An Interview with John Sladek (1982)

'People have laughed at all great inventors and discoverers,' John Sladek points out. 'They laughed at Galileo, at Edison's light bulb and even at nitrous oxide.' In SF novels he himself has invented a world-dominating mechanical horde, a man tragically converted to computer tape, a naive robot who's lynched when mistaken for a black. And what was the callous world's response? That's right. They laughed.

John Sladek was born in Iowa in 1937, that year which is the futuristic goal of a time-traveller in his lunatic story '1937 A.D.!' After studying first mechanical engineering and then English literature at the University of Minnesota, he went on to 'take up the series of jobs which usually characterize writers and other malcontents – short-order cook, technical writer, railroad switchman, cowboy, President of the United States.' He left the U.S.A. to spend time lurking in Morocco, Spain and Austria, alarming the peasantry with his strange habit of writing. Since 1966 he has lived in London and acquired a steadily swelling reputation as an SF author who – and this is rare – not only produces stimulating and intelligent SF but can be hilariously or cruelly funny while doing so. Which is why they laughed.

His first published story was 'The Poets of Millgrove, Iowa' (New Worlds, 1966); the even earlier 'The Happy Breed' appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967). His SF novels are The Reproductive System (1968 – known as Mechasm in the U.S.A.), The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970) and Roderick (1980). A sequel to the latter, Roderick at Random, is due from Granada in January, 1983, and a further novel Tik-Tok from either Granada or Corgi [it actually appeared from Gollancz]. There have been three collections of his short stories: The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers (1973), Keep the Giraffe Burning (1977) and The Best of John Sladek (U.S.A. only, 1981, comprising most of the contents of the previous two). Another collection, Alien Accounts, was released by Granada in June 1982, shortly after this interview was conducted.

He has also written Gothic novels under the name Cassandra Knye: The Castle and The Key (1966) and The House that Fear Built (with Thomas M. Disch, 1967). Black Alice (1968) is a satirical thriller, again written with Disch, which first appeared in the U.S.A. under the pseudonym Thom Demijohn. The solo novels Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977) are skilful recreations of the no-longer fashionable 'locked-room' detective story; an earlier short story in this vein, 'By an Unknown Hand', won the 1972 Times detective story competition. Perhaps the best of Sladek's non-SF writings is The New Apocrypha (1973), which along with Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science belongs on the shelf of anyone sceptical of today's irrational cults and beliefs. His alter ego 'James Vogh' has meanwhile written books which the author of The New Apocrypha might have handled severely: Arachne Rising (1977 – The Thirteenth Zodiac in the UK) – and The Cosmic Factor (1978).

In 1968-9 he co-edited a poetry magazine with Pamela Zoline: Ronald Reagan, The Magazine of Poetry. ('We may revive it.') In 1982 he was co-guest of honour with Angela Carter at the British National Easter SF Convention, 'Channelcon' in Brighton. (He has since been revived.)

Something of the feel of reading Sladek was expressed by the serious and critical SF journal Foundation's football critic not long ago: 'And that brilliant header, from a man who is so good above the shoulders that he scarcely needs to use his feet at all, sends the ball sailing between the posts!'

Back in the changing room ...

Langford: John, 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.

Langford: But just for now, you're a writer. Why? What makes you write?

Sladek: I started writing, or rather, thinking, stories as a child, and at that time the reason was very clear. Kids who read a lot come up against the disheartening fact that every story ends. They can try re-reading the same story or they can read more stories in the same series or by the same author. Or they can just read other things and hope that by some magic they'll pick up the narrative thread again. When all of these stratagems fail, there's nothing to do but continue the story yourself, or else give up reading altogether and try some healthier hobby like smashing telephones. We didn't have a phone when I was a kid, and I was too shy to smash any public phones, and our town didn't have a pool hall either, so I had to hang out at the public library – and anyway, I told myself stories. There was a continuing bedtime saga in which I was the hero in whatever I'd been reading lately, Dave Dawson with the RAF or the Hardy Boys or the Oz books – it all got blended into the main saga, continued from night to night.

Langford: Is it merely force of habit which keeps the – outwardly – adult Sladek writing?

