One of the best science fiction books ever written would have to be Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Published in 1972, this novel tells the tale of a series of physics defying “zones” that cropped up after aliens briefly stopped by Earth. The people who scour these zones are known as stalkers, and the story is told by one of them named Redrick “Red” Schuhart, who is caught between his family, the Canadian government and the lucrative, morally compromising business that is stalking.
Roadside Picnic is unique compared to other sci-fi novels in that the aliens are truly… alien. They aren’t analogous to real world cultures or have any sense of human morality. In fact, we don’t even see them. We just see their refuse from their little “roadside picnic.” What they leave behind includes cobwebs that induce heart attacks hours after they are touched, infinitely charging batteries that reproduce cellularly and slime that dissolves human bones. And that’s nothing on the “zone” itself, featuring spots of gravity that are thousands of times stronger than normal and spots where everything becomes unspeakably, unbearably hot to the point of nearly incinerating humans. The “zone” and its wonders (horrors?) are incompatible with human life, and the Strugatskys make that very clear.
Of course, the book isn’t just an exhibition of the alien. The book delves into morality, with Schuhart pondering the nature of his job, his brief collaboration with the government and the sacrifices and risks he takes just for his family and success. Through him, we see how the ordinary people are abused and taken advantage of when new scientific discoveries come to light, which subverts the usual sci-fi fare of heroic captains and determined scientists. The book also wonders about our place amongst the stars, and how significant we truly are.
“Roadside Picnic” is an amazing sci-fi novel, and even if you aren’t a fan of sci-fi you should at least check it out. If you want more, the novel has been adapted into a film and a videogame series, all distinct from one another. The film “Stalker,” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky is an atmospheric art film that delves in on human nature, morality and philosophy as our protagonists search for a room in the “zone” that grants one’s deepest desire. The video-game, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” is a survival horror affair taking place in the ruins of Chernobyl as you struggle to regain your memory.