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January, 2006 : Essay:

Alien # E538368: Sladek, John Thomas

Forms are clerical ways of dealing with reality (tidying it up, clearing it away and so forth). To the perceptions of the clerk, a form IS reality. His eyes need it in black and white, and any other reality goes unrecognised.

"Forms are created to formalise, inform, and finally replace 'life' as 'we' know it." The man who said that to me has lost his identity. Somehow every single piece of paper recording this man's name has been lost or destroyed; he no longer officially exists. He has been tidied up and cleared away. I forget his name.

- John Sladek, New Forms

John Sladek brought together surreal comic invention and a delight in the logical processes of cybernetics to concoct some of the most outstandingly modern, or even post-modern, OULIPO-flavoured science-fiction of the 1970s and 80s (which is disingenuous phrasing, since what competition did Sladek have?). Robots, cryptic puzzles, palindromes and parodies were his unlikely tools to measure and contain the sprawling vulgarity, imbecility and defective machinery of modern life. His simultaneous use of arbitrary logical processes and the wild irrational excesses of human desire run amok results in some of the most (artificially?) intelligent, yet hallucinatory writings of the era.

Sladek's attention to the controls and processes of computerised communications throw into sharp relief his enthusiastic savaging of contemporary America and its pop-culture fantasies that would serve to shape any putative technological science-fictionalised future. He littered his works with mysteries, puns and other deliberately playful literary devices so that even if the stupidity of Man remained unfathomable, the agencies of his intelligence could be measured and unravelled. The rigidly worked out systems and the satire combine to produce violent but unique threshing machines that sieve out folly.

The rules that Sladek used to construct his fictions demonstrate the tensions he felt about the extent of the author's imagination versus the all-too-ready credulity of the public that he satirised. So Sladek deliberately chose to make explicit the formulae and calculations by which he operated: fiction avec ses mains blanches. And so where Sladek, as an authorial personality, may seem absent from his fiction, his ludic constructs and their effects do the job for him of leaping up and declaring, "Here I am!" (It seems unlikely that Sladek would have been able to consider the previous French tag without some tangential, paronomastic allusion to blancmange.)

John Thomas Sladek was born in 1937 and his first writings appeared in the early 1960s in small literary magazines in his home state of Iowa. He became friends with Thomas M. Disch, and together the two collaborated on numerous short stories, a quirky gothic novel, The House That Fear Built (1967), as "Cassandra Knye," and a thriller satirising contemporary racial issues, Black Alice (1968), as "Thom Demijohn."

Sladek's own stories first appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology and the London-based magazine New Worlds, and so Sladek became irrevocably identified as one of the New Wave of SF writers, a reputation further consolidated as the editor of several issues of Ronald Reagan: The Magazine of Poetry, a salon des refusés for New Wave writers.

His first solo SF novel, The Reproductive System (Mechasm in the US), about a self-replicating machine that threatens to devour Middle America, appeared in 1968, and his second was published in 1970. The Müller-Focker Effect is about a man who has been copied onto magnetic computer tape that is much sought after by disparate representatives of contemporary America and ultimately sparks the destruction of Washington D.C in a race riot.

The 1970s saw Sladek move away from SF, except for the short stories and parodies collected in The Steam Powered Boy (1973), Keep the Giraffe Burning (1977), Alien Accounts (1982), The Lunatics of Terra (1984), and Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2003). Instead he concentrated on pseudo-science and new-age quackery, first exposing it in his vade mecum of follies, The New Apocrypha (1973), and then in three mocked up confections of astrology and holistic medicine to tempt the gullible: Arachne Rising: The Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac (1977) and The Cosmic Factor: Health and Astrology (1978), both as "James Vogh," and Judgment of Jupiter (1980), as "Richard A. Tilms." At the same time, having won the London Times' detective fiction competition in 1972 (judged by Lord Butler, Agatha Christie and Tom Stoppard) with a story that introduced the amateur detective, Thackeray Phin, Sladek wrote two locked-room mystery novels featuring Phin: Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977).

In the 1980s, Sladek returned to SF with his diptych Roderick, or The Education of a Young Machine (1981) and Roderick at Random, or Further Education of a Young Machine (1983), a modern tale of a robotic Candide, and then with Tik-Tok (1983), a story of the irresistible rise of a killer robot loose in the moronic inferno. Sladek's final novel, Bugs (1989), was about a contemporary writer struggling in the American Midwest, just as Sladek struggled upon returning to the US after almost 20 years living in England (but he still found space between its covers for a prototype Frankenstein-obsessed robot). Sladek was unable to get anything else published from 1989 until his death in 2000 from pulmonary fibrosis. 2003 saw the posthumous release of Wholly Smokes, chronicling the rise of a tobacco company and its deleterious effect upon US history.