Sladek: Nowadays why I write is complicated by a lot of factors having nothing to do with writing, such as the need to earn a living and finding out that I'm constitutionally unsuited for working an honest job. There are probably a lot of deep psychological drives too, such as the Freudian need to impress the neighbours (Freud called it keeping up with Ernest Jones), the Oedipal urge to use a lot of carbon paper, the deep-seated need to earn millions and become a household name, like Harold Robbins or Flash Gordon or for that matter Flash.

Langford: I, and I suppose SF fans in general, think of you as primarily a science fiction household name. Do these same deep-seated urges drive you to write SF in particular?

Sladek: Not guilty. Oh, all right. I do write a little SF in my spare time. I have a kind of standard explanation why, which goes like this: Science fiction is one way of making sense out of a senseless world. I think people are often bewildered by the world they find themselves in, where Russia puts up a special satellite to watch the Falkland Islands War, while in Britain the Queen Mother visits a meat market and is given a 40-pound slab of beef. Today I turned on the radio to hear some recipes for water flea, a delicacy of tomorrow. Anyway, people find themselves in this world, and they say 'It's like science fiction,' as though they expected it to be like anything else. SF has at least the advantage of not depending on preconceptions. In a science fiction story, anything can happen. God can walk in halfway through and erase the universe and replace it with a 30-second commercial for Singapore Airlines. Or the world turns out to be nothing but a big doner kebab, and we're the salmonella. Why am I telling you this? You must have read some science fiction yourself. You know this is true.

Langford: Yes, but –

Sladek: Anything can happen in SF. And the fact that nothing ever does happen in SF is only due to the poverty of our imaginations, we who write it or edit it or read it. But SF can in principle deal with anything.

Of course, that leads people into the error of believing that SF has all the answers, that it's prescriptive or predictive. They want to use it to get a peek at the way the world really will be or really ought to be. Very dangerous, because the predictions of SF are almost always too simple-minded. It's not futurology – though futurology is too simple-minded too – and it's not a recipe book for cooking up tomorrows. To my mind, the best SF addresses itself to problems of the here and now, or even to problems which have never been solved and never will be solved – I'm thinking of Philip K. Dick's work here, dealing with questions of reality, for example. Suppose one were to tackle one of his themes in a conventional novel, the question of the reality of other people. Do other people have thoughts and feelings as I do? In a conventional novel, the question can only be tackled by having a mad character or a philosopher, or a mad philosopher, in the story. But there has to be a framework of conventional reality, a world full of real people enveloping this local madness. In most conventional novels, God is not allowed to be nuts. Nor are nuts allowed to be God.

Langford: They have to content themselves with being interviewers. Having quizzed you on why you write SF, I'd be interested to hear why you don't – whether, that is, you think there's any significance in your wide spectrum of activity. Gothics, crime, cultism on both sides of the fence between bunk and debunk, parodies, 'mainstream' fiction.... So many writers stick not only with a genre but in their own small niche inside.

Sladek: I guess basically I wanted to make ten million dollars a minute and also see W.H. Smith filled with nothing but my books in every category: SF, crime, romance, Western, biography, astrology, non-fiction, cookery, car repair manuals, ordnance survey maps, crossword puzzles.

The whole idea of genre fiction makes a lot of sense if you happen to be running a book supermarket and you need to know whether a given book should be shelved with the toothpaste or the tinned veg. But I don't think of myself as a genre writer and I don't see why any writer should. Nobody expects the reader to confine himself to one department all his life; he can read James Joyce and Barbara Cartland and Zane Grey and Agatha Christie as well as Ray Bradbury, so why shouldn't the writer have the same freedom of choice? And as it turns out, the writer does have. He can move from being tinned carrots to become a frozen rissole. He can even decide to go out of the supermarket altogether and write something available only in discerning delicatessens, i.e., in old-fashioned bookstores. I'm thinking here of Donald Barthelme and Harry Mathews, for example; Samuel Beckett is seldom seen in the supermarket either.

Langford: What about the barriers within the supermarket? Garry Kilworth once told me he'd use a pseudonym should he write outside the SF genre, since his SF connections might be harmful outside the ghetto wall. Might your own detective novels, say, have suffered thus?

