Because of the power of this novel’s attack on the existing political regime and morals, censorship prevented Russians from reading the complete novel until 1989. In the 1960’s, they read chapters about the Forest and the Forest Directorate separately, not realizing that Arkady and Boris Strugatsky had conceived the plot as a single story.
The protagonists of The Snail on the Slope, Pepper and Kandid, try to find their place in life and to understand the mysteries and puzzles of the forest, with its hot swamps, mermaids, empty villages, enigmatic aborigines, and jumping trees. Pepper, a linguist studying the forest, comes to the Directorate to get permission to see the object of his studies with his own eyes. The permission is not granted, his visa expires, and he tries to go back home to the Mainland. Pepper encounters numerous obstacles created by the bureaucratic machine of the Directorate and tries to comprehend the chaos and absurdity around him: unnecessary inoculations, signatures in triplicate, twenty sets of fingerprints, endless hand washing and yogurt drinking, absurd mathematical calculations, and blinkered searches for runaway equipment they dare not find. Eventually, trapped in bureaucratic entropy, Pepper accepts the position of head of the Directorate. In doing so, he makes his choice in favor of blind acceptance of government policy, despite its lack of reason or sense.
Kandid, a scientist who was studying the forest at a biostation before his helicopter crashed not far from an aboriginal village, has been saved by the villagers and has been living with them for the last three years. The villagers call Kandid “Dummy” in the mistaken English translation; in Russian his name means “Silent One.” While living with the villagers he has been caught up in this world of “organic” chaos, where earth is edible and clothes grow like plants, and where villages disappear and zombielike creatures called “deadlings” steal women and turn into comfortable armchairs. Kandid remains a stranger and an alien in this frightening world and hopes to find a way out of the village and the forest. While he waits for his chance to escape, he refuses to give up and fights the deadlings with his scalpel.