I first heard about Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a handful of years ago, in the context of it having served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (which I hope to see someday soon). It came up again last spring, as a new translation was being published in English.
The few reviews I saw haled it as a classic, and while it was generally revered as such by sci-fi fans (on various blogs and forums, as well by fans among my personal acquaintance), that seemed to be the result of the book resting on its reputation, not because many people had actually read it.
I picked up a copy this summer, but it's not till a few weeks ago when I heard the news that Boris had died that I was inspired to read it.
I was not prepared for this.
The problem is we don't notice the years pass, he thought. Screw the years — we don't notice things change. We know that things change, we've witnessed things change ourselves many a time, and yet we're still utterly incapable of noticing the moment that change comes — or we search for change in all the wrong places. A new breed of stalker has appeared — armed with technology. The old stalker was a sullen, dirty man, stubborn as a mule, crawling through the Zone inch by inch on his stomach, earning his keep. The new stalker is a tie-wearing dandy, an engineer, somewhere a mile away from the Zone, a cigarette in his teeth, a cocktail by his elbow — sitting and watching the monitors. A salaried gentleman. A very logical picture. So logical that other possibilities don't even occur.
In many ways, this is not a science fiction book at all. It's not exactly a crime novel either, but it circles round a group of scavengers and thugs and the black market economy they've helped build up around alien artefacts.
The Earth has been visited by aliens. The several landing areas are zones of total devastation, now with weird gravitational properties and other physical abnormalities, and littered with alien crap. Stalkers risk their lives to venture out into the zones, to retrieve this junk. Much of it is destined for genuine, institutionalized scientific research, but not without it first passing through the hands of several interested parties and generating some profit along the way. But pretty much nobody has any idea what all this crap is for or what purpose it can be set to.
Oh, right. And reanimated corpses. Corpses buried near the Zone just get up and go home. They move pretty slowly and the stench is overwhelming at first, but you get used to it. Also, a ban on emigrations from the Zone, as weird and unlikely mass disasters seem to follow those people who were inhabitants at the time of the visitation.
Our protagonist, Red Schuhart, is a stalker with a heart of gold. Sure, he wants to promote science, but at the end of the day, he just wants to make an "honest" buck.
Certainly, this is one of the most tension-packed novels I've ever read. The job of stalker is tougher than driving truckloads of nitroglycerin. I'm pretty sure there's an actual reference to nitroglycerin in the text, though of course I'm unable to track it down now. Have you seen that great Yves Montand film, Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), where they drive the nitroglycerin along extremely rough roads, and they might blow up at every bump, every turn? This novel is like that, with the stalkers inching along on their bellies, only they don't know if they'll explode or implode, disintegrate or melt. This edge-of-your-seat tension is what made that movie and this book excellent thrillers, aside from whatever political or social commentary they want to make. I mean, take the aliens out of this book, cast Humphrey Bogart as Red, and you'd still have an excellent story.
The scenes where Red goes into the Zone are unforgettable.