This magnificent Russian SF novel is about 40 years old and was written by two Russian brothers,Arkady and Boris Strugatsky,and this is a new translation where the original language,idiomatic,slangy,violent and fresh,has been restored.Set in the early 70s,ostensibly in Canada.There are 4 chapters,detailing the life of Red Schuhart a stalker,who ventures illegally into the Zone,in spite of the extreme danger to retrieve the mysterious artefacts that alien visitors left scattered around.The book starts off with a description of the Zones,6 of which have been left randomly across the planet.Aliens have visited the earth and gone away again leaving behind them several landing areas littered with their refuse, bizarre technological wonders to be found in the Zones. These areas, where the physics of matter are warped in mysterious and dangerous ways, are thought to be the trash piles of aliens who dropped by for a picnic and didn't clean up after themselves The Zone in this novel,Harmont, has a town nearby that was changed by the alien visitation,where a thriving black market in alien products has grown up.The 1st chapter is written in the 1st person from Red's point of view,he is an amoral, lively, unpredictable buccaneer with a revolting vitality.Red has survived after many incursions into the Zone,and has a legendary status,but he isn't some exceptional or particularly unusual human being, but just some guy getting by as best he can in peculiar circumstances.The 1st time he gets out of the Zone where he went with a scientist to retrieve an "empty", two discs held together in space with nothing between them,we find out his girlfriend Guta is pregnant.We know that their child is likely to die or be born mutated due to his visits into the Zone.People are mundane,human relations ring true,there are no super intellects.Most of the characters are tough people leading degrading, discouraging lives,driven by lust,greed,fear and money.This innovation brings a lot of energy,describing the effects of this alien visitation on commonplace people,not an elite.
You meet Red's child,Monkey,over the 10 year period the novel takes place and you realize her strange mutation. Later chapters(3 more) are told in the 3rd person,this brings in more characters,scientists,traders,black marketers,and broadens the perspective and deepens our knowledge ,the stages in the growth of the frontier town which passes through a period of prosperity,the roles of the people in that society.There are conversation between different people about the Zone and scientists researching it and the people who live around the Zone.In one chapter ideas between Richard Noonan and a scientist are discussed about the purpose of the visit,the sociological implications of the advanced technology,was it to see the effects upon the human race,or to kick them a few rungs up the ladder of development,or was it a test,or was it sowing the seeds for a future harvest when the aliens returned?" The violations in the laws of causality is much more terrifying than a stampede of ghosts."Aliens might be indifferent to us and finally unknowable,we may only know them through the after-effects, a one-way contact. They are as far removed from us as we are to animals,insects.The exploration of levels ofconsciousness is good.
Red goes back again and again to the Zone to find the answers to all his problems,becoming mentally and physically changed.Movement away from the Zone leads to disasters and death to the places and people around the emigrants.The chapters in between the 1st and last chapters are one step away from the action(that is entry into the Zone by Red) where each character's viewpoint is distinct,where the authors describe the various deals,exploitations going on around the Zone and the madness of the free market economy. After imprisonment for trafficking in looted alien products, Schuhart agrees to one last expedition to the very heart of the Zone where resides a Holy Grail-like Golden Sphere, capable of granting any wish to the one who reaches it. Red's plan was to improve his own life when he reached the globe? He wanted to do something for Guta and Monkey. But when an innocent young person reveals his own wish - happiness for everyone - this takes the place of Red's more selfish wish in his increasingly confused mind. So perhaps he was going to reach this divine object and perhaps his (borrowed) wish was about to come true...
Objections to the publication(dragging on for 8 years)were moral,not ideological (contrary to what Ursula Le Guin says in the Forward),the language used,the lack of role models for Russian people,with the darkness,violence, drinking,crime and cursing.The story is racy,lively and pungent,the characters are individually vivid and likeable.The slice of life approach to the narrative works.Its not the plotting that's moving you forward,it's the different ideas,the jumps in time and perspective,societal changes,over 10 years.The ending is abrupt but awesome and the novel leaves you with many layers of commentary and social satire,amazing images and disturbing ideas,with subversive rumblings emerging into consciousness later.The authors have a great sense of humour, slyly poking fun at bureaucracy, and finding the humorous in the most mundane of everyday events .Their imaginative boldness was to posit an idea or theory of alien visitation and to cleverly describe the magical debris,the chemical and physical effects and changes,in a fresh inventive,idiomatic language,through down to earth characters.The shards,ashes, images,after-effects of who we are and what is our place in the universe.Because there are no pop cultural references nor references to the technology of their own time,the book has never dated and reads as if it had just been written.The technology of the aliens is far in advance of the technology we have today.This is SF as a feat of imagination,our limited human perspective on the immensity of the universe.