Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are Russian brothers who may be considered the best of the best of the Russian science fiction writers. Not much of the Russian sci fi canon has been translated, and we are lucky to have a number of the works of these two brothers in English translation.
In this novel, written in 1971, the guys posit that Earth experiences a brief visit from extraterrestrials, actually a series of visits, in locations that would suggest originated from a single distant point far away, as if one stood in one spot and shot a gun at a revolving sphere. This is the story about one location in northern America.
The aliens have long since gone, leaving a toxic and scary area which has been cordoned off, and to which access is forbidden to all but certain scientists, etc. The area is filled with mysterious objects, the detritus left behind by the aliens, much as travelers might leave behind their trash at a picnic site along a highway. Hence the title of the book. There are some who sneak in despite the prohibitions, and bring out objects which they sell on the black market.
There is no indication that anyone ever saw the aliens or their arrival or departure, but it is rumored that those who enter the zone risk some kind of genetic mutation which will be visited upon their children. The book revolves around one such stalker, as those who enter the zone without permission are called, and his girlfriend who becomes pregnant.
There is a great deal of interest in the ‘artifacts’ brought out. The scientists have no idea what most of these things can do, and how to reverse engineer them, but they have discovered uses for a few of them. One such item seems to act as an energy source and one character uses it to power his car. They consider that these artifacts may have been tossed onto Earth with the expectation that we would study them, make a giant technological leap and send a signal. They say these artifacts are answers to questions that we still can’t pose.
There is a deal of moralizing in the book, as there is in much of the sci fi of this period. there is rather a long discussion by a couple of the characters on the nature and definition of reason.
The book has some interesting quotable lines:
Man meets an extraterrestrial creature. How do they find out that they are both rational creatures?
Yeah. How DO they?
It should never be forgotten that in our Euclidian world every stick has two ends. Undesirable applications? Precisely.
Xenology: an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic.
We know that everything changes, we’re taught from childhood that everything changes, and we’ve seen everything change with our own eyes many a time, and yet, we’re totally incapable of recognizing the moment when the change comes or else we look for the change in the wrong place.
Good story. Now I have to find more by the Strugatskys.