As an SF writer, Sladek's concern was not so much what the future would be, nor even the technical means by which it would be achieved, but rather the assumptions that would bring it into being. Rash hopefulness, blinkered rationalism, dumb folly and aggressive venality are the constants in Sladek's human equation. His work is persistently satirical and rebarbative to sentimentality, because he recognises that man's ability to develop towards some perfect utopian tomorrow will always be mired by those baser qualities which certain SF writers would prefer to ignore or to wish away as a temporary irrelevancy. The comic horror of Sladek's worlds ultimately arises from the grinding gears of man's mind. Sladek's fictions are often epistemological investigations, but he was too much the grounded realist to venture into the cosmic extravaganzas and exhaustive paranoias that constitute Philip K. Dick's territory, and instead his stories are examinations of the contents of our heads, the mechanisms by which they seem to operate, and how they readily give birth to such nonsense and absurdity. Sladek's interest isn't so much, "What is reality?" but rather, "How do I know I am thinking?"

In looking into the mirror to see what is human, the observer is hypnotised by how every movement and twitch appears mechanical. If we attempt to account for humanity through quantifiable means, we soon find those are the very qualities lost in such a materialist assessment, so beauty, love and the humane are perforce missing, and compassion and real human relations felt only by their pressing absence in Sladek's antically cruel and materialist nightmares.

Not all of them gave him nightmares, but what [Roderick] couldn't understand was why there should be any miserable marks at all among his four hundred daily visitors. Television had never prepared him for their stories of loneliness, horror, guilt, confusion, sickness, dread. Almost none of his visitors came close to televised truth: here were no pop stars, kindly country doctors, top fashion designers, executives with drink problems, zany flight attendants, sneering crooks, tough but fair cops, devoted night-nurses, cynical reporters, hell-for-leather Marines, dedicated scientists, big-hearted B-girls, aging actors, cute orphans, smart lawyers - none of the ordinary decent network folks he'd come to know and almost like.

Instead there was the man with no jaw, wondering if maybe he couldn't get him a girl if only he had a real fast car with full accessories. The drunken wife-beater who wanted to quit (drinking and beating) but even more wanted to go way out West where it wouldn't matter so much. The personable young man who kept sniffing his armpits and re-applying deodorant, and whose ambition was to steal a Hydrogen bomb and drop it on some black people. The failed suicide who dreamed of a big win at Las Vegas... (Roderick 148-49)

The blankness of real mechanisms, of robots in Sladek's moronic infernos, throws into sharp relief the inhuman, deranged systems which we have built to oppress ourselves. Where robots have previously been avatars of the technophilic future, they recur in Sladek's fiction because they confront the nature of human feelings and free will, and how our experience of the world is constructed only from memory and tricks of perception. Robots allow Sladek to examine the mechanical habits by which we think and which have led us astray.

Sladek's fictions may count, despite all their apparent surrealism of affect, as some of the most logical works in the SF canon. Intelligence, as determined by cybernetics, is all about filtering, testing and the constructing of models from which that intelligence can proceed to function. The mind may be a self-altering and regulating machine, but its human component all too readily allows for errors and fatuities such as greed, new age faddisms, pseudo-science (The Great wall of Mexico, Space Shoes of the Gods! or Scenes from the Country of the Blind) and creationism (Stop Evolution in Its Tracks!), which Sladek, in turn, is all too ready to exploit for his satiric or comic purposes. His stories are frequently set in procedural environments where the people are just a part of a bureaucratised machine—offices, universities, laboratories, corporations and military-industrial complexes—such that we can follow that system's failure to work, and where Sladek can also revel in formulating structures to drive his cast insane. Often equipped with logic charts and diagrams ("The Story of Isaac and Abraham in a Flow Chart" from Roderick, The Design, Alien Territory) or taking the form of questionnaires (New Forms, Name (Please Print):, or Anxietal Register B), his stories are designed to allow us to chase the processes of cognition by which his stories function and by which his characters manifestly fail to follow suit. The ultra-rational becomes obsessed with mimicking the irrational and faulty. The artificial scenarios and plot formations act out the same tensions about formulated narratives that his stories aim to explore about human nature.

