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Sladek, John T

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Editor.

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(1937-2000) US author who spent two decades in the UK from 1966, becoming involved in the UK New-Wave movement centred on Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, and co-editing with Pamela Zoline Ronald Reagan: The Magazine of Poetry (two issues 1968), where work by both editors, J G Ballard, Thomas M Disch and others appeared. In the mid-1980s he returned to Minneapolis, a town which had long supplied local colour to many of his more severely satirical stories, whose protagonists ricochet through their preordained and absurd lives within the vast, hyperbolic flatlands of middle America. This mise en scène, when illuminated by his adept control of the language and pretensions of the modern bureaucratic state, provides a matrix for his best work, and helps make plausible the frequent comparisons that have been drawn between him and Kurt Vonnegut Jr; but Vonnegut has an easier emotional flow than Sladek, while Sladek lacks Vonnegut's shoulder-shrugging rhetorical self-indulgence, and avoids his excessive simplicity of effect.

He began writing sf with "The Happy Breed", published in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (anth 1967), though his first published solo story was "The Poets of Millgrove, Iowa" for New Worlds in 1966; a still earlier non-sf story is "The Way to a Man's Heart" (January 1966 Bizarre!) with Thomas Disch. Sladek's first two novels – The House that Fear Built (1966) with Disch and The Castle and the Key (1967) – were Gothics, both as by Cassandra Knye. His first sf novel, The Reproductive System (1968; vt Mechasm 1969), introduced into his typical small-town-US setting a brilliant maelstrom of sf activity: a self-reproducing technological device goes out of control in passages of allegorical broadness: but everything turns out all right in the end, though not through positive efforts of the inept cast, and a dreamlike Utopia looms on the horizon. Governing the conniptions of the tale is an obsessive discourse upon and dramatization of the metamorphic relationships between human and Robot, a relationship which lies at the centre of all his subsequent solo novels and much of his short fiction. Sladek's next book, however, Black Alice (1968) with Disch, both as Thom Demijohn, was a satirical thriller, not sf. In his next sf book, The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970), a man's character is accidentally transferred onto Computer tape in a kind of Upload, and the dissemination of several copies of this "personality" instigates a series of absurd events (see Fabulation), some of them extremely comic in effect, some horrifying, all Paranoia-inducing (like most of his work), and all mounting to a picture of an America disintegrated morally and physically by its own surrender to Technology, the profit motive and the ethical falseness that leads to dehumanization. In its questioning of the nature of narrative events and of fiction itself, the book is a significant example of modern American self-analysis at its highly impressive best. In 1970 the book gained little response, and for a decade Sladek wrote no more sf novels.

Through his career, Sladek wrote numerous stories whose strenuous formal ingenuity, and whose surreal combining of a deadpan ribaldry and pathos, have made them underground classics of the genre. The most notable of them all, because of its length and impassioned veracity of tone, may be "Masterson and the Clerks" (September 1967 New Worlds), in which the immolation of its protagonists in the process of a US business is first hilariously then movingly presented; true to the oddly uncommercial course of his career, Sladek collected this tale only much later, in Alien Accounts (coll 1982), which contains mostly early work and has a notional office-life theme. His first collection, The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers (coll 1973), generally presents later work, including several 1970s Parodies of well known sf writers (see Satire), some of which are perhaps the finest ever executed within the field, among them being "Broot Force" (September 1972 F&SF) as by Iclick as-i-move (Isaac Asimov), "Joy Ride" (November 1972 F&SF) as by Barry DuBray (an anagram of Ray Bradbury) and "Solar Shoe-Salesman" (March 1973 F&SF) as by Chipdip K Kill, a near-anagram of Philip K Dick. (These punning and anagrammatic bylines were added in The Steam-Driven Boy, magazine titles having taken the form "Broot Force by *s**c *s*m*v".) Keep the Giraffe Burning (coll dated 1977 but 1978) contains "The Poets of Millgrave, Iowa" (November 1966 New Worlds) plus later work. Selections from both volumes were brought together as The Best of John Sladek (coll 1981). The stories of the late 1960s and 1970s represent Sladek at his most formally and most aggressively brilliant; much of this work, perhaps more formally brilliant than "Masterson", does lack something of its human intensity. In the stories collected as The Lunatics of Terra (coll 1984), the comic melancholy of his early work wears a somewhat calmer guise.

