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The Lunatics of Terra

by John Sladek

(Cosmos Books/Ansible Editions 2005; ISBN 1-58715-410-2.)

Review by Adam Roberts

cover scanThe twenty-first century has begun ignominiously by culling all three members of the trinity of SF Comedy genius -- the three funniest people ever to work in the idiom of SF. John Sladek died in 2000, Douglas Adams in 2001 and Robert Sheckley this year. A sad loss.

A sadder loss is that, with the exception of the (now Hollywoodised) Adams, the work of this trinity has largely fallen into the desuetude of second-hand bookstores and charity shops. But there's a ray of light. David Langford and Chris Priest's Ansible Editions have now reissued four of Sladek's collections of short fiction: The Steam-Driven Boy (1972), Keep the Giraffe Burning (1977), Alien Accounts (1982) and The Lunatics of Terra (1984). This must be a labour of love for Langford and Priest, because, the egregious excellencies of these volumes notwithstanding, they're unlikely to generate bestseller-list quantities of sales. But everybody interested in the sharpest, wittiest, funniest and most thought-provoking short science fiction must be grateful to them both for undertaking it.

The press release accompanying the review copy boasts that this is the first paperback edition of the last of Sladek's collections to be issued in his lifetime. It's a book that very much deserves a paperback edition, but since some of the wittiest and most mordant observations occur in the afterword comments Sladek adds to each story (in, I take it, this edition only) it's doubly to be welcomed.

It is excellent stuff: a slim volume at 140 pages but so full of ideas and wit as to appear much longer. The first story, 'The Last of the Whaleburgers', begins characteristically: Chad Link comes home from work early and finds his wife in the arms of another man. Not the other man entire, mind you; just the arms. The story steps briskly and wittily through the implications of this statement, building to a deftly handled satire on the way life refuses the conventions of 1950s TV comedy 'where all the misunderstandings get cleared up in the last minute'.

'Red Noise' imagines an occult interconnection between violence and music; thought provoking and entertainingly grisly. 'Absent Friends' is winningly Goons-ish in its tale of a hapless robot experiencing wacky-surreal (as opposed to pompous-surreal) adventures on a spaceship. As with the best comedy it touches on profundity in a wholly non-pretentious way; in this case, with the possibility that all the trappings of our life are pasteboard. 'The Brass Monkey's satire on Skinnerite behaviourism is, perhaps, a little dated: savouring more of A Clockwork Orange than today's messier spin-doctoring; and 'Breakfast with the Murgatroyds' is maybe a touch too frenetic. But 'The Next Dwarf' is both brilliant and hilarious on sin and guilt, and 'An Explanation for the Disappearance of the Moon' contains a 10 step proof that there are no circles which seems water-tight to me. I've been puzzling over it ever since I came across it, and I can't see the hole in the reasoning.

Sladek, Adams and Sheckley were actually three very different sorts of talent. Sheckley was sui generis, an original; although he owed something to Voltaire, and something else to the American madcap tradition. Adams, brilliant though he was, owed more to other writers, combining a Sheckleyesque sensibility with a Monty Python inventiveness and a Wodehousean way with words. But the writer John Sladek most often calls to mind in this collection is Chesterton -- specifically in his ability to combine marvellous ingenuity of premise and narrative development, with a humour that is used not for cheap laughs but as a penetrating mode of examination of the human condition. Sladek is no misanthrope; there's a lot wrong with the world, he says, and plenty amiss in human nature, but that's more of a relief than otherwise:

"My own small ray of hope concerns human frailty. All conspiracies, no matter how monstrous, are ultimately the work of mere imperfect people, whose irresolution or bad judgment or even bad conscience works against the system. They get bunions, their cars break down, their children run away - and all this grit gets into the smooth-running gears of their world domination plans. I hope."

The allusive power of comedy and the intellectual (and, often, emotional) open-handedness of SF make, here, a powerful mix. Very highly recommended indeed.

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