Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The responsibilities of the intellectual are a central topic of The Snail on the Slope, and the final picture the novel paints is a bitter one. The alternative to compromise is quite literally the barbarous jungle of self-isolation, and Kandid’s scientific training is as wasted there as Pepper’s linguistic ability is in the chair of the Directorate. In response to the primal forest, human efforts are sorry indeed.

The Snail on the Slope contains elements of the fantastic (at the core of Kandid’s adventure) and of straightforward science fiction; these elements are linked by political satire, which extends even to the forest scenes. As a science-fiction novel, The Snail on the Slope contains a marvelous discussion of the relationship between man and machine. With a touch reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern masterpiece V. (1963), the Strugatskys’ machines have gained uncanny independence. If a worker’s account is credible, one of them once left its crate, stretched its metal legs, crawled in again, and nailed shut the lid from the inside, with the spikes of the nails remaining as protruding witnesses. More than this, either because of Pepper’s own conviction that the Directorate has turned people into machines or because the machines, like their human counterparts, have developed a growing disaffection for their stupefying work, Pepper even “overhears” their conversation while he is huddled in a depot hoping to outsit the hunt for the renegade robot.

Women and sexuality are put in a rather ambiguous light in The Snail on the Slope. The portrayal of the female forest engineers in Kandid’s story is balanced by treatment of the equally obnoxious male bureaucracy of the Directorate; instead of misogyny—hatred of women—Soviet critics have charged the Strugatskys with misanthropy—hatred of mankind. It is, nevertheless, Alevtina’s femininity which ultimately allows her to entice Pepper. Nava remains a positive figure primarily because of her youth and innocence (she has no children with Kandid), and, as a final touch, Acey’s monomaniacal desire for sexual relations seems to fit so well into the Directorate that it is Pepper’s first reforming dream to have him castrated, and thus start change in earnest.