Empties, witches' jelly, death lamps, the jolly ghost, rattling napkins, wriggling magnets, Jack the tramp, the Golden Ball. What the hell is going on here?
Roadside Picnic is a big novel in the history of science fiction. It's about one of several Zones across the world where visitations have taken place (presumably by aliens) but where things have been....changed. Strange artifacts, stranger physics and inexplicable effects on people and things. The title's a metaphor, put forward by a scientist in the novel, about the kind of things we'd accidently leave behind on a picnic and what woodland creatures would make of, say, coins, cigarette lighters, mobile phones.
This is the central idea here - how alien are aliens? A lot of modern sci-fi doesn't even go near aliens, preferring to talk instead about AI and singularities, and I wonder how influential Roadside Picnic's been in that trend. You learn nothing about the aliens in this book, expect that you can never learn anything about them. I suspect a lot of writers since have taken that lesson on board, and concentrated on subjects they can speculate about.
It's got quite an unusual feel. It's supposed to be set in Canada, but there are so many alcoholic melancholics that it can only be Russia. Is it political? Well, I suppose you could make a case for the unpredictability and promised riches in the Zone representing the Soviet people's hopes and fears about capitalism, although I suspect that's a bunch of bollocks.
I really enjoyed the little touches about family life. The protaganist Red's daughter Monkey, a mutant who's hated by the neighbours and loved by her family, becomes less and less human. Then you've got another stalker called Buzzard who's got two great looking kids, and you slowly realise they just don't add up. And there are family members who come back from the dead, return home and sit around like benign zombies. What's going on there? It's almost like the attempts at communication in Solaris (actually, Stanislaw Lem's someone I need to get reading!)
So how it does it compare to Tarkovsky's Stalker? Well there's more cool weirdness in Roadside Picnic, and there's not all that in your face philosophical yapping, but the ending's definitely better in Stalker and I think it's got a better story. IMDB claims (imdb claims a lot of things) that a new version's in production. With the right people, there's the potential for something very interesting indeed.