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Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek

edited by David Langford

(Big Engine, £9.99, xx + 359 pages, trade paperback, published June 2002. Reissued by Cosmos, 2003.)

cover scan

The obvious thing to say about Maps is that every John Sladek completist will want a copy. The less obvious thing to say is that a lot more people ought to be John Sladek completists. Sladek, who died in 2000 without a single one of his books in print in the UK, was arguably the greatest funny writer ever to bring his attention to bear on sf. But, as David Langford makes clear in his introduction to this volume of Sladek's previously uncollected stories, his career was such that he never really gained a large enough readership to survive as a frontlist author in the product-hungry world of modern sf publishing.

Beginning his sf career with the fine and cutting "The Happy Breed" in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions in 1967, Sladek became the house ironist for Michael Moorcock's New Worlds in its glory days, producing a swathe of stories which found dark humour in the futures America (and sf) seemed to wish for. Novels followed, including The Reproductive System, Roderick, Roderick at Random (both recently collected in The Complete Roderick), and Tik-Tok. But he also dabbled in mystery fiction, anatomies of pseudoscience, and unclassifiable metafictions, as well as being prone to long silences as a writer: after 1989, when he published his final book, Bugs, there was only a handful of short stories, the last in 1992. And it's much more difficult than with some writers to isolate just what it is that makes him so funny.

Just as every humorous fantasy writer these days gets compared to Terry Pratchett, so every humorous sf writer is seen in relation to Douglas Adams. That's a shame, because Sladek is, if anything, the anti-Adams in the way he created humour. The jokes in a book like The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy are, if you like, structural, every ten pages or so opening to a new and vaster arena of absurdity for Arthur Dent to gawp at. Once gawped at, they're assimilated into the narrative and trumped by the next coup. Sladek, on the other hand, doesn't need the perpetual trap-doors of bigger and more lunatic revelations which Adams does (and which perhaps contributed to Adams's famous case of writer's block). Sladek's world is of a piece from page one: ravenous, dishonest, our own skewed by a few degrees. To put it another way, it's a lot easier to find punch-lines in Douglas Adams; you'll find Sladek funny incrementally, as the horror of what he's describing creeps up on you without fanfare.

Sladek was a devotee of paradoxes and conundrums, a tradition which David Langford has carefully continued in Maps. For a start, the book is subtitled "The Uncollected John Sladek" -- which is both accurate, since it contains only work which didn't appear in previous collections, and inaccurate since, well, the book collects them all. One can only admire the amount of detective work which Langford has done in gathering these pieces together. As well as stories from places like Interzone, there are pieces from such unlikely sources as Men Only, Titbits, London theatre programmes, experimental magazines like Bananas, and one-off chapbooks from publishers like Cheap Street.

Sensibly, given the range of material it contains, the book is subdivided into a number of sections. The first and longest, "Stories, Mostly", ranges from 1968 to 1992, and shows Sladek stretching the definition of what he thought of as stories. The first item, "The Lost Nose", rescued by Langford from a bookshop in London, was a true one-off, an edition of one which Sladek produced for his then-girlfriend. As Langford points out, it's a precursor of the choose-your-own adventure books which became so popular in the 1980s. In this case, Fred the protagonist must search for a nose which may have been stolen or fallen off -- his odyssey potentially taking him to a cut-out-and-paste-together model of Buckingham Palace.

There are a couple of stories in this first section featuring the detective Thackeray Phin, including "By an Unknown Hand", which gives a jawdropping solution to a locked-room mystery. "Bill gets Hep to God", on the other hand, is a wonderfully sarcastic response to all the ineptly wholesome religious tracts out there.

"Stop Evolution in its Tracks!", from Interzone, is a perfect piece of Sladek in miniature. The arguments for creationism are put to the protagonist absolutely deadpan, daring him to laugh back when told that "'In the first place, the amoebas never evolved at all. They're still here!'" (122). A couple of other late stories, "Love Among the Xoids" and "Blood and Gingerbread", originally published as chapbooks, clearly deserve to last. The first is an understated and poignant view of a community invisible to the mundane world, and deserves to stand with Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See." The second is a bloody and deadly serious infolding of fairytale and myth -- it's interesting to see Sladek, so wedded to anatomizing America, take on a European subject for once.

After a first course that rich, it's not a surprise if some of the other items in Maps are a relative letdown. The book's second section, "Poems and Playlets" does exactly what it says on the tin, embracing a number of brief squibs. Some are genuinely hilarious -- "No Exit", for instance, is a horrible gem to stage in the imagination. "Letter", a collection of all the padding used to avoid saying things in letters, is as perfectly contentless as it needs to be.

However, some items, like "Down His Alarming Blunder", an oulipo experiment which reproduces Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" with the difference that all the nouns are different, are not the sort of thing you'd want to read twice. And, much as Langford's introduction sheds interesting light on the random methods of composition underlying "The Brusque Skate", reading the poem itself is like listening in to a private joke. However, the poem "The Treasure of the Haunted Rambler" feels like a Sladek story in miniature, portraying the weirdnesses of America -- in this case, a house with a "love room" separate from the bedroom -- as thin ice over some very cold waters indeed.

David Langford is straightforward about the stories in the third section, "Sladek Incognito", from Titbits: "Of course they are potboilers, accurately aimed at a market that wanted nothing more" (xvi). It's not a view I'd disagree with, and several of these short-shorts are strangely unindividual, like extracts from the movies or TV programmes which Sladek could parody so brilliantly.

One of the motherlodes which Langford has tapped for this book is Sladek's early collaborations with Thomas M. Disch, and the book's fourth section contains a number of these pieces, including a couple never before published. Disch's work is as much at home with darkness -- and a caustic vision of America -- as Sladek's ever was, and their voices knit well in these stories. "The Discovery of the Nullitron" neatly anticipates Sladek's later interest in pseudoscience with its description of a previously unsuspected fundamental particle a metre across: "The nullitron, despite its striking red hue, has a distinct flavour of liquorice ... already manufacturers of dietetic foods have expressed interests in the possible commercial uses" (308). The Disch collaboration "Transplant your own heart" both predates and trumps the Monty Python routine about how to perform an appendectomy on the Piccadilly Line: "When you've learned the simple technique of autohypnosis, the way is clear to the most difficult self-operation of all -- the whole head transplant" (320). It wouldn't have fitted in this book, but the finest Sladek story Sladek never wrote is Disch's "In Xanadu", from Al Sarrantonio's Redshift, in which a virtual reality afterlife becomes subject to the sort of customer service we'll get if the afterlife runs on Microsoft servers.

Finally, there's a section of brief Sladek on Sladek pieces. Unsurprisingly, a writer so consistently subversive of everything never got close to writing a conventional autobiography. There's a certain amount of scorn for the conventional world of sf, in particular hard sf: "Get the science out of our stories, I say, and get the people back in" (351). But there are some genuine notes of appreciation for Philip K. Dick, in particular, in "4-Part List", and some glimpses into the wide reading outside the genre that evidently underlay Sladek's outlook.

There's no way around the fact that some of the material in Maps is minor Sladek, and that it's not the most concentrated introduction to his work -- that award probably goes to The Complete Roderick or (were it in print) Bugs. Even more than in most of his novels, which skitter across genres, settings and characters, this book presents Sladek in pieces. The range of stories, approaches, and outlooks it contains is almost too wide to grasp in the mind's eye. It's good, though, to have it all between one set of covers, and to be able to hope that even if we are in the future which John Sladek seemed to dread, he can speak to us more than ever before.


Review by Graham Sleight

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