Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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Roadside Picnic
by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

A book review by Steven Wu
September 16, 2001

Rating: 5 (of 10)

This is a book that I will definitely have to reread. It is consistently listed, remarkably enough, in the top 10 of the Internet Top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy List despite its relative obscurity.

This is not your typical sci-fi novel. It deals a great deal with scientific strangeness, but I realized after waiting impatiently for something to happen that the authors were using science fiction as a means of exploring other topics--in this case, the gradual psychological erosion (and perhaps redemption?) of a man whose life is steadily deteriorating under the strain of both alien and human influences. This is, supposedly, a major feature in most Russian and Eastern European science fiction, a fact that I did not know before beginning to read this.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the portrayal of Redrick, the protagonist, compelling enough to hold my interest in the absence of any action. Perhaps this is because I know nothing about the kinds of things Russian et. al. writers would write about, or perhaps it is just because the translation of the Strugatsky's work contained too many clunky phrases and sentences for me to get swept up by the deeper psychological significance. But I guess my biggest problem with social sci-fi is this: using truly alien (by which I mean, foreign to my experience) objects to elucidate human impulses is difficult unless somehow I, simply by reading the book, can understand how those alien objects create those human impulses. For example, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game has young children going through battle school. I never went through battle school, but I sympathized with the children and felt their emotions on an almost visceral level because, being a moderately precocious and pressured child myself, I recognized aspects of myself in them. Here, however, the various alien influences never become more specific than "threats on life," and this non-specificity makes it difficult for me to feel any particular emotion toward the characters other than, "Wow, that was dangerous."

I'm not being too coherent here. As I said, this book will require a second reading (especially the last 20 pages or so--weird stuff). But, this book's psychological commentary is not as penetrating as Dostoevsky, nor as good as Ender's Game. And there's not really much else to recommend it. So, I can see why some people praise it so effusively; but for me, it was a bore.

Copyright © 2001 Steven Wu

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Steven Wu's Book Reviews