The Snail on the Slope – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

I don’t often start writing these reviews with myself envisioning the argument I am going to have with internet strangers, but that is somewhat how I feel right now. Reviewing another book, I made the comment that my biggest disappointment was about the expectation that the book was going to be a science-fiction novel and, in my assessment, it read much more like a piece of surrealist fiction. I remembered how, page after page, the writing style and the images kept reminding me of a piece of surrealist fiction I had read several years back.

One reader of this blog thought I was wrong, and we ended up having a discussion about it that was largely ruined by WordPress limiting the amount of replies one could have to a certain comment (this is stupid! – and I need to find how to fix it). I imagine that they will think I am wrong again, and I am open to the idea of having the discussion again.

The Snail on the Slope follows two characters working towards opposite goals. One is attempting to find his way into a mysterious and mystical forest, while the other character has crashed landed in a society on the forest’s periphery, and is looking to make his way back to the civilization of the first character.  Their respective paths never cross (much as I thought they would), and each is beset by a different set of strange circumstances that impede their progress.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are famous for their Science-Fiction. This isn’t it. This is surrealism.

But more on that in a moment.

The other way to look at this book is as a satire. That is in this book as well, and it is there in spades.  The character wanting to head into the forest is awaiting permission from some governing body, and every attempt to get this permission is met with the typical labyrinthine bureaucracy, which he navigates unsuccessful till he finds himself as the head of that very bureaucracy. The other is mocked for being too quiet in a society that seems to talk without cessation. I was first introduced to the Strugatsky brothers by a PhD student I knew while I was doing my Master’s, and he was old enough to have lived a portion of his life through the Soviet Union. I imagine he would be able to illuminate the satirical portions of this book to me, but as it stands now a lot of it felt like hearing a joke that I only partially understood, even thought there was a whole lot more there.

I don’t think I enjoyed this as much as some of the other works by the Strugatsky’s. I don’t think I love the genre – which, again, is surrealism. A lot of what was going on here wasn’t all that dependent on the plot, or causality. People could just talk nonsensically while swilling buttermilk and then suddenly you are the director of the organization. Here, I didn’t do too well with it. I constantly felt like I was missing something. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer, did come to mind while I was reading this, though there are some pretty important distinctions. They writing style of that reminded me heavily of a series of surrealist novels I read ages ago. Here, the style was clearly the Strugatsky’s own, but the content more closely resembled that of a surrealist novel.

I think the distinction for me is that there are elements of the two genres that make them mutually irreconcilable. There is no doubting a certain amount of science-fiction elements in the stories (particularly Annihilation) but once you start stepping your toes into the pool of surrealism I feel like you can’t come out of it very easily. There are choices the Strugatsky’s could have made to help ground this novel a little more on the science-fiction side of things (they could have, for instance, had a setting a little more concrete than the ephemeral ‘forest’).

But here is a point I should have likely made at the top of all this rambling. None of this is a value judgment. Neither of the books I have mentioned in this review are bad for being surrealist. They just weren’t my cup of tea. And considering the expectations one might have if they had approached this expecting it to be a typical Strugatsky novel, they should know that it isn’t exactly that. It’s different.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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