Remembering John Sladek

Gloom spread through science-fiction circles when US author John Sladek died from an inherited lung disease in March 2000. He was only 62. SF readers knew him for brilliant, funny, surreal novels and stories, mostly published during the 18 years he lived in London. Forteans, sceptics and fringe believers may remember his wittily nonfictional The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Sciences and Occult Beliefs (1973) – deserving a place on the shelf with Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.

This was inspired by Michael Moorcock, who'd published Sladek in New Worlds magazine and planned to write a book on irrational beliefs. "But he got busy or tired of it," explained Sladek, "and turned the title and some sources (a starter set) over to me. In no time at all I was buried far too deep in it."

Sladek agreed in a 1982 interview that his being a lapsed Catholic might connect with a fondness for patterns, anagrams, ciphers, and generally trying to read meaning into the Logos of the world. His perversely titled novel The Müller-Fokker Effect has a hilarious subplot about US conspiracy theorists who unpick the digits of pi as a substitution cipher: "the key to the whole cummunisk conspiracy!" Sladek researched The New Apocrypha in hope of gold nuggets lurking in the dross of irrationalism. Without luck:

"I especially hoped parapsychology would turn up something, because much of it looked like good science being done by good scientists. But all I found were murky experiments, self-deception and fraud." Ultimately he couldn't resist poking cruel fun at just about every topic examined. "The sources, with their impenetrable prose and lack of humour, didn't make it any easier. In reaction, I probably was more sarcastic to some of them than I needed to be."

One strong objection came from (who else?) the Scientologists. Sladek had quoted a magazine article without knowing they'd successfully sued for libel over it. "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." Responses to The New Apocrypha tended to mix approval and anguish, agreeing that most targets were indeed junk science, with one exception (different every time) to which Sladek was being terribly unfair....

He was perpetually fascinated by unorthodoxy and the occult, reacting against their perceived failures like an atheist who's angry with God for not existing. (Once he wrote an atheist tract for teenagers, titled "Bill Gets Hep to God!".) His detective novel Black Aura relishes the tatty trappings of Spiritualism – the murder victim dies while demonstrating levitation outside a high window – but, while debunking seance phenomena, shows sympathy for those who need to believe.

Sympathy for Erich von Däniken was unavailable. Sladek loved parodying his woolly logic, as in the 1974 short "Space Shoes of the Gods": "A ruined edifice in Peru bears a weird inscription: two horizontal lines crossed by two vertical lines. In other words, the figure for tic-tac-toe, a game played by the latest giant computers. Likewise the Ankara Museum displays clay tablets pierced with holes – the same holes used in modern IBM cards." Another story advances the best creationist argument ever: we can't be descended from apes because "There are no apes anyway. The so-called apes in zoos are only men dressed up in hairy suits."

Eventually Sladek's temptation to devise his own occult system became irresistible. Under the impenetrable pseudonym James Vogh, he published Arachne Rising: The Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac, offering huge wads of historical, mythical, literary and numerological evidence for the "suppressed" sign Arachne the Spider. Giveaways for insiders included astrological case histories for Cassandra Knye, the name under which Sladek and Thomas Disch had published spoof Gothic novels, and James Colvin, a New Worlds house pseudonym often used by Michael Moorcock.

Carefully massaged statistics showed that people born under Arachne (13 May to 9 June) were usually psychics, leading to enthusiastic mail from Arachnoid readers who claimed they'd known it all along. Not enough readers, though. According to Sladek, Arachne Rising and its sequel The Cosmic Factor "were conceived as jokes, but very quickly turned into moneymaking enterprises. Only they didn't make a lot of money, either ... a gigantic waste of time." A further hoax, Judgment of Jupiter as by Richard A. Tilms, was even less successful.

Although our founding father Charles Hoy Fort was born on 6 August, he was finagled into Arachne Rising on the basis that the moon was in Arachne that day. Sladek appreciated Fort's deliberately outrageous theories of odd phenomena. From The New Apocrypha: "What would Fort himself have made of flying saucers? Crockery slung in a titanic kitchen squabble? Uninflated planets? Gargantuan lost collar buttons? Scaled-up red corpuscles flowing along some arterial galaxy? Whatever wry hypotheses he might have shaped, we may be sure that Fort would have come to no final decision."

It's sad to lose John Sladek and his special blend of hilarity and melancholy. He knew, at least, that he wasn't forgotten: five of his SF novels are scheduled for British reissue.

John Sladek was born on 15 December 1937 and died on 10 March 2000.