Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Space aliens suddenly appear at six different places on Earth, stay a little while, then go away, paying no attention at all to humanity. They leave behind apparent trash, the way careless picnickers might stop alongside the road, eat lunch, and then depart, leaving behind trash that would mystify the squirrels and ants, and some of it might be toxic.
Thirteen years later, in one of those places, a city called Harmont, scientists are trying to understand what was left behind, and “stalkers” are trying to smuggle out everything they can because there’s a profitable market for the trash. Organized crime slowly edges out science, even though some of the trash is terrifyingly toxic.
As a first contact novel, Roadside Picnic takes an uncommon approach. We humans can’t understand the aliens, and they might not be interested in us anyway. We can only react — and we react in the way we always have to any novel situation. In this case, in the city of Harmont, a corrupt society grows more corrupt, but not without sufficient self-awareness to understand and debate why it is heading down that violent, destructive road.
My only quibble is that the novel focuses relentlessly on Harmont with no clue about what is happening at the other sites. Were there other kinds of responses? I think the addition might have added depth, but the novel is plenty visceral and fascinating as it is, a deserved classic in science fiction.
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