Sladek: I think these days an SF connection would be a boost to other books; I'm sure more people have read my two little detective puzzles because of the SF connection. Those two novels suffered mainly from being written about 50 years after the fashion for puzzles of detection. I enjoyed writing them, planning the absurd crimes and clues, but I found I was turning out a product the supermarket didn't need any more – stove polish or yellow cakes of laundry soap. One could starve very quickly writing locked-room mysteries like those. SF has much more glamour and glitter attached to it, in these high-tech days.

Langford: At least you've never seemed to be a starving author. Your career started with quite a splash in 1966-8: two solo and two collaborated (with Tom Disch) novels, plus your first short SF stories. Does Disch have a lot to answer for?

Sladek: He was really responsible for getting me started in SF. To begin with, we collaborated on a few stories, silly stuff like 'The Discovery of the Nullitron' (Galaxy, 1966). On the strength of our selling these, he persuaded his agent to take on my own fiction. He also told me about all those professional writing tricks like typing on one side of the paper, and he criticized stories that I read aloud to him. Then we collaborated on a Gothic and Black Alice. These early collaborations not only helped finance my start as a full-time writer, they gave me the confidence to carry on. I've been writing full-time ever since.

Langford: Black Alice is rather a distinguished thriller, with some very Disch and some very Sladek bits. How did you go about the collaboration?

Sladek: We wrote Black Alice like this: Tom had the main idea. We discussed and agreed upon a plot outline. I wrote a rough draft. Tom wrote a second draft. We then argued and argued, each trying to preserve his own favourite characters and lines, and finally the book came out bigger than planned.

Langford: Might you repeat the performance some day?

Sladek: Tom and I are never in the same city long enough and both between books, so a further collaboration looks unlikely for some time.

Langford: Since we've strayed towards the beginning of your career, perhaps you have words to say about those Gothics, as by 'Cassandra Knye?' Tongue-in-cheek, or deeply-felt works of stark emotional power?

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 ...

Langford: Deeply-felt works of stark emotional power, then. Undoubtedly Ms. Knye's favourite novels are Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto. But what books and authors does Mr. Sladek most enjoy?

Sladek: My top forty? I suspect the list would be longer than that and would seem odd, mostly because I couldn't stop to explain why I like each writer. Even then, much of it probably resembles the lists of everyone else (or of English class syllabuses); for instance, my favourite book is Ulysses and my list would no doubt include Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Dickens and George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. So let me just mention at random a few people on my list who might not turn up everywhere. Ring Lardner, G.K. Chesterton, O. Henry, Nathanael West, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, Harry Mathews, Bernard Malamud, Vance Bourjailly, George P. Elliott, Djuna Barnes, Joe Orton, Tom Stoppard, Kenneth Koch, Robert Coover, Vladimir Nabokov, Angus Wilson, Terry Southern, Evelyn Waugh, Flann O'Brien – to mention only writers in English. The problem and privilege we all have is being alive in this century and able to read this language. It makes any list meaningless except the list of an illiterate.

Langford: Some of my own favourites there, especially Chesterton and O'Brien. You don't mention any specifically SF authors, though.

Sladek: So far as SF goes, I am an illiterate; my list of favourites comes down to Tom Disch, Philip K. Dick and half-a-dozen others. I haven't read much, and am not au courant with what's in the magazines. This is mainly because I spend a lot of time writing and so don't have much time to read; I hate to waste that time reading what may turn out to be junk food for the mind, when there's so much real writing to be read.

Langford: Do any of your favourite authors exert a sinister, creeping influence over your own work?

Sladek: Whatever I'm reading at the moment seems to influence whatever I'm writing. I found some time ago that I have to be careful, while working on a novel, what I read. People may notice the influence of Joseph Heller in 'Masterson and the Clerks' or of William Gaddis in Roderick. Recently I've been reading Angela Carter and John Cheever, so I suppose my work will soon have clouds of purple perfume or else exhilarating sunlight on suburban lawns, or something.

Langford: Whereas much current SF would merely afflict you with rotten grammar. Disregarding all these influences, which of your own books do you like best? One of the SF novels, presumably.

Sladek: Roderick – the completed story. I usually like whatever I've recently finished best. Just as a parent prefers a new baby or a Defence Department prefers the new improved missile with extra warheads and teletext and an optional 5-year service warranty.

Langford: The 'complete' Roderick being the published book Roderick plus its sequel, provisionally titled Roderick at Large?

Sladek: The second volume is now called Roderick at Random; I'm hoping to sell a few copies to any Smollett scholars who happen to be buying books in a hurry.

