Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek
(Big Engine, £9.99, xx + 359 pages, trade paperback, published
June 2002. Reissued by Cosmos, 2003.)
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
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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