Roadside Picnic (Rediscovered Classics)
Chicago Review Press, 2012
224 pp., $15.95
Interview by John Wilson
Scouring the sci-fi shelves of secondhand bookstores in the 1970s, I always kept an eye out for titles coming from Elsewhere. On one such shelf I came across Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a novel published in Russian in 1972 and in English translation in 1977. Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (1933- ) were brothers, and their work was very popular in the Soviet Union.
Roadside Picnic is, among other things, an unconventional story of alien contact (or the aftermath of contact), with affinities to Stanislaw Lem. Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker was inspired by the Strugatskys' novel.
This month, Chicago Review Press published a new English translation of Roadside Picnic, with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin. The translator, Olena Bormashenko, a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Texas, has produced a version that is a good deal more fluent than the earlier rendering into English. I got in touch with her, and we carried on a conversation via email.
What was your first encounter with Roadside Picnic, and how did you end up translating it?
My first encounter with Roadside Picnic must have been when I was quite small. Books by the Strugatsky brothers were very popular in the former Soviet Union, so it was something I read as a child. I can't remember exactly how old I was, especially since I tend to reread books.
I decided to translate it because I really loved the book and thought the old translation didn't quite do it justice. I flipped through it when I bought it for an English-speaking friend of mine in college, and I thought I might be able to do a better job. So I just started translating … and then I worked on it on and off for a long, long time—there must have been stretches of more than a year when I did no work on it. Somehow, I only got serious about it again a couple of years ago. I'd never done any translating before that at all, so I'm not really sure why I thought it was a good idea! Of course, I'm really happy with how it worked out.
Collaborative authorship is probably more common in sci-fi than in other varieties of fiction, but collaboration between two brothers is rare in any genre. Do you know anything about how Boris and Arkady Strugatsky wrote their books together, how they divided the labor?
That's a fascinating question! Unfortunately, I don't have any firsthand knowledge of the matter (although I'd be very interested in learning the answer). As far as I know, they basically did all the work jointly and on an equal footing. That is, they'd first discuss the ideas and sketch out the plot, and then write the book together, sentence by sentence. I wish I knew more details about their collaboration, but I don't.
Ah, well, that's OK. (If you ever hear from someone who DOES know about this, maybe as your new translation gets read, please pass the word on to me.)
I'll definitely let you know if I ever hear anything. (I did some Googling in Russian, and it looks like they didn't talk much about how they worked together.)
There are so many stories of alien visitation to Earth, but Roadside Picnic is one of the most memorable. What makes it stand out from the crowd?
I think there are a number of things that make Roadside Picnic stand out. First, unlike most books in the genre, it grapples with the idea that the aliens might be indifferent or unknowable. (Solaris would be another exception.) I find that a much more fascinating perspective than the idea of green beings with three eyes or whatnot.
Another thing that makes Roadside Picnic great science fiction is that it's just a good, well-observed book. It doesn't only engage with science and technology; it also works as social commentary and as a character study of Redrick, the protagonist. This approach is actually very typical of the Strugatsky brothers' works, and is one of the reasons I'm so fond of their books.
Among the other books by the Strugatskys that have been translated into English, which ones would you particularly recommend?
I'd say that question has a number of answers. I like many books by the Strugatsky brothers, but I'm not sure I'd be able to unreservedly recommend all of them to a Western audience.
The most popular Strugatsky novel in the former USSR is certainly Monday Starts on Saturday, a very amusing book chronicling the adventures of a computer programmer working at an Institute of Magic. I really enjoyed the book in Russian, and have reread it more than once; however, it is full of allusions both to Russian folk tales and Soviet realities, and as such, it might be less accessible to a non-Russian reader than Roadside Picnic.
Most of their other novels are less dependent on cultural context: some of my favorites are Hard to Be a God, Beetle in the Anthill, The Time Wanderers, and The Final Circle of Paradise. But I don't know how well they've been translated—an English-speaking reader might not experience these books the same way that I did. I suppose if I was pressed, these would be the ones I'd recommend; I'm sure I could come up with some more, because I enjoy the Strugatsky brothers in general!
As a mathematician who also reads (and even translates) fiction, have you encountered some novels featuring mathematics & mathematicians that you especially enjoyed (or that seemed egregiously bad)?
I can't say I've read too many novels featuring mathematicians. I've read a number of biographies, but that's something different. Maybe I'm just forgetting some obvious examples—can you think of some yourself?
It's funny: the last few years, there have been a number of novels in which mathematicians figure prominently. Most of them, to be honest, haven't been very good. One I greatly enjoyed is The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa (translated from Japanese).
I should try reading The Housekeeper and the Professor then—there's clearly a gap in my education! I was trying to come up with books featuring mathematicians, and I realized that I could think of lots of books where there's a throwaway line about a character studying mathematics, but usually just as code for "this person is smart" or possibly for "this person is smart and strange." I suppose a particularly amusing example would be Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Now that Roadside Picnic is out, are you thinking of translating something else? (I hope so!)
Yes, I'm definitely thinking of translating something else. I will most likely do another Strugatsky book next, but we haven't decided which one yet. We'll probably choose one fairly soon, and then I'll get started; I'm looking forward to it. Of course, Roadside Picnic is doing so well that my expectations are now probably far too high.
Thank you. I'll be looking for the next book.
If, as I hope, you decide to check out Roadside Picnic and end up reading it, you might take a look at a related book published earlier this year: Zona, Geoff Dyer's scene-by-scene reading of Tarkovsky's Stalker. It's a willful book, loaded with digressions and provocations, but it's never boring. You might also enjoy Stanislaw Lem's long essay "About the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic," the concluding piece in his book Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.