Langford: That famous scourge of the writing classes, John Clute, suggests that a couple of keys to what makes you tick are to be found in your upbringing, in the American Midwest. Certainly, though you've lived in London since 1966, your SF novels have tended to be set in the Midwest and to satirize it mercilessly. Is this a matter of convenience or of deep significance?

Sladek: I always figure I can have the Midwest one way or the other. Because it's my background, it ought to be a voice that comes easily. I could argue that I know fairly well how Midwesterners speak and think. But if that turns out not to be true, if I'm mythicizing the place, that's fine too. Well-realized mythical places are hard enough to come by, so I win again. I am planning someday to set a novel, or at least a short story, in Albania. All I know of Albania is that Americans aren't allowed to go there and that it once had a King Zog; the rest can be made up. It'll probably come out looking exactly like the American Midwest.

Langford: Clute also makes some critical play with your being a 'lapsed Catholic'; and Michael Frayn once wrote of 'the tone of voice, hard to describe yet curiously distinctive, which sounds through a great many of the English Catholic writers. Perhaps it is a certain intellectual perverseness.' Considering that there's a thread of compulsive intellectual doodling that runs through your work – ciphers, anagrams, palindromes, acrostics, endless word and number-games – I can't help wondering whether you think there might be some connection?

Sladek: Well, of course, it would be swell to be bracketed with Graham Greene and Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh (I draw the line at Belloc). But I'm not even English. In America, I think, Roman Catholicism tends to be more Protestant, populist, sweaty and anti-intellectual. More in the tone of Studs Lonigan (by James T. Farrell) than say The Man Who Was Thursday or Scobie in Greene's The Heart of the Matter or the chap in Brideshead Revisited. I'm trying to see how my being a 'lapsed' Catholic relates to my being a compulsive intellectual doodle dandy, if I am either. Whence the ciphers and anagrams, I don't know.

One connection might be that in general, Catholics (among others) behave as though the world were one enormous cipher text in which every thing means something – but only to God or Fate. Catholic writers constantly have characters struggling against their fates, or trying to divine the meaning of their lives, usually failing.

Langford: Science fiction, you said earlier, is a way of making sense out of a senseless world ...

Sladek: And J.L. Borges wrote, 'According to Bloy, we are the versicles or words or letters of a magic book, and that incessant book is the only thing in the world; or rather, it is the world.'

I think scientists also share in that peculiar vision of the world as a book. There's Fred Hoyle's idea of clouds of DNA or bacteria or something floating around in space and now and then starting life on a planet like ours – so the DNA code would be written across the universe (in all the margins of the book).

Langford: You have me there: I'm a lapsed physicist. Still on the subject of your own incessant books – let's not sit round being impartial. I think The Reproductive System, The Müller-Fokker Effect and Roderick are fine SF novels which stand up to rereading, and I'm looking forward to the further Sladek books promised. Now besides the Midwestern setting and word/number-play we've discussed, your SF novels have more in common: they're very funny and satirical about U.S. life and everything else, they have large casts of characters, they involve several narrative lines chopped into many short scenes – more complexity. Does it just happen that you haven't yet come to write an SF novel where you'd find a 'straightforward' continuous narrative appropriate?

Sladek: I guess it's the influence of Dickens again, but once I think of a comic character I find I have to get them into the novel one way or another. The narrative line of Tik-Tok looks fairly straight so far – but I haven't finished fiddling with it yet.

Langford: Another long-running Sladek theme is our danger of growing less human than our machines. (That word you coined in the story 'The Brass Monkey' speaks volumes: robotomized.) In Roderick there's an obvious and powerful contrast between the very human machine Roderick and the nominally human characters whose minds run in more mechanical grooves than his. 'Automata conditioned by consciousness programs,' as Ian Watson likes to say of everyone but him.

Sladek: It's an idea that our century seems to have taken up as a touchstone for other social and psychological worries: the idea of people acting like machines acting like people certainly appealed to the Dadaists, for instance. Duchamp took it pretty far before he retired from painting to play chess. And there's always a mixture of comedy and terror in the idea, as in Ambrose Bierce's 'Moxon's Master', the chessplaying robot who rebels. I suppose the idea bites deep into the psychological mechanism by which humans recognize other humans, babies recognizing faces and so on. Now we know that theoretically we can fool that mechanism with artificial people, and that knowledge has to affect the way we think about ourselves. Many of the old definitions of 'human' are no longer so clear.

