The Steam-Driven Boy
(Cosmos Books / Ansible E-ditions, $15.95, 143 pages, trade paperback,
first published 1972, this edition published 2005.)
praise to Dave Langford and Chris Priest's Ansible E-ditions and Sean
Wallace's Cosmos imprint for their programme of keeping the works of
one of the finest, most incisive, comic writers the genre has seen in
print (Garry Nurrish's covers provide fittingly striking, and different,
The Steam Driven Boy was John Sladek's first collection, containing
stories first published between 1966 and 1973 in a variety of outlets,
ranging from Playboy, New Worlds and the Magazine of
Fantasy and Science Fiction to the delightfully titled Strange
These stories are crammed with clever invention, and sly, well-targeted
humour. So often, you catch yourself shaking your head and thinking,
"Only Sladek..." The opening story, "The Secret of Old Custard" sets
the tone with a barrage of weirdness, strange twists tugging at the
reader's understanding, with brilliant paragraphs like:
He disappeared, and at the same time, Jenny and Peter came
home from school, demanding a 'snack'. Agnes gave them Hungarian goulash,
bread and butter, coffee and apple pie. They paid 95 cents each, and
each tipped her 15 cents. They were gruff, dour eight-year-olds who
talked little while they ate. Agnes was a little afraid of them. After
their snack, they belted on guns and went out to hunt other children,
before it grew too dark to see them.
The cumulative understanding you build up and then have to discard
is a lot of fun, and it's clear evidence that the author Is Not One
Of Us, but rather a species in his own right. A separate genus, even.
Sometimes, this dense, scattergun approach, where every sentence is
a surreal juxtaposition, a painful pun, a sharp satirical prod, can
be a bit overpowering, but there are always gems in even the weaker
stories. One of my favourite lines, tucked away in a set of health and
saftey guidelines, is: "Never stand in a canoe or bathtub."
In "The Best-Seller", Sladek repeats the trick of forcing the reader
to reassess what has gone before, but this time it's more formally structured,
told in a succession of different viewpoint sections, each perspective
putting a completely new slant on the story to date before then taking
the reader a little further on into the story.
"The Happy Breed" shows Sladek close to his peak. As only a true satirist
could do, Sladek manages to paint a grimly dystopian vision of a world
where all humankind's ills have been cured -- no disease, no poverty
and suffering, no unhappiness, no killing. How awful... Conversely,
"A Report on the Migrations of Educational Materials" conjures a strangely
uplifting image of release as all our books make a bid for freedom.
There's a strong sense of burden lifting here: the burden of knowledge?
the burden of writing, of recording? or just a beautiful, absurd image
that Sladek simply had to set down for us?
"1937AD" is another highlight, a charmingly playful take on time travel
and the way history is written. And how can you not like a story called
"The Transcendental Sandwich" (a far better title than "The Man Who
Devoured Books", the title used on its first publication in If),
and which opens with the line "'We can give you knowledge,' said the
salesman-thing"? (Well, actually, this turns out to be one of the weaker
pieces, but what the hell...)
My favourite story is the title-piece, "The Steam-Driven Boy", a superb
tale of thoroughly contorted, inarguable logic, which starts out with
a time patrolman doubling up a shift with himself, and then extrapolates...
The collection closes with the addition of a set of Sladek's parodies
of the likes of Asimov, Dick and Cordwainer Smith. These are often very
amusing (as in the offerings from "Hugogre N Backs" and "Hitler IE Bonner"),
but rarely scale the heights of Sladek's "solo" work.
John Sladek was a one-off. Go out and read him.
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