“Roadside Picnic” is a book written by the Strugatsky brothers – two Russian writers who worked during the Soviet era. I had wanted to read this book for a long time, and I finally did when a new, uncensored translation was published.
The world of “Roadside Picnic” is a world after a visit by outer space aliens. The aliens stayed for a while, without establishing contact, and then left. They left behind several “Zones”, that are now restricted, in which mysterious items can be found and unexplainable and dangerous phenomena occur. Around the Zones a new occupation, that of a “stalker”, has arisen. A stalker is a person who goes into the Zones and fetches things for study or for sale.
The main character of the book is “Red” Schruhrat – a stalker. Stalkers can earn a lot of money, especially when they sneak into the Zones and bring out stuff to sell on the black market. One of the early missions of Red into the Zone is a trip sanctioned by a local Institute where he is employed. Although the trip seems successful, due to Red’s inattention a scientist touches a “silver web” and this slip apparently causes his death shortly after the return.
The book covers large portion of Red’s life and further trips into the Zone. Some political and military intrigue is alluded too. However, the Zone remains incomprehensible throughout the book.
One hypothesis explaining the Zones is presented during a conversation in a bar where a friend of Red muses that the Zones are simply garbage the aliens left, and are just incomprehensible to us as stuff left in the grass after a roadside picnic would be to ants.
This book was an inspiration for another Tarkowski movie – called “The Stalker”. I have seen parts of this movie – it is visually stunning – but is extremely slow. I have yet to watch it entirely.
I really enjoyed this book and I will probably read of Strugatsky’s novels.
“Time Ships”, by Stephen Baxter, is a sequel to the classic H.G. Wells novel “The Time Machine”. The sequel starts at the precise moment where the original ended. The Time Traveler hops in his machine to go back to the future and re-unite with Weena of the Eloi. But events do not go as expected.
As the Time Traveler (we never find out his name) goes forward in time again, the future is different than the one he visited previously. This time the Morlocks are enlightened and technologically advanced civilization. The traveler spends quite a bit of time with the Morlocks and there he learns of the multi-universe theory of the world. This theory says that as events occur the universe splits into several different universes, each containing a different outcome of the event in question. This leads to a possibility of unlimited number of universes co-existing on different timelines. An unhappy side effect of this is that the traveler has very little chance to get back to the time line that had the Eloi and his Weena.
But this one alternate history is just the beginning of the adventure. The traveler escapes from the new Morlock future (inadvertently dragging along a Morlock scientist) and comes back to a time twenty years before the time machine was invented and he meets his younger self.
As he discusses time travel with his younger self, a time machine from not too distant future arrives and takes them all into the 1940s London, where a terrible war is being waged between England and Germany. Of course, this is still another history that is different what you may be familiar with.
As the story continues, further jumps in time occur into the past and the future. In fact parts of the book reminded me of the ending of “2001 – A Space Odyssey”, where the main character evolves beyond being human and things get bit mystical.
As a sequel to “The Time Machine”, I think the author did an admirable job. The early parts of the book were very much in the spirit of the original. The end got little too “far out”, although the final ending was what the reader would have wanted.
I do like time travel stories and I enjoyed this one a great deal.
I had read Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” few times in the past. This time I accidentally came into the possession of the audio book recording of “Snow Crash” and since I never listen to audio books I decided to give it a try.
It turned out to be great fun. I was surprised buy how much detail I missed when just reading the book. I suppose when I read I tend to race ahead, so I caught a lot more detail listening to the text being read.
The first thing that I notice while listening, was how the super new technology of the book, is already outdated by today’s everyday gadgets. For example, Stephenson mentions expensive portable computers that clip to your belt or he describes virtual reality goggles that work like CRT monitors. Powerful portable computers of today are smartphones and CRTs are now found only in museums.
The other thing I noticed was that Stephenson made very frequent detours during the narrative into side subject in order to provide some background. Some of these asides could be very funny – for example the description how it was working for the Federal Government Inc in this somewhat distopian universe – and enjoyable
I guess the moral of the story for SF writers, is to concentrate less on the details of technology – which “spoil” quickly – and concentrate on the characters and the story. They are the timeless elements.
If you read “Snow Crash” before, I think you would enjoy the audio version greatly. I recommend it!
Stanislaw Lem is my favorite SF writer of all time. I had read all of his books many times over both in English and Polish. “Solaris” is one of his earlier works and until now the only available translation was to English from French. But finally a new edition translated directly from Polish by Bill Johnston was publish this year (this edition is only available as an e-book on the Kindle or as an audio book).
“Solaris” is a story of unusual happenings on the scientific station on planet Solaris. In the story Solaris is the only known planet that is entirely covered by an ocean that appears to be both alive and intelligent, yet completely incomprehensible to humans. As the book begins a psychologist, named Kelvin, arrives on the Solaris station and finds the station in disarray. The three scientists working there appear to be hiding.
