|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #65, June 2000|
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John Clute phoned with the bad news on 10 March. Another SF author died that day, the much-admired John Sladek, aged only 62. His hilarious, anarchic first novel The Reproductive System will reappear in Gollancz's revived "yellow jacket SF" series this year, with more Sladek reprints to follow. Too late for John.
As mentioned in SFX 40, John was a superb writer of razor-edged SF parody; his skits on other authors are collected in The Steam-Driven Boy (1973). Rather than go into heavy mourning here, let's remember him for his humour. Years ago I interviewed him, with eccentric results ...
Langford: I have a long-standing grudge against you. Have you ever considered what trouble you caused young people called Langford, as they asked partially deaf librarians for your title The Müller-Fokker Effect?
Sladek: Young persons have no business reading such a book, which contains sex, violence and anagrams. I think I can speak for the moral majority here when I assure you that we are doing our best to prevent such problems by closing all libraries.
Naturally I was keen to dig up the dirt, such as the Gothic romances he'd written as "Cassandra Knye" (one in collaboration with Thomas Disch). Serious books, or tongue-in-cheek?
Sladek: Help! The gothics again! Will they never give me peace? No, I see the grave-earth moving, the withered hand of Cassandra Knye clawing back to the surface ... a withered cheek with a hideous black tongue still in it ...
His favourite SF themes were robots and consciousness, seen from wildly offbeat angles. The Reproductive System features swarms of replicating metal boxes devouring the USA. The hapless hero of The Müller-Fokker Effect is accidentally transferred to computer tape and built into the hardware of (among other things) a military transport system and a mechanical evangelist – both fail spectacularly. Roderick has a robot title character who's innocent, nice, and more individual than the ludicrously habit-ridden, cliché-babbling humans he meets. Conversely, Tik-Tok stars a very bad robot whose defective "asimov circuits" allow him to murder freely. Naturally Tik-Tok does much better for himself than Roderick, and after confessing his hideous crimes is acclaimed as US Vice-President.
Sladek: I feel I ought to do my part in helping machines take over the arts and sciences, leaving us with plenty of leisure time for important things, like extracting square roots and figuring payrolls.
John's spoofs of modern art trends came long before anyone heard of Damien Hirst and included the "anti-conceptualist" architect who refuses to draw, write about or even think his designs – it would spoil their purity. Still more alarming is an early (1960s) Sladek venture prophetically called Ronald Reagan, The Magazine of Poetry. Another field ripe for his satire was shoddy pseudoscience and occult bollocks. Here he revolutionizes geometry:
Sladek: My improved value of Pi does away with all this waste. I'm not allowed to publish the new value – it is of course classified – but here's a hint: From now on, all circles are going to be a whole lot rounder. (From "How to Make Major Scientific Discoveries at Home in Your Spare Time")
Michael Moorcock conscripted John to write his 1973 exposé The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Science and Occult Beliefs, still a very funny read despite its age and the fact that one SF-spawned cult managed to get it bowdlerized.
Sladek: The Scientologists sued me for libel because I had quoted an article from Queen magazine without realizing that they had successfully sued for libel over that. So in lieu of damages, they got to alter the section on Scientology in the British paperback edition – much in the way vets alter tomcats.
Eventually the runaway success of fringe (i.e. completely barking) science books tempted John to concoct his own under two pseudonyms. He embarrassedly confessed to a drawerful of ecstatic fan mail from people born under Arachne, the Sladek-invented 13th sign of the zodiac.
Sladek: Next, I think I'll try something a little less personal. If I write any more pseudoscience books I may discuss something like the East or West Pole.
John Sladek was unfailingly witty in conversation and in print, with a sharp, almost frightening intelligence beneath the dazzle of one-liners. Critically lauded, he never quite achieved the sales he deserved. All his books are recommended. He was a good friend. Goodbye, John.
Dave Langford isn't in the mood for a funny tagline this month.
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