John Sladek

Science fiction writers who should be in the canon ahead of Philip K Dick, part 2

Dick isn’t the only sf writer with a reputation, or at least a big campus following, outside the genre: there’s also Kurt Vonnegut. I think that Vonnegut was a great writer, in exactly the same sense that Frank Zappa was a great musician, and I’ll leave you to work through the implications of that for yourselves. Although Vonnegut was almost certainly a nicer guy to hang out with, and Frank never did anything to compare with Mother Night.

Anyway, in place of Vonnegut, I give you John Sladek. The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970) is a bizarre and complicated satire revolving around a character who has been digitized and uploaded into a mainframe: his experiences are rendered as an eerie Joycean dreamscape, full of elaborate wordplay and concrete poetry. It’s much more interesting than the neon-ninja-Tron-fantasies which later became the standard decor of cyberspace. The satirical content is dated and off-colour, but in an enjoyable way. Imagine if Terry Southern had brains, or if Thomas Pynchon had written The Crying of Lot 49 as a straight comedy, or if someone made a cross between Being John Malkovich and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

The novellas “Masterson and the Clerks” and “The Communicants: an Adventure in Management” are melancholy, hilarious satires of corporate life. There’s a scene near the start of The Hudsucker Proxy, where an old clerk explains procedures to Tim Robbins, which is like a pale shadow of a passage near the start of “Masterson and the Clerks”, in which the tedious rigmarole of the office is elevated into a kind of surrealist poetry.

There’s also the short-story collection The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers, which ends with about ten spot-on parodies of other well-known sf writers. This is really only of interest to sf fans but it gives a hint as to where Sladek’s interests really seemed to lie: in language and its abuses.

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