I admit I haven't read much classic 'sci-fi' and I'm trying to correct that oversight. This is a particularly interesting example because it was written by Russians during the Cold War and there's a kind of pessimistic fatalism about it that seems appropriate to that milieu. It managed to combine authoritarian government with run-amok capitalism in a way that suggests they are comparable evils. The novel takes place in a future in which aliens have visited Earth and then left just as mysteriously as they came -- leaving behind 'Zones' full of artifacts and strange phenomena. Redrick Schuart is a 'stalker' -- a smuggler of alien goods, risking life and limb (literally) to infiltrate the restricted Zones and bring back alien junk to sell to collectors and scientists who can only speculate wildly on their purpose and usage. The Zone is incredibly dangerous, with flesh-eating slime, gravity sinkholes, random lightning and a myriad other ways to kill a person, most of them invisible. And, of course, even if you make it in and out with the goods there's always the law waiting to catch you and put you away.
The ending that wasn't really an ending grew on me too. At first I was annoyed with the lack of conclusion, but then I realised it was actually perfect. Red having what was essentially psychotic break just as he obtained the Sphere actually makes total sense when you look at the sum of his life and the toll the Zone took on him both physically and, most importantly, mentally. Also, in the end, it doesn't really matter if he gets the Sphere back or if it works or not. The world will continue to go on the way it has and people will continue to make stupid decisions.
Progress toward goals: 88/366 = 24.0%
Books: 32/100 = 32.0%
Pages: 10237/30000 = 34.1%
2012 Book List
cross-posted to 15000pages, 50bookchallenge, and gwynraven