I enjoyed reading this book of hard-bitten traders of alien relics from a forbidden zone on Earth. I was surprised by how much it reads like a crime novel for large parts; the rapacious smugglers and shifty money men, their run-ins with the police, their informers, and grimy bars and urban locales populated by stolid, hard-drinking, chain-smoking men.
Aside from these elements, Roadside Picnic is still essentially a SF novel that contains thoughtful observations about the interaction between aliens and humans. There is a particularly interesting extended dialogue, halfway through the novel, in which two characters speculate about the nature of human intelligence, alien intelligence, and their technology.
However, the novel is rarely preoccupied with academic philosophising, and the story is told largely from street level view. It focuses on events around a young procurer of alien artifacts (a ‘stalker’) and his travails both in the forbidden zone, but also, significantly, in his domestic life. In the middle of the book there is a shift of perspective, onto a local bureaucrat. However, the focus remains always on telling the story of how people’s lives have been shaped by the zone, in a form that is elliptical as well as oblique. The reader will sometimes come across stark details which are given little ceremony, and no exposition, and are treated as being everyday facts of life which require little regard. It is only after some reflection that the significance of such details will become apparent (for example, concerning the exact nature of children of stalkers.)
Due to this way of writing, Roadside Picnic becomes a book you will think about after putting it down. It is also an easily read book told in an everyman vernacular which expresses interesting ideas about how aliens might regard human beings. Its crime and supernatural elements also add the pleasures of a thriller, while its Soviet origins undoubtedly give things a bleakly exotic tone.