Kelvin gets a brief introduction to Solaris station from Snaut, one of the researchers, and finds out that one of the three scientists had recently committed suicide. Snaut also warns Kelvin about “visitors”. Initially Kelvin is skeptical of Snaut’s warning, but soon enough his visitor appears. Kelvin’s visitor turns out to be his wife Harrey, who had killed herself year before.
Kelvin and Snaut suspect that the “visitors” are somehow created by the ocean, especially since they started appearing shortly after experimental irradiation of the ocean with X-rays began. How Kelvin attempts to deal with the emotional wounds opened by sudden appearance of Harrey – and “Harrey’s” attempts to comprehend the situation she’s in – form the main part of the story.
But another fascinating part of this book is the description of the history of solaristics – the study of the planet Solaris. In particular there are some fantastic descriptions of phenomena found only on Solaris. Large structures “made” by the ocean: symetriads and mimoids. These structures appear, what seems like randomly, on the surface and sometimes mimic objects that are nearby (for example human flying machines).
I always liked “Solaris”. To me the book is about the incomprehensibility of the universe and the impossibility of communications with an alien being.
“The Stars My Destination” was the first book I read by Alfred Bester. As it was written in 1950s I expected to read a “space opera” type story, but it turned out that the title was a bit misleading since the book is definitely not a “space opera”.
It a story of a man, named Gully Foyle, who at the start of the book is a castaway in space, drifting and barely surviving in a wreck of a spaceship that was damaged in battle. He is passed by, and not rescue by a ship that comes close enough for him to see the name. He swears to exact revenge on that ship, if and when he gets out of his predicament.
Now the universe that Gully Foyle lives in is one where people can “jaunt” – that is jump from place to place by just thinking of their destination. Now this ability is somewhat limited – only very talented “jaunters” can traverse thousands of miles – and not one can jaunt in space. The ability to “jaunt” has significant influence on the culture of the world – for example, women must be kept safe inside houses protected by labyrinths – since you cannot jaunt to a place whose location you do not know precisely.
Also there is a war going on between the inner and the outer planets in the Solar system, which at inconvenient times intrudes on Folly’s plans.
When, after rescuing himself, Gully, tries to exact his revernge he is captured and thrown in jail. In a “The Count of Monte Christo” plot twist Gully escapes his prison and though various means (not really described in the story) becomes rich and powerful. Still his desire for revenge keeps burning in him and he continues to pursue the ones who deserted him in space.
Although written back in the 1950s, the book has some overtones of “cyberpunk” – a science-fiction sub-genre that was popular in the 90s. For example, Gully has his body modified so that he can move as super-accelerated speeds. He uses this ability when he needs to fight some of his enemies.
Eventually he discovers that he is unable to get ultimate revenge – but to find out why you will need to read the book!
I downloaded sample of this book from Amazon, after seeing Doris Kearns on TV and after seeing the movie “Lincoln”. The sample was fascinating enough so that I wound up reading the entire book.
To begin with the book “A Team of Rivals” is a pleasure to read. The writing is excellent and of course the story is fascinating. I always find it reassuring when reading history that people back then were just as we are today. In particular Lincoln’s political squabbles could easily be mistaken for events from today’s news. For example, a senator bemoaned the lack of civility in Senate debates, which he attributed to ban on dueling.
As for Lincoln, the book portrays him as a brilliant man with superb political instincts, yet still a “nice guy”. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to bring people together. In fact that’s where the title of the books is taken from “A Team of Rivals”. When Lincoln surprisingly won the Republican nomination, he decided to pick his rivals in that race as the closest members of his cabinet. For example, he choose William Seward for the post of Secretary of State, even though Seward was the one expected to be the President. He similarly picked the other candidates for all significant cabinet posts.
Whereas the book covered most of Lincoln’s life and concentrated on his Presidency during the Civil War, the movie “Lincoln” was loosely based on a single chapter. By now everyone should know the story of the passage of the 13th amendment of the US Constitution, which outlawed slavery in any form.
An important point regarding this amendment was made by Lincoln (both in the movie and the book), and that was that the Proclamation Emancipation – which was an executive order issued by the President – would not be applicable after the Civil War ended. Therefore, the amendment was necessary.
As expected the book ends with Lincoln’s assassination. What I did not know was that there was a plot to kill the President, Vice President and the Secretary of State. Of the three assassins, the one who was supposed to kill Vice President had a change of mind and backed out at the last moment. Unfortunately the one who targeted William Seward nearly accomplished his task. He broke into Seward’s home and injured Seward and one of his sons (who barely survived).
Although the book is quite long, I enjoyed reading it and I think you would too,
Recently I read this article in MIT Technology magazine on how technology is destroying jobs. The article references research which suggests that current wave of automation is destroying jobs at a rate higher than new jobs are created. The article makes an interesting read, including the readers comments.