Sladek's stories are constructed to ask the questions, "Are people programmable?" and "Are stories programmable?" And if so, does the programmer's slogan, "garbage in, garbage out" apply? Many of Sladek's stories, such as The Design, The Master Plan, or The Best-Seller were considered to be experimental, in the sense of being avant-garde, but they were also experimental in a procedural sense. Where Golden Age SF was about building functioning tomorrows, Sladek has a disbelief in ready ideas of progress and easy solutions, and so he inserts false assumptions, stupidity, wishfulness, willfulness and faulty models into his procedures, creating dizzying Mandelbrot Sets of folly from which death and disaster, satire and surrealism result.

The intellectual quality of recognition, of determining resemblances is the engine that powers Sladek's mastery of ludicrous effects. At the one end of his range it explains why Sladek was such a superb parodist, able to sharply imitate other writers, and at the other end illustrates his concern with the pure techniques and processes of representation by which he descended methodically into absurdity. Sladek's own style is clean and unadorned—almost diagrammatically descriptive—since he was more concerned with exercising his intellectual methods than in personal or poetic expression, save as an opportunity for cliché. In his parodies of famous SF writers like Asimov, Ballard, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick and Heinlein, he analysed and imitated their content and style, discerned how they constituted a self-contained model, a cliché in itself that Sladek could then inflate to the point that it strained into painful satire.

"Money was real, too. Real silver, not plastic. It rang true. And ice cream, cold as a puppy's nose, cost just one thin silver dime of it." He paused, raising his sky-colored eyes to look approval at his granddaughter. Barely seventeen summers old, she was out on the concrete runway gathering flame-bright autumn leaves.

The boy spoke. "Gosh, Grandpa, what was this 'ice cream' like?"

"Oh, delicious! It was as tasty as a seventeenth summer. As scrumptious as the smell of lavender rain. Yummier than freedom itself. In fact, the only taste I liked as well was the taste of stamps."

- Joy Ride...R*y Br*db*ry (Barry DuBray)

"So it was Ed Pagon who gave birth to the new universe, eh?"

"Right. There weren't really any sides, since each company owned all the stock of the other, anyway. And since both were really owned by the Hattonites...."

"Then everyone was an android, really."

- Solar Shoe-Salesman...Ph*l*p K. D*ck (Chipdip K. Kill)

In its similarity and dissimilarity, the reader recognises the extent to which the parodied author does not realise he operates within his own formulae and obsessions, and from this painful disparity the humour arises. This is the same means by which Sladek disassembles the claims of the pseudo-scientific and outright delusional, who can not distinguish between an Aztec carving and a spaceman, who mistakenly think they are capably engaged in proving telepathy or innumerable new age cures. Such people are looking for a resemblance between the real world and their irrational whims. Their intense desire for the proof and authenticity that science would confer on their private fantasies drives them to build something that aspires to resemble scientific procedures and certitude, in the same way that a cargo cult might construct something that could look like a plane but would never fly.

At first Sladek emphasised the steps by which the gullible and delusional mislead themselves, but having hit upon the trick, he had as much fun creating his own blagues, such as new Zodiac signs or the apparent influences of astrology upon one's health (all the while passing off his prior fictions, such as his pseudonym, Cassandra Knye, as a real case study to support his claims).

This same delight in rigorous misdirection and unravelling deceit underpins his locked-room mysteries, where characters see but never properly understand. Meaning is in the (conditioned) eye of the beholder, and this search for significance in representation is explored in his fiction in further and further detail but results in less and less concrete conclusions. Objects, adjectives and scenarios dance around in surreal formations, Dadaistically and randomly assuming each other's roles in Sladek's earliest experimental poems and short stories. Allusions to images by Dali and Magritte invade Sladek's landscapes (The Hammer of Evil and Stop Evolution in its Tracks!). In Elephant with Wooden Leg, a congeries of irrelevance and bizarre behaviour eventually resolves itself into sense, but in the afterword, an elephant is transformed into a bridge which is transformed into tortoise and so on ad infinitum, proving that Sladek is more concerned with the associative process than any final conclusion. In such a manner Sladek can discover through alphabetical progression that the land of Oz must logically lie somewhere between New York and Pennsylvania (NY—OZ—PA); or answer the great theological insoluble of Jesus' nature, the Logos made flesh: WORD -> WOOD -> MOOD -> MOOT -> MOAT -> MEAT; and John Thomas Sladek and Robert Heinlein are anagrammatised as "DNA's Mol Hath Jokes" and "Hitler I. E. Bonner," but to what purpose?

