Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Reproductive System - John Sladek

In a dusty, dying town a decision is made that will change the world forever. That could be the log line for a truly awful book or TV movie. But this is John Sladek and we are in for a rollercoaster ride of wonderful invention and barbed humour (or, in this case, barbied humour).

The town’s main industry is doll making (a single doll based on the town’s only famous daughter who became a child star in the movies). The town’s main industry is on its last legs. And at a board meeting they decide that the only way to revive their fortunes is to get a research grant from the government. All they have to do is decide what would interest the government. The answer: a machine that reproduces itself.

This is Sladek’s first novel and it is, perhaps, a little less tightly written than others, but it does not suffer from this. Indeed, the loose style fits the book perfectly. As his work becomes tighter, it becomes darker. Even so, all of Sladek’s targets are well in sight and they are ridiculed with a savage wit.

The machines, of course, begin to reproduce themselves. They begin to take over the world. A cast of eccentric characters become embroiled. Which sounds commonplace. Yet Sladek is a wonderful writer. Economical, sharp, clever, always quick to see a joke, just as quick to demolish the idiocies of the world about him.

Even better is that beneath this enjoyable surface, roiling with humour and satire, is a deeper discussion about the nature of the world in which we live and the way in which we treat it and our fellows. This never becomes a lecture; it never gets in the way of the story. It is the story. And this is Sladek’s real skill. It is a shame his work is now so difficult to get.