Langford: 'A featherless biped' certainly fits Roderick.... I liked touches such as his attempts to create Art, little meaningless purple squares which later prove identical with the works of a highly regarded conceptual artist.

Sladek: There's a touching argument that people used to use against the idea of artificial people, namely that a machine will never be able to paint like Velasquez. But the world is full of real people who couldn't paint the Rokeby Venus, either. They may lack originality or talent, or they may happen to lead unfortunate lives cut off from beauty, lives wholly constrained and mechanical.

Langford: To quote one of your own autobiographical snippets: '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 pay rolls.'

Since the sequel to Roderick is almost upon us, have you anything to say about it here? (Apart from the usual "Buy it! Act without thinking!")

Sladek: I don't want to seem to hype the book. Let's just say it is the story of a group of happy-go-lucky flyboys on their tight little Mediterranean island. It's the story of war and peace, love and lust, beauty and the beast within all men.

Langford: A masterpiece of the soft sell.

Sladek: No, actually it's a cover blurb for Catch-22 I saw about 20 years ago and memorized. I knew it would come in handy.

Langford: Well, can you reveal anything about your next novel Tik-Tok – also I understand, featuring robots?

Sladek: Yes, Tik-Tok is about a robot, but not a nice robot like Roderick. In fact, Tik-Tok is bad. That is about all I can say now, except to mention that it's a story of war and peace, of sons and lovers, of mice and men.

Langford: And after that?

Sladek: I'm still finishing Tik-Tok. After that, a book provisionally called Maps. It will be something between a novel and a set of linked stories, but the linkages are going to be fairly complex, with stories inside stories, stories completely permeating one another, a character in one story turning into, say, an event or a place in another – in other words, the notion of mapping is going to predominate. If all this sounds vague and confusing, it is because I'm still vague and confused about it – and will be until I start work on it.

Langford: This brings us with suspicious neatness to short fiction. I've noticed that some favourites among your own stories don't seem to have made it into Sladek collections.

Sladek: Most publishers seem very reluctant to publish short story collections at all; they bring them out in paperback, often disguised as novels.

Langford: Specifically, I was thinking of 'Masterson and the Clerks', your office epic, which gets an admiring thumbs-up in the Encyclopedia of SF yet hasn't been collected: I had to dig it out of an old New Worlds. Will it and more of your uncollected stories appear in the forthcoming Alien Accounts, or will this book feature new tales?

Sladek: The stories in Alien Accounts are all used, or as they say of cars nowadays, pre-owned. They are all stories of office life, beginning with 'Masterson and the Clerks'.

Langford: Your parodies of other SF authors (in The Steam-Driven Boy) have attracted some praise – good fun and often worthwhile criticism into the bargain. For example, the Asimov spoof is a much more entertaining assault on the Laws of Robotics than Stanisław Lem's rather boring dismissal of them. But do you find that, as someone said, it's only possible to write good parodies of authors you admire?

Sladek: I don't admire all the authors I parody equally, and usually what I admire about them doesn't come into the parody. For instance, Robert Heinlein has written stories of paranoia, beautifully sustained and slowly articulated – like 'They'. So it's easier to parody his other stuff, naturally.

My deep admiration for Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard must show, I think.

Langford: Yes – though perhaps not the funniest, those are definitely the best parodies.

Sladek: Some of the others are obviously less careful. The Wells parody – 'Pemberly's Start-Afresh Calliope' – isn't a parody at all, really, just a silly scientific romance. I'm not sure I could do any more....

Langford: Silly science leads to The New Apocrypha, subtitled 'a guide to strange sciences and occult beliefs' ... where you put the boot into numerous weirdo cults, UFOs, perpetual motion machines, ancient astronauts, the lot. I gather Michael Moorcock talked you into writing this one, following your dismissals of McLuhan, von Däniken etcetera, in 1960s issues of New Worlds?

Sladek: Moorcock was actually going to do the book, or at least some book on irrational beliefs under that title. But he got busy or tired of it, 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. See, I have no journalism in my background, so I wasn't practised at research or writing non-fiction, nor at handling the truth in a journalistic way. Journalists know when to call a halt and write something, but I kept on looking for answers.