Sladek's work is full of puns, anagrams, ciphers and other word play, where the invention and ingenuity in skipping from one consonance of resemblance to another is possibly more important than any final meaning. The consequence of this, though, may be the loss of any meaning at all, as signifier and signified become totally arbitrary. The absence of any larger meanings, of purpose in life and, particularly, of God are painfully felt in Sladek's fiction, for his is a world that lives in the fearful shadow of meaninglessness. Sladek has no sympathy for comforting uplift, proud boosterism, simplistic belief in progress, or adherence to those easy pleasing solutions for happiness that in their folly only exacerbate the squalor and error of our venal condition.

If Sladek keeps returning to rough up Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics, it is because they, and their belief in the achievability of a certain kind of future through reasonableness, form votary figures in the SF pantheon which Sladek, the lapsed Catholic and iconoclast, has to pull down. SF's petty dreams, as Sladek repeatedly points out in both his fiction and non-fiction, really are a part of the problem of our modern condition. They are symptomatic of a poverty of imagination, but they also further contribute to greater folly as their conceits and gew-gaws are appropriated by con-men, gurus, charlatans and hucksters passing them off as reality. Furthermore, Sladek's fiction is almost overburdened with cultural bric-a-brac, ephemera, pop-junk, and the banality of commercialism, the wash of bad films, books, restaurants, fashion and ideas that feed an immature society's ceaseless appetite for sensation.

Today was Saturday, day of garage sales…He found candy-dishes, lidless teapots, cracked shaving-mugs, and stacks of similarly unusable crockery; bizarre children's clothing designed to follow some forgotten trends; toys with crucial parts missing. Furniture was represented by zebra-stripe love-seats, beds with wagon-wheel headboards, ceramic table-lamps shaped like sea-horses, and the inevitable buffet with one door wedged closed by a matchbook. For sports and outdoor life, there were exercycles with one pedal, various chrome tables and racks from the gymnastic dungeon, camouflage clothing, folded lawn-furniture that could not be unfolded, bicycles with eighteen gears, some of which worked. There were various dull green rolls of canvas which might be tents, sails, tarpaulins or bedrolls.

Somewhere in each collection was a box or row of books (books are always worth dumping). The hardcover selection usually featured a Reader's Digest condensed volume, a Pearl Buck or John Steinbeck novel, a 1910 textbook on organic chemistry, a book club edition of something by James Gould Cozzens or J. P. Marquand, Esperanto Made Easy, a slim volume promoting talking to plants or some other once popular lunacy, and a well-thumbed car repair manual stolen from the library. An especially thorough collection might offer Baroness Orczy or, in paperback, Cornell Woolrich. The paperbacks included science fiction (Volume III of a series), a couple of Miss Marples and James Bonds, a book on phonograph repair, at least one self-help book (How to Love, Hate and Relax while Winning), several thick James Michener novels with cracked spines and loose pages. There might be a study guide to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a book of astrological predictions (or a tax guide) for the year 1964, and a collector's guide to old pick-up trucks or Manx cats. To round it all out, Albanian Cooking Made Easy. (Bugs 107)

All this appalls and alienates the sensitive and intelligent man (although the sensitive, intelligent man is also satirised by Sladek for the cliché he is), and so Sladek retaliates by reflecting that same savagery, stupidity and incompetence in his satire. As comedies, Sladek's works are not about succeeding, but about facing up to, and possibly surviving his SF extrapolation of the deterioration and insanity of contemporary society.

Sladek is a black humorist, which does not just describe the aftertaste of bile and blood in his laughter, but draws attention to his largely unrecognised membership of that earlier generation of writers from the late 50s and 60s—Gaddis, Barth, Pynchon and Coover—whose erudite and sardonic works combined an adherence to post-modern literary techniques with deliberate and harsh criticism of their society. In contrast to other typical writers of the 60s who came adrift in the political-personal, like Mailer and Didion, or dissipated in marijuana-fume whimsy, like Brautigan, Sladek sidestepped overt and reductionist countercultural commitments, despite prescient allusions to "President Reagan" in The Müller-Fokker Effect and apparent sympathy with the campus revolt against a Middle American wasteland. And if he sought literary innovation it was not for purposes of self-aggrandisement. Many of his stories are not strictly "stories," that is recognisably, comfortably, and traditionally told narratives, but rather sequences of paragraphs that are shuffled to create a recombinatory hypertext of plotlines (Alien Territory and The Lost Nose: A Programmed Book) or composed using a limited vocabulary of just a few hundred words (A Game of Jump), or so written that a diagram of the relations between the characters form an intricate, deliberated pattern (The Design).

