing between the two. I mean, nothing whatsoever, zip, nada, zilch. You can stick your hand between them — maybe even your head, if the thing has unhinged you enough — nothing but empty space, thin air. And despite this, there must be something there, a force field of some sort, because so far no one's managed to push these disks together, or pull them apart either.
No, friends, it's hard to describe this thing if you haven't seen one. It looks much too simple, especially when you finally convince yourself that your eyes aren't playing tricks on you. It's like describing a glass to someone or, God forbid, a wineglass: you just wiggle your fingers in the air and curse in utter frustration. All right, we'll assume that you got it, and if you didn't, pick up a copy of the Institute's Reports — they have articles about these empties in every issue, complete with pictures.
Anyway, Kirill's been struggling with these empties for almost a year now. I've worked for him from the very beginning, but I still don't get what he wants with them, and to be honest, I haven't tried too hard to find out. Let him first figure it out for himself, sort it all out, then maybe I'll have a listen. But so far, one thing is clear to me: he's absolutely determined to dismantle an empty, dissolve it in acid, crush it under a press, or melt it in an oven. And then he'll finally get it, he'll be covered in glory, and the entire scientific world will simply shudder in pleasure. But for now, as far as I know, he's nowhere near this goal. He hasn't yet accomplished anything at all, except that he's exhausted himself, turned gray and quiet, and his eyes have become like a sick dog's — they even water. If it were someone else, I'd get him totally wasted, take him to a great girl to loosen him up a bit, then the next morning I'd feed him more booze, take him to more girls, and by the end of the week he'd be A-OK — good as new and ready to go. Except this sort of therapy wouldn't work on Kirill. There's no point in even suggesting it; he's not the type.
So, as I said, we're standing in the repository, I'm looking at him, the way he's gotten, how his eyes have sunk in, and I feel sorrier for him than I can say. And then I decide. Except I don't really decide — it's like the words tumble out themselves.
"Listen," I say, "Kirill ..."
He's standing there, holding up the last empty, and looking like he wants to crawl right inside it.
"Listen," I say, "Kirill. What if you had a full empty, huh?"
"A full empty?" he repeats, knitting his brows like I'm speaking Greek.
"Yeah," I say. "It's your hydromagnetic trap, what's it called? Object seventy-seven B. Only with some shit inside, blue stuff."
I can tell — I'm starting to get through. He looks up at me, squints, and there in his eyes, behind the dog tears, appears a glimmer of intelligence, as he himself loves to put it. "Wait, wait," he says. "A full one? The same thing, except full?"
My Kirill's cured. Good as new and ready to go. "Let's go have a smoke," I say.
He promptly stuffs the empty into the safe, slams the door, gives the lock three and a half turns, and comes back with me to the lab. For an empty empty, Ernest would give four hundred bucks in cash, and I could bleed the bastard dry for a full one; but believe it or not, that doesn't even cross my mind, because in my hands Kirill has come to life again — he's buzzing with energy, almost bursting into song, bounding down the stairs four at a time, not letting a guy light his cigarette. Anyway, I tell him everything: what it looks like and where it is and how to best get at it. He immediately takes out a map, finds this garage, puts his finger on it, gives me a long look, and, of course, immediately figures me out, but then that isn't so hard ...
"You devil, Red!" he says, smiling at me. "Well, let's get this over with. We'll go first thing tomorrow morning. I'll request a hoverboot and a pass at nine, and by ten we'll be off. All right?"
"All right," I say. "And who else will we take?"
"What do we need another guy for?"
"No way," I say. "This is no picnic. What if something happens to you? It's the Zone. Gotta follow the rules."
He gives a short laugh and shrugs. "Up to you. You know better."
No shit! Of course, that was him being generous: Who needs another guy, we'll go by ourselves, we'll keep the whole thing dark, and no one will suspect a thing. Except I know that the guys from the Institute don't go into the Zone in pairs. They have an unwritten rule around here: two guys do all the work while the third one watches, and when they ask later, he vouches there was no funny business.
"If it were up to me, I'd take Austin," Kirill says. "But you probably don't want him. Or would he do?"
"No," I say. "Anyone but him. You'll take Austin another time." Austin isn't a bad guy, he's got the right mix of courage and cowardice, but I think he's already doomed. You can't explain this to Kirill, but I know these things: the man has decided he's got the Zone completely figured out, and so he'll soon screw up and kick the bucket. And he can go right ahead. But not with me around.
"All right, all right," says Kirill. "How about Tender?" Tender is his second lab assistant. He isn't a bad guy, a calm sort.
"He's a bit old," I say. "And he has kids ..."
