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