I read stories for plot, mostly. Sure, I want stories with good pacing, that are compelling, and keep me reading way past my bedtime, but I also like stories that have good characters, theme, and meaning. I love it when I find books that intersect with all those things, but give the choice of one over the other, I tend to go with the former.
Roadside Picnic isn't that kind of story. It focuses more on the characters than the plot, but at the same time, the characters feel like they get a little short shrift to the theme. See, the story is about a specific area on Earth that was more or less destroyed by an alien visitation that lasted for three days some time in the past. The aliens didn't stay, or even take any real notice of the people on Earth, but what they left behind was a wasteland of sorts where people die if they don't traverse it carefully. For some of the folks who live around the zones, their livelihood depends on sneaking into the zones and taking artifacts that they can sell on the black market. Unfortunately, that sort of thing doesn't come without a lot of risk, due to the dangers that lies in the zones.
The main character, Redrick Schuhart, is the point of view for most of the novel, and it's through him that we learn about the mysteries and treasures of the zone. He's not just a stalker, one of those who search the zone for artifacts, but he's also one of the most experienced stalkers working the zone. Everything we see of the zone we see through him, either as he experiences it or as he remembers it. It gives the story an anchor, not just by giving us details about the event, but also by giving us a character to root for. We see him as he relates to his friends, his wife, and his daughter, and he humanizes the events in the story. In fact, for as much as the story is about the zones and the visit, it is much more about Red.
The story, though, is really just the backdrop for a thinkpiece, which is: How would we react if the aliens landed on our planet and didn't even notice us? It's not a common theme in alien-visitation stories, and what's even less common is an alien-visitation story where we don't even see the aliens. Their stopover on Earth was brief, but their impact huge. In fact, that point is driven home by an analogy at the start of the novel, where a scientist describes a group of people stopping on the side of the road for a picnic, where they stay for a while, eat their lunch, discard their trash, and leave, without giving any thought to the animals that live near that region. The aliens, it is supposed, did the same thing. It's a depressing idea -- we were so undeveloped in the aliens' eyes that we didn't even receive acknowledgement of our existence -- but it serves as the heart of Roadside Picnic.
The novel isn't the most gripping book I read (it's just under 200 pages, and took me several weeks to read), but its point isn't to be a compelling read; it's intended to be thoughtful book, one that stays with you for long after you finish the story. That is was published in Russian nearly 40 years ago, has seen several translated reprints, and has received praise from such science fiction authors as Ursula K. LeGuin and Theodore Sturgeon, tells you how long it will stay with you. This is definitely a story that will get you talking.