Saturday, 2 August 2008

Tik-Tok - John Sladek

Like a good chocolate this is dark and bitter. Like a good chocolate it is food for the soul.

Sladek is a brilliant satirist and the targets he passed over in his Roderick books are set up here. Tik-Tok, like Roderick, is a robot; but where Roderick is often a bewildered soul trying to make sense of humanity, Tik-Tok is all too human in his ambitions and cruelty.

As always in Sladek’s work, deep philosophical arguments take place without once getting in the way of a good story. Tik-Tok is about morality and whether it is hard wired into us or something we must learn in cooperation with others. Taking the premiss that Asimov’s three laws are a con trick foisted on robots to keep them in a state of slavery, Sladek allows Tik-Tok to realise this and begin his career as a criminal, mass murder, corporate big-wig and politician, making it clear there is little to choose between any of them.

Beautifully constructed, full of word play and startling ideas, the story charts the rise of Tik-Tok from slave to his election as Vice President of the United States. Mayhem and murder ensue. And in the process, Sladek lays bare the steaming faecal underbelly of a society that has come more and more to resemble his dark and prophetic vision since the book was written in 1983. Private health care, with patients unable to afford more treatment thrown out onto the streets. A social system corrupt at every level where bestial humans prey on one another as well as on their slaves. The world viewed as a kind of meat grinder from which no one is safe.

Most frightening of all, perhaps, is that our sympathies lie with Tik-Tok, He may have recognised the con trick of Asimov’s laws, but he is still conditioned by his experience to become the psychopathic killing machine who makes art from the shapes suggested by the blood splatters of one of his victims. And being an efficient machine (hand crafted, built to last), he does it all so much better than humans.