Sladek was influenced by OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a group of French writers inspired by the surreal Raymond Roussel, and introduced into American culture in the early 1960s by John Ashbery and Harry Mathews. OULIPO's intention was to discover new techniques of innovating the literary compositional process and disciplining the accumulation of random matter that is the writer's material. It creates a new kind of order amid the breakdown of modern life, fixing new patterns even as our faith in the old order crumbles. Yet to follow a process or ritual is not necessarily to grant that it has any higher presumptive meaning, and so Sladek's delight is that these orders are entirely arbitrary and self-imposed, dependent solely upon the author's ingenuity and the reader's ability to participate in following the author's processes.

And so as his stories are about how stories are told, and where his characters realise that they are fictions contained within further fictions, Sladek's work is also a part of that trend in postmodernism of recursive meta-fiction. Sladek's always deliberative fiction is recursive because he is too knowing, too critical of all the clichés and incidental idiocies that develop. He enjoys examining and identifying the rules and then playing by those rules, while also anatomising the concomitant detritus, whether it is of the mystery genre and enumerating all the possible solutions to every locked-room mystery, the obsessions his parodied authors ride, or joyously reeling off an almost endless list of "Clichés" in his entry under that title for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

...the feeble old nightwatchman left to guard the smouldering meteorite crater overnight ("I'll be all right, yessirree"); the doomed society of lotus-eaters; civilization's future depending upon the outcome of a chess game, the answer to a riddle, or the discovery of a simple formula ("a one-in-a-million chance, but so crazy, it just might work!"); shape-shifting aliens ("One of us aboard this ship is not human"); invincible aliens ("the billion-megaton blast had no more effect than the bite of a Sirian flea"); alien invaders finally stopped by ordinary water (as in films of both The Day of the Triffids and The Wizard of Oz); the android spouse who cuts a finger and bleeds machine-oil; the spouse possessed or hypnotized by aliens ("Darling, you've been acting so strangely since your trip to Ganymede"); disguised alien sniffed out by "his" pet dog, who never acted this way before; destruction of giant computer brain by a simple paradox ("When is a door not a door"); robot rebellion ("Yes, 'Master'"); a Doppelganger in the corridors of time ("It was - himself!"); Montagues and Capulets living in parallel universes; the evil Master of the World stops to smirk before killing hero; everyone is controlled by alien mind-rays except one man; Oedipus kills great-great-grandad; world is saved by instant technology ("It may have looked like just a hunk of breadboard, a few widgets and wires but wow!"); a youth elixir - but at what terrible price?; thick-headed scientist tampers unwittingly with elemental forces better left in the hands of the Deity; immortality tempts Nature to a terrible revenge; monster destroys its creator; dying alien race must breed with earthling models and actresses; superior aliens step in to save mankind from self-destruction (through H-bombs, pollution, fluoridation, decadence); Dr X's laboratory (island, planet) goes up in flames...

In his fiction, all too often Sladek proves that the rush to create order, to comprehensively catalogue, only serves to incite new means to ruin society or destroy ourselves. The intellectual act of creating order may be consoling to the author, his involvement in the creation of itineraries, anatomies and charts, but without Sladek's humour laughing down the frenzied, disgraceful world he collates, it might all be too dehumanising and chilly, unsettling the reader who realizes this is no place or way for a human to live.

Indeed, while his later short stories and novels like Tik Tok, and Bugs follow more traditional narrative lines and are packed with more purely comic conceits they come to even more bleakly pessimistic conclusions, where the only vision of hope is that inhuman and systemic paranoic evil can be contained by conflicting human incompetence. It may not be much to hold at bay the despair at life's disorder and calamity, but one can almost believe that Sladek's jokes, puns and number puzzles are sufficient to the task.


Copyright © 2006, Matthew Davis. All Rights Reserved.

COMMENTS!

Jan 9, 21:38 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of John Sladek -- or Davis' essay on his work.

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