Friday, 17 July 2009

Alien Accounts - John Sladek

Although a collection of short stories, the style and common themes make this very much like a novel. Two hefty stories ‘Masterson and the Clerks’ and ‘The Communicants’ sandwich a number of shorter pieces. The aliens of the collection’s title are human beings, aliens in their own world gone mad. Centring on the usual Sladek pre-occupations, we see ordinary people coping with (and often ground up and spat out by) corporate life.

Of these, ‘Masterson and the Clerks’ is my favourite. Like a child of Beckett and Kafka on acid, we follow Masterson through the surreal permutations of daily life in an office. No one knows what is happening beyond their own small contribution and even then no one truly understands what that is all about. Their lives are bounded by the forms they must process. In later stories we see some of these forms and they are works of genius, horribly prescient in some cases.

In the centre of the collection, there is a story in which a character sets out on a holiday away from the bizarre office life he leads. Yet even here there is no escape. The whole world is a puzzle, there are no edge pieces, no picture to work from, and may of the pieces are blank. After realising that his money doesn’t seem to be getting any less, despite the number of meals he has had en route, Andor begins to suspect that he might have been on the coach and travelling for a lot longer than a day. We have all had journeys like that. Andor’s is still going on.

The final story is Sladek at his most surreal. Several stories interweave, with characters in one suddenly becoming comic book characters in another until it is difficult to know what is real and what is fictional (not that you’re ever sure to begin with).

As ever, it is impossible to synopsise these stories. They have to be read to be appreciated. Not just for the story itself, but for Sladek’s sharp wit, his passionate anger at the idiocies of the modern world, and his compassion for the ordinary person caught in the grinder.

Why this collection was ever brought out under the banner of science fiction is beyond me. Sladek is a satirist. He often uses sci fi tropes as they afforded him the best vehicle with which to construct his stories, but these are highly literate stories and deserve to be more widely known than they are.