H Jones Has Talk Mod – an appreciation of John Thomas Sladek

One of my favourite science fiction writers of all time is John Thomas Sladek.

Sladek, who died in March 2000, first came under the spotlight in the New Wave of British science fiction around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, although he was born in Iowa and most of his writing was set in the USA, His writing fitted the experimental nature of the New Worlds stable of young – and young at heart. He also shared the sense of humour of many of them – especially his frequent collaborator Thomas Disch.

Where Sladek was unique was his satire and scepticism, and especially his fascination with puzzles and formal games. His experimental fiction often resembled the blend of mathematics and art practised by the OuLiPo group of writers who grew out of the Institute ‘Pataphysique and included Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews. It also echoed Postmodern writers like John Barth. Unlike those writers, the publication of most of his short stories and novels under the science fiction banner meant he had little critical interest from the mainstream and his experimental fiction meant he did not achieve the sales of more more straightforward SF writers.

Like OuLiPo he would set rules in the way he approached many stories – including writing the mystery novels Black Aura and Invisible Green under the rules laid out Rev Ronald Knox for Golden Age detective novels at a time when no-one else in crime writing cared about them. At the same time he subverted Asimov’s rules of robotics in Tic Toc – one of his many novels which used robotics, artificial intelligence and the sciences of Information Theory and Cybernetics developed in the Macy Conferences in the 40s.

Although the structure of his stories and novels were based on formal rules – they were anything but formal in their humour. He was a savage satirist of the worst of human nature and particularly of wilful ignorance, stupidity and hypocrisy. His non fiction book The New Apocrypha ripped apart pseudo science, woolly minded and crank theories and cults with devastating logic and rationalism and most of all with humour. Sladek was always very funny and he used the same scalpel in writing his mock new age books Arachne Rising, The Cosmic Factor and the Judgement of Jupiter – the best joke being that most readers believed they were serious non fiction.

He has sometimes been compared to the more well known satirist who came out if the science fiction community – Kurt Vonnegut. But his work could not be more different to the bleakness of Vonnegut’s vision. Sladek has hope and his masterwork Roderick (published in various slices as one or two books) brings out the humanity in his young robot who becomes a real boy and suffers but overcomes the same issues we can all face in childhood. A Candide for the Information Age.

Some of his work was written just for fun – like the affectionate but devastatingly accurate parodies of other science fiction writers or some of the squibs collected in Maps – but he never wrote anything that wasn’t interesting and clever and his best work deserves wider recognition for its innovation, fun and intelligence.

Most of his writing is available as e-books. Read them.

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