During the 1970s, when most of his stories became generally available, Sladek published two Thackeray Phin detective novels, Black Aura (1974) – which contains some borderline-sf elements – and Invisible Green: A Thackeray Phin Mystery (1977), before returning to long-form sf with Roderick, or The Education of a Young Machine (1980) and Roderick at Random, or Further Education of a Young Machine (1983), two texts conceived as a single novel. The US version, also entitled Roderick (1982 US), constituted only about two-thirds of the original Roderick; the publisher had intended to make a trilogy out of the two-volume novel, but the project foundered, and only that single savagely truncated volume appeared in America. The Complete Roderick (omni 2002) restores the damage, allowing the text to be read as a continuous narrative. The overall tale is presented as the autobiography of the eponymous Robot and was Sladek's most ambitious work, conveying with considerable ingenuity and some pathos its protagonist's Candide-like innocence and its author's Oulipo-derived numerological sense of narrative structure. Tik-Tok (1983), a thematic pendant which again took its structure from the arbitrary rule-generating principles of oulipo, follows the career of a robot who, his "asimov circuits" having gone on the blink, becomes criminally and indeed murderously ambitious. Though robots inevitably appear, Bugs (1989) was Sladek's first sf novel to feature a "normal" human protagonist; and in its tracing of the deranging experiences of a UK immigrant to a strange Midwestern city (clearly Minneapolis) the tale could be seen as guardedly autobiographical.

Sladek also composed a sequence of nonfiction texts of considerable interest. The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Sciences and Occult Beliefs (1973; cut 1978) – any text after 1973 being censored under threat of legal action from the Church of Scientology – scathingly anatomizes the various cults and Pseudosciences that exist as a kind of fringe around the sf reader's areas of interest, from Scientology to the UFO mythos and Erich von Däniken. Arachne Rising: The Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac (1977; vt Arachne Rising: The Search for the Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac 1979) as by James Vogh, The Cosmic Factor: Bioastrology and You (1978) as by James Vogh and Judgement of Jupiter (1980) as by Richard A Tilms were hoax demonstrations of the kind of fringe theorizing that underpins the cults described in The New Apocrypha. Arachne Rising was perhaps the most successful, in the sense that many readers apparently believed that it recorded an authentic discovery.

Some further work appeared posthumously. Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (coll 2002) edited by David Langford assembles all the previously uncollected short fiction that was then known, including two shorter Thackeray Phin detections. A further light-hearted story from the Steam-Driven Boy era subsequently came to light in Sladek's papers and appeared as "The Real Martian Chronicles" (May/June 2010 F&SF). This, with a few other stories and poems discovered since Maps appeared, is collected in the primarily nonfiction New Maps: More Uncollected John Sladek (coll 2019), again edited by David Langford. The "nonfiction" Wholly Smokes: The Rise and Fall of the GST Tobacco Empire (2003) is the spoof history of a tobacco company, much expanded from the supposed excerpts featured in the mystery novel Puff Love (completed 2000; 2020), which is nonfantastic except in that the hapless amateur detective has an ape as sidekick (see Apes as Human).

As the most formally inventive, the funniest, and very nearly the most melancholy of modern American sf writers, Sladek always addressed the heart of the genre, but never gained due renown. We needed his attention, which we got: he deserved ours, which he did not receive. [JC]

see also: Absurdist SF; Automation; BSFA Award; Gamebook; Humour; Information Theory; Leisure; Machines; Media Landscape.

John Thomas Sladek

born Waverly, Iowa: 15 December 1937

died Edina, Minnesota: 10 March 2000



Thackeray Phin


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