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The Steam-Driven Boy

by John Sladek

(Cosmos Books / Ansible E-ditions, $15.95, 143 pages, trade paperback, first published 1972, this edition published 2005.)

Review by Keith Brooke

cover scanAll 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, packaging, too).

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 Faeces.

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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