John Sladek
Alien Accounts

Each Sladek collection moves further from anything that can be called standard SF. This, his third, will baffle readers with a deep-seated need for mighty spaceships and black holes – its appeal is to those who agree with the Aldiss dictum that SF is at its best when on the point of turning into something else. With bizarre and highly literate wit, Sladek puts the faceless forces of Kafka's Castle or Trial in the proper modern setting – office life – and makes them not only sinister but funny.

Forms are more important than what's described by them, as the hero of 'Name (Please Print)' learns when his are lost; 'Anxietal Register B' is a quintessential form which develops into a kind of do-it-yourself horror story ('If you are merely reading this form, why do you believe that you have not been asked to fill it out?'). Closest to familiar SF are blackly funny tales which let real people run riot in the interstices of a Gernsbackian vision of future wonders ('198-, a Tale of "Tomorrow"') or send up the self-deception of psychic researchers and debunkers ('Scenes from the Country of the Blind').

Two-thirds of the collection is taken up by the longest 'office' tales. 'Masterson and the Clerks' is the sort of piece to make reviewers put straws in their hair and tentatively scrawl, 'If Kafka had written Catch-22 with an office setting ...' The most opaque and uncompromisingly non-SF item here, it seems a poor choice for opening story, yet it does grow on you and is ultimately rather touching, besides causing many a smile en route. Closing the book is 'The Communicants', a mini-novel whose crazed zigzaggery resembles that of the brilliant The Muller-Fokker Effect. Drum Inc. is in the communications business; it and all its employees have weird and hilarious communication problems, floundering in the gap between names and things, saying and meaning, their own make-believe and Sladek's (one chap amputates all his limbs one by one in a succession of 'cries for help' which is hideously funny), the bottom line always being the alarming paradox: 'There seems to be no difference at all between the message of maximum content (or maximum ambiguity) and the message of zero content (noise).' There's a good deal of (but not too much) content in this 72-page story, which alone is worth the price of admission. A couple of slight pieces round the collection out to eight stories.

I love Sladek's inventive wit, his gift for parody, his flattering assumption that the reader is intelligent – so many authors feel each joke should be underlined twice and preceded by a man carrying a red flag. This cuts both ways, and sometimes I find myself metaphorically ducking in alarm at the whiz of some little piece of cleverness going over my head. All the same: recommended.