Langford: The hero of your Black Aura observes that it's just as dangerous and fanatical to disbelieve all strange phenomena as it is to fall for them all. Is that more or less your own view; and did you approach the cult material with, perhaps, the hope that some of these loonies might have found something worthy of belief?

Sladek: Yes, I did, but it was a vain hope. 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.

Langford: So in the end you came down hard on just about everything.

Sladek: 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. Anyway I seemed to spend years on that book, always finding more I had to read. The occult explosion was on, too, with more stuff happening every week. The year or so after the book came out, we had Uri Geller, Koestler's coincidence theories, the Berlitz triangle and so on. The book could probably use a new expanded edition, but I'm reluctant to undertake it.

Langford: Pity. Wasn't a snippet cut from the paperback TNA, though, because somebody complained?

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.

Langford: I suppose you must have had a vast anguished response to that book.

Sladek: Yes. Most letters agreed with me that all these subjects were a complete waste of time – however, there was this one subject that was not pseudoscience at all....

Langford: More recently, you've been having a go at the other side of the case with your 'James Vogh' books – establishing a mystical thirteenth zodiacal sign, for example, with reasoning somewhat better than that of the average von Däniken in the street. Were these books conceived as serious and devout contributions to astrological lore?

Sladek: The James Vogh books, Arachne Rising and The Cosmic Factor, were conceived as jokes, but very quickly turned into moneymaking enterprises. Only they didn't make a lot of money, either. So finally they turn out to have been a gigantic waste of time. Except that I can say that I invented or discovered the lost 13th sign of the zodiac.

Langford: Ah, yes, the sign Arachne (May 13 to June 9). Were you born under it, by any chance?

Sladek: No, I was born in either October or December, depending on whether you believe the hospital records or the state records – the two don't agree.

Langford: From hospitals it's a natural step to SF conventions (or vice versa). Having just been joint guest of honour at the 33rd British Eastercon this year, how do you regard the teeming hordes of SF fans? I assume from the evil leer you constantly wore in the bar that it wasn't that horrid an experience.

Sladek: Leer? That was some kind of rictus brought on by the strychnine flavouring in the lager (which reaches the parts no one even wants to reach). There was anyway only one teeming horde, and it didn't teem all that much. There seemed to be a lot of SAS-type military people about, and they did teem a bit, but everyone else gallantly pretended not to notice. It was altogether not a bad Après-midi d'un Fan. A lot like what I imagine a good class reunion to be.

Langford: But as well as mingling with fans, you're one of the relatively few authors who in addition to some SF genre success can, well, 'pass' in the world of Serious Mainstream Literary Worth – magazines like Bananas, Ambit and so on ...

Sladek: Well, of course, this interview is going to blow all that. People who thought I was straight will now realize I go in for 'SF' as we call it.

You make it sound as though I am this writer whom everybody thinks is straight until one day his wife comes home and finds him standing before the mirror wearing a silver suit and a glass helmet. He makes some feeble excuse about a costume party, but then she opens his desk drawer and out fall copies of Omni and a Carl Sagan book (it falls open to the well-thumbed page with the Pioneer 10 drawing). Then of course, he goes to an analyst who shows him pictures of asteroids and gives him painful shocks. But nothing works. Finally he just puts on his green pointed ears and goes to the supermarket – and nobody notices! They treat him just like a real Martian!

Langford: I'm speechless. (Long pause.) Thank you, Nhoj Kedals of Mars.

Footnote. The introduction omits Judgement of Jupiter (1980) as by Richard A. Tilms, another foray into pseudoscience. A story prior to the cited "first" is "The Way to a Man's Heart" (1966 Bizarre), written with Thomas M. Disch. Roderick at Random and Tik-Tok appeared in 1983; Maps was apparently abandoned, but I used the title for the posthumous book of his uncollected stories which I compiled much later. Further SF books by John Sladek were The Lunatics of Terra (collection, 1984) and Bugs (1989). Back in Minneapolis since the mid-1980s, he made his living from technical writing through the 1990s. Whether his birth date was October 1937 or the "official" 15 December 1937 (the SF Encyclopedia entry opted for the latter), his death in March 2000 at age 62 was shockingly early and unexpected. I miss him. – David Langford