"That's OK. He's been in the Zone already."
"Fine," I say. "Let it be Tender."
Anyway, he stays there poring over the map while I race straight to the Borscht, because my stomach is growling and my throat is parched.
The next day I get to work at nine, as usual, and show my ID. The guard on duty is the beefy sergeant I pummeled last year when he made a drunken pass at Guta. "Hey," he says. "They're looking all over the Institute for you, Red —"
I interrupt him politely. "I'm not 'Red' to you," I say. "Don't you try to pal around with me, you Swedish ape."
"For God's sake, Red!" he says in astonishment. "But they all call you that!"
I'm anxious about going into the Zone and cold sober to boot. I grab him by the shoulder belt and tell him exactly what he is and just how his mother conceived him. He spits on the floor, returns my ID, and continues without any more pleasantries.
"Redrick Schuhart," he says, "you are ordered to immediately report to the chief of security, Captain Herzog."
"There you go," I say. "Much better. Keep plugging away, Sergeant — you'll make lieutenant yet."
Meantime, I'm shitting my pants. What could Captain Herzog want from me during work hours? Well, off I go to report. He has an office on the third floor, a very nice office, complete with bars on the windows like a police station. Willy himself is sitting behind his desk, puffing on his pipe and typing some gibberish on his typewriter. Over in the corner, some sergeant is rummaging through a metal cabinet — must be a new guy; I've never met him. We have more of these sergeants at the Institute than they have at division headquarters, all of them hale, hearty, and rosy cheeked. They don't need to go into the Zone and don't give a damn about world affairs.
"Hello," I say. "You requested my presence?"
Willy looks at me like I'm not there, pushes away his typewriter, puts an enormous file in front of him, and starts flipping through it. "Redrick Schuhart?" he says.
"That's my name," I answer, feeling an urge to burst into nervous laughter.
"How long have you worked at the Institute?"
"Two years, going on the third."
"I'm all alone," I say. "An orphan."
Then he turns to the sergeant and orders him sternly, "Sergeant Lummer, go to the archives and bring back case 150." The sergeant salutes him and beats it. Willy slams the file shut and asks me gloomily, "Starting up your old tricks again, are you?"
"What old tricks?"
"You know damn well what old tricks. We've received information on you again."
Aha, I think. "And who was the source?"
He scowls and bangs his pipe on the ashtray in annoyance. "That's none of your business," he says. "I'm warning you as an old friend: give up this nonsense, give it up for good. If they catch you a second time, you won't walk away with six months. And they'll kick you out of the Institute once and for all, understand?"
"I understand," I say. "That much I understand. What I don't understand is what son of a bitch squealed on me ..."
But he's staring through me again, puffing on his empty pipe, and flipping merrily through his file. That, then, signals the return of Sergeant Lummer with case 150. "Thank you, Schuhart," says Captain Willy Herzog, nicknamed the Hog. "That's all that I needed to know. You are free to go."
Well, I go to the locker room, change into my lab suit, and light up, the entire time trying to figure out: where are they getting the dirt? If it's from the Institute, then it's all lies, no one here knows a damn thing about me and never could. And if it's from the police ... again, what could they know about except my old sins? Maybe the Vulture got nabbed; that bastard, to save his sorry ass, would rat on his own mother. But even the Vulture doesn't have a thing on me nowadays. I think and think, can't think of a thing, and decide not to give a damn. The last time I went into the Zone at night was three months ago; the swag is mostly gone, and the money is mostly spent. They didn't catch me then, and like hell they'll catch me now. I'm slippery.
But then, as I'm heading upstairs, it hits me, and I'm so stunned that I go back down to the locker room, sit down, and light up again. It turns out I can't go into the Zone today. And tomorrow I can't, and the day after tomorrow. It turns out the cops again have me on their radar, they haven't forgotten about me, and even if they have, someone has very kindly reminded them. And it doesn't even matter now who it was. No stalker, unless he's completely nuts, will go anywhere near the Zone when he knows he's being watched. Right now, I ought to be burrowing into some deep dark corner. Zone? What Zone? I haven't set foot there in months, I don't even go there using my pass! What are you harassing an honest lab assistant for?
I think all this through and even feel a bit of relief that I don't need to go into the Zone today. Except how am I going to break it to Kirill?
I tell him straight out. "I'm not going into the Zone. Your orders?"
At first, of course, he just gawks at me. Eventually, something seems to click. He takes me by the elbow, leads me to his office, sits me down at his table, and perches on the windowsill nearby. We light up. Silence. Then he asks me cautiously, "Red, did something happen?"
