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Strugatskys, Roadside Picnic

Information and Questions for Reading

More about the Strugatskys: here's a list of their works, taken from Yvonne Howell's 1994 book, Apocalyptic Realism, which I highly recommend. This includes oly books (including books of stories), not individual stories published in journals. The works are in order of first publication in the USSR; they've all been reprinted many times, and this list doesn't mention which editions were censored. (More on this in the afterword to Roadside Picnic, by Boris Strugatsky!) The English versions here are translations of the Russian titles; in several cases, the first English translation of a work was given a different title (one the publishers hoped would sell better to Anglo-American readers).

  • Страна багровых туч (Land of the Crimson Clouds), 1959
  • Путь на Амальтею (Journey to Amalthea), 1960
  • Стажеры (The Apprentices), 1962
  • Попытка к бегству (Escape Attempt), 1962
  • Полдень: 22 век (Noon: 22nd Century), revised, expanded and reprinted in 1967
  • Далекая Радуга (Far Rainbow), 1963
  • Трудно быть богом (Hard to Be a God), 1964
  • Понедельник начинается в субботу (Monday Begins on Saturday), 1965
  • Хищные вещи века (Predatory Things of Our Time), 1965
  • Улитка на склоне (Snail on the Slope), 1966
  • Второе нашествие марсиян (The Second Invasion from Mars), 1967. (Subsequently withdrawn from publication)
  • Улитка на склоне (The Snail on the Slope), "Perets" chapters only. (Subsequently withdrawn from publication)
  • Сказка о тройке (Tale of the Troika), 1968. (Subsequently withdrawn from pubication)
  • Обитаемый остров (Inhabited Island), 1969
  • Отель "У погибшего альпиниста" (Hotel "Chez the Lost Mountain-Climber"), 1970
  • Малыш (The Kid), 1971
  • Пикник на обочине (Roadside Picnic), 1972
  • Парень из преисподней (The Guy from Hell), 1974
  • За миллиард лет до конца света (A Billion Years Before the End of the World), 1976
  • Жук в муравейнике (Beetle in the Anthill), 1979
  • Волны гасят ветер (The Waves Still the Wind), 1985
  • Хромая судьба (Lame Fate), 1986. (Portions of this were written in the early 1970s, including the text of The Ugly Swans within the frame novel.)
  • Гадкие лебеди (The Ugly Swans ), 1987. (Written in the early 1970s and published in the west in 1972 (Germany) and 1979 (English translation).
  • Град обреченный (The Doomed City), 1988. (Written in the mid 1970s)
  • Отягощенные злом, или сорок лет спустя (Burdened with Evil, or Forty Years Later), 1988

You can get a fairly good picture of the way the end of "the Thaw" impacted lterature by reading the comments alongside this list. You can also see the dark nature of the last few titles, even knowing nothing else about those works...

Yvonne Howell divides the Strugatskys' works into three parts: the early, more optimistic and cheerful ones, ending with Monday Begins on Saturday (though we noticed dark notes in the early Escape Attempt, and these become stronger as time passes); Hard to Be a God marks a turning point within that sequence of works. The middle and later group can't be distinguished chronologically because of the interference of Soviet literary politics with publication: works already pubished were withdrawn from publication (taken out of print - though not removed from people's private libraries), and works ready for publication were subjected to obnoxious censorship. (See, again, our afterword.) A whole series of novels examine the idea of "progressorism," beginning with more optimism and ending with very mixed feelings and a kind of dead end, as one of the main characters in The Waves Still the Wind turns out to have the potential to evolve beyond humanity, to the point where the rest of humanity (including his formerly beloved wife) no longer interests him.. The Wanderers, who in the earlier works appear as mysterious creatures with unfathomable motives and distinctly different anatomies, begin to look more and more like humans, or something whose ancestors were human, as the novels move on. In the late novels, the apocalyptic pre-text that Howell's title indicates becomes much stronger - and meanwhile the Strugatskys themselves had had the chance to read authors like Andrei Platonov and (especially) Mikhail Bulgakov (Master and Margarita more than "The Fatal Eggs" or "Heart of a Dog"). Some of the novels present "future history," others (such as A Billion Years before the End of the World) are set in the present, and the last few novels move through time, into both past and future as well as outside time into an "experiment" structured like Dante's Inferno. - The apocalyptic elements in Roadside Picnic are fairly clear.

This new translation by Olena Bormashenko (who is not at all sufficiently credited on the cover or inside the book!) is vastly better than the earlier translation into English. This is not so much the fault of that translator; the earlier version was made from a censored edition (and hte afterword suggests the extent of the distortion the censorship caused). Bormashenko is especially good with the colloquial vocabulary and style, making Red Schuhart's first-person narrative in the first section quite believable, as well as the dialogue throughout.

Questions for Reading:

  1. How much sense can you make of the events that predate this narrative?
  2. What is the effect of the various sections (different narrative consciousness, first-person versus third-person, etc.)?
  3. To what extent is this like an adventure story?
  4. If you were a Soviet censor working in the early 1970s (working hard to create and maintain Stagnation!), what would you object to in this novel? - Even though it seems to be set in Canada, not in the USSR.
  5. If you have seen Tarkovsky's movie version (given the title Stalker, rather than Roadside Picnic): what is the effect of using only the last chapter? (Not to mention the other changes of emphasis that Tarkovsky introduces, and the new characters of Professor and Writer, and taking away all the names except Monkey's.)
  6. This Monkey isn't the insulting Russian word обезьяна, but hte much more affectionate and small-sounding мартышка, "martyshka." We learn rather late in the novel that the child's real name is Maria, and since martyshka sounds a lot like Martha (in Russian, Marfa, but also "Martochka" for foreign women with that name, if Russians start to give them affectionare nicknames) - what does the combination of Maria and Martha suggest?
  7. The Strugatskys themselves were pretty secular Jews - why would they be using New Testament imagery recalling the Apocalypse? In general, what is the effect of offering the reader hints of other texts or narratives? (Some of which might help unlock the plot of the work at hand - while others might suggest expectations that are then violated or altered in the course of the new work.)
  8. The mature Strugatskys emphasize not the value of making people "progress" to become better in every way, but the vital importance of preserving and drawing on earlier learning and traditions. Which 
  9. For a Russian reader, Kirill Panov must draw particular attention. What would he be doing working in this institute? (What does it say about the near-future world in which the novel is set that a scientist who seems clearly ethnically Russian is working at this foreign place?)
  10. Russians have long considered that red hair is a sign of a clown or of a person who is peculiar and somewhat stigmatized? What does it suggest that Redrick Schuhart (? British name?) is a redhead? - When they call him "redhead," they're also saying "Weirdo!"


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