Thursday, 5 June 2008

Roderick At Random - John Sladek

These continuing adventures of the robot Roderick have a different tone to the first book. Still sharply satirical, the book relies less on farce and dives into deeper and darker waters for where the first book relies on absurdity to make its point, this one uses reality.

The shift in technique also reflects the nature of the world seen now through the eyes of an adult robot as opposed to the former book in which the world was seen through the eyes of a child. And what a world. It is a mess of madness which Roderick finds more and more difficult to understand. I know how he feels.

As an example there is a strand through the story that is a frightening and uncannily accurate description of the direction publishing has taken in recent years. Central to this is the chilling image of authors working at computers that analyse each sentence in terms of projected sales figures. Yet even this is not enough for the publishing house in question. They find authors an inconvenience and have decided to have books written by computers. Some might think we have that already.

It is sometimes hard to remember this book was published in 1983 as its depiction of early 21st century life is all too real. Big business running the world, life and death decisions transmitted, quite literally, through crossed wires. A news media led more and more by sensation. Ordinary people sidelined and, for the most part, uncaring as long the bread and the circuses keep coming.

It is a world that Roderick can find no place in. He has been treated as a commodity by everyone he has met, yet is the sanest and most compassionate character of them all. These messages are subtly conveyed by Sladek’s tale but they are no less powerful for that. The author is a great writer and I suspect the only reason this is not considered a twentieth century classic of literature is that it was labelled sf.