Now what am I supposed to tell him? "No," I say, "nothing happened. Well, I blew twenty bucks last night playing poker — that Noonan sure knows how to play, the bastard."
"Hold on," he says. "What, you mean you just changed your mind?"
I almost groan from the tension. "I can't," I say through my teeth. "I can't, you get it? Herzog just called me to his office."
He goes limp. Again misery is stamped on his face, and again his eyes look like a sick poodle's. He takes a ragged breath, lights a new cigarette with the remains of the old one, and says quietly, "Believe me, Red, I didn't breathe a word to anyone."
"Stop it," I say. "Who's talking about you?"
"I haven't even told Tender yet. I got a pass for him, but I haven't even asked him whether he'd come or not ..."
I keep smoking in silence. Ye gods, the man just doesn't understand.
"What did Herzog say to you, anyway?"
"Oh, not much," I say. "Someone squealed on me, that's all."
He gives me a funny look, hops off the windowsill, and starts walking back and forth. He's pacing around his office while I sit there, blowing smoke rings and keeping my trap shut. I feel sorry for him, of course, and really this is rotten luck: a great cure I found for the guy's depression. And who's to blame here? I am, that's who. I tempted a child with candy, except the candy's in a jar, out of reach on the top shelf ... He stops pacing, comes up to me, and, looking somewhere off to the side, asks awkwardly, "Listen, Red, how much would it cost — a full empty?"
I don't get it at first, thinking he wants to buy one somewhere else, except good luck finding another one — it might be the only one in the world, and besides, he wouldn't have enough money. Where would a Russian scientist get that much cash? Then I feel like I've been slapped: does the bastard think I'm pulling this stunt for the dough? For God's sake, I think, asshole, what do you take me for? I even open my mouth, ready to shower him with curses. And I stop. Because, actually, what else could he take me for? A stalker's a stalker, the money is all that matters to him, he gambles his life for the money. So it follows that yesterday I threw out the line, and today I'm working the bait, jacking up the price.
These thoughts shock me speechless. Meanwhile, he keeps staring at me intently, and in his eyes I don't see contempt — only a kind of compassion. And so I explain it to him calmly. "No one has ever gone to the garage with a pass," I say. "They haven't even laid the route to it yet, you know that. So here we are coming back, and your Tender starts bragging how we made straight for the garage, took what we needed, and returned immediately. As if we went to the warehouse. And it will be perfectly obvious," I say, "that we knew what we were coming for. That means that someone was guiding us. And which one of us three it was — that's a real tough one. You understand how this looks for me?"
I finish my little speech, and we silently look each other in the eye. Then he suddenly claps his hands, rubs them together, and cheerfully announces, "Well, of course, no means no. I understand you, Red, so I can't judge you. I'll go myself. I'll manage, with luck. Not my first time."
He spreads the map on the windowsill, leans on his hands, hunches over it, and all his good cheer evaporates before my eyes. I hear him mumble, "Three hundred and ninety feet ... or even four hundred ... and a bit more in the garage. No, I won't take Tender. What do you think, Red, maybe I shouldn't take Tender? He has two kids, after all ..."
"They won't let you out on your own," I say.
"Don't worry, they will," he says, still mumbling. "I know all the sergeants ... and all the lieutenants. I don't like those trucks! Thirteen years they've stood in the open air, and they still look brand-new ... Twenty steps away, the gasoline tanker is rusted through, but they look fresh from the assembly line. Oh, that Zone!"
He lifts his gaze from the map and stares out the window. And I stare out the window, too. There, beyond the thick leaded glass, is our Zone — right there, almost within reach, tiny and toylike from the thirteenth floor ...
Excerpted from Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko. Copyright © 1972 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"[a] vivid new translation... it has survived triumphantly as a classic." —Publishers Weekly
"The story is carried out with a controlled fierceness that doesn't waver for a minute." —Kirkus Reviews
"Brilliantly and beautifully written . . . a truly superb work of science fiction." —Infinity Plus
"Lively, racy, and likable . . . complex in event, imaginative in detail, ethically and intellectually sophisticated." —Ursula K. Le Guin
"Amazing. . . . The Strugatskys' deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness [produces] a truly superb tale. . . . You won't forget it." —Theodore Sturgeon
"No doubt: a powerful, classic work of science fiction. Certainly recommended." —The Complete Review
"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." —io9
"The Strugatskys' worldview remains both uniquely cutting and replete with humanity . . . The characters' conflicted views of their troubled world make for a read that still feels fresh today. It's also a book that's bound to make you feel a little less sure of humanity's place in the universe." —Discover