Reading ideas come from all sorts of places. While I’m a big sci-fi fan, I’d admittedly never heard of the Strugatsky brothers until I read an article about European dystopian games in a recent edition of Game Informer magazine. (For you cool people who don’t know about Game Informer, it’s the magazine you get an automatic subscription to when you sign up for a rewards card at GameStop stores. It’s pretty good!) I found out that the influential S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game was based on a novel from 1972. My library had it. Serendipity.
A few dozen pages in and the first thing that stood out to me is how fresh the book feels, despite it being nearly 50 years old. It’s fresh because of its evergreen themes of our relationship to tech, aliens, alienation, class, etc etc etc. The least relevant thing in the book is probably all the indoor smoking.
Since the book is so short, I don’t want to give away too much of the story. The back of the book gives away a bit of the world, so here goes: Red is a “stalker” – a person who ventures into a quarantined/studied/guarded area of North America (Canada?) where, decades ago, some sort of alien artifacts were left. Tech, biology, and physics are all different in the quarantined area. As you would expect, a black market has developed around items in the quarantined area. Stalkers like red sneak in, steal stuff, and sneak out. The psychological and scientific and cultural impact of stalkers and the quarantined area aren’t fully understood. The book is about Red and his experiences.
If you’re a sci-fi person, I’d definitely recommend checking this one out. While it wasn’t my favorite novel of the year, it definitely made me think and immediately put me in a new reality as a reader. My understanding is the linked translation is much better than what English readers had access to initially. It also includes some behind the scenes info from the surviving Strugatsky brother.