Arts & Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

John Sladek, the high priest of something else

John Sladek died in early 2000, age 62. He'd been ill for some time with pulmonary fibrosis, though only family and closest friends knew it. At the time he was living in Minnesota and had been doing technical writing. He'd moved back in 1986, having spent some 20 years in London and there experienced his most creative period. But the Midwest was in his blood. At one point, announcing plans to set a book in Albania, he admitted that "it'll probably come out looking exactly like the American Midwest."

Both in person and in print Sladek was among the funniest and most fiercely intelligent people I've ever known. Intrepid collaborator with close friend Thomas Disch, a frequent and valued contributor to New Worlds magazine (then a haven for the likes of Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard), Sladek created books and stories largely nonpareil. Robert Sheckley comes to mind. Vonnegut at his best. And, with little or no overblowing on my part, Voltaire. Sladek even gave us a kind of ''Candide" for our time in ''Roderick, or the Education of a Young Machine."

"Across five decades," fellow writer Stephen Baxter maintains, "John Sladek's work has burned like a dark fire at the heart of modern science fiction. [He is] one of the most technically gifted writers of his generation [and] the products of his ferocious intelligence are at once inventive, funny, melancholy and sharply satirical. His stories are skewed mirrors, revealing with remarkable clarity the technological, social and moral fractures of our day and the next."

Following a series of stories including "The Poets of Millgrove, Iowa" (New Worlds), "The Happy Breed" (Harlan Ellison's ''Dangerous Visions"), and the now-classic novella "Masterson and the Clerks" (also New Worlds), Sladek published his first SF novel, ''The Reproductive System," in 1968. It tells of the failing Wompler Toy Corp.'s reinvestment as a research laboratory and its introduction of a self-replicating machine. Soon Wompler's little cigarette-size gray boxes are everywhere, gobbling down metal, swallowing cities such as Las Vegas and any humans who get in their way, tapping into power sources, and all the time growing, learning -- and reproducing. On this scaffold Sladek hangs marvelous farcical portraits of '60s craziness: protest marches, pot smoking, spies, the military, the great sacred cow of American progress. Characters have names such as Calvin Codman Potter, Toto Smilax, and Aurora Candlewood; each is wonderfully drawn, their personal histories dovetailing like expertly shuffled cards into the book's multiple story lines and theme.

That same year, 1968, Sladek and Disch brought out ''Black Alice," a satirical thriller on race issues. Two years later saw Sladek's perversely titled ''The Mller-Fokker Effect," in which protagonist Bob Shairp volunteers for an experiment that will transfer his personality into a computer. When a crack team of neo-Nazis breaks into the lab, triggering an accident that kills Shairp, he's lost to regroup himself in cyberspace. Sladek contributed this to the flap copy: "I feel I ought to do my part in helping machines take over the arts and sciences, leaving us plenty of leisure time for important things, like extracting square roots and figuring payrolls."

''Roderick, or the Education of a Young Machine" (''Roderick," 1980, and ''Roderick at Random," 1983) offers, as I've said, a ''Candide"-like view of the world's pretense, cruelties, and follies through the eyes of a robot innocent. ''Tik-Tok" (1983) works the other side of the road, relating the passage of its robot protagonist from domestic servant on a Southern plantation to his murder of a young girl in his charge, which he covers up by painting a mural over the bloodstains, to his subsequent life as a renowned artist and robot civil-rights leader, then on to a political career, all the while killing, in highly imaginative manner, as many humans as possible. Sladek's dark humor and genius for invention were never in better form.

His last novel, ''Bugs" (1989), though superficially more "realistic," proved just as wildly inventive and comic, dealing with a British technical writer's struggle to adapt to an American cybernetics firm that is, of course, chaotic, absurdist American society in miniature. Sladek then had been back in the States only two or three years after two decades in London, and was working as a technical writer.

Sladek's stories, meanwhile, had been collected in, among others, ''The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers" (1970), ''Keep the Giraffe Burning" (1977), ''The Best of John Sladek" (1980), ''Alien Accounts" (1982), and ''The Lunatics of Terra" (1984). He also wrote two Gothic novels (''The House That Fear Built," with Disch, and ''The Castle and the Key" solo, both published under the name Cassandra Knye, 1966 and 1967), a study of specious beliefs (''New Apocrypha," 1974), and two old-style puzzle mysteries, ''Black Aura" (1974) and ''Invisible Green" (1977).

I'm not at all sure that Sladek is remembered by many readers in the States; to my knowledge, all his books remain out of print here. In the United Kingdom, however, they appear to be finding new life, with five of his novels reissued by Gollancz in recent years. There's also been a small press collection, edited by David Langford: ''Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek" (Big Engine, 2002), a miscellany of stories, poems, collaborations with Disch, brief essays and bits of business. This collection reprints as its final piece "John Sladek Comments" from ''Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers":

"Most of my novels and short stories are set in the near future, in a recognizable America in which technology has either solved all of our problems or failed to solve any of them, or something else entirely has happened. Something else entirely is always happening in science fiction. . . . Science fiction, it seems to me, constitutes the right brain hemisphere of contemporary fiction (the dreaming part). My work . . . is probably somewhere near the lobotomy scars."

John Sladek was the high priest of something else, the clown in the choir, the valet who takes your keys to the Rolls and brings you an ice cream truck. He was a wonderfully funny and engaging writer, a satirist of the first rank, and he deserves to be remembered.

James Sallis's recent books include ''Chester Himes: A Life" and the novel ''Cypress Grove."

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months