Story collections are always difficult to assess unless they revolve around a theme or concern the same characters. Without that connection, you are left with disparate pieces written over a long period (in this case eleven years), often arranged out of chronological order, and placed between one set of covers in order to maximise their earning potential for the writer (and there’s nothing wrong with that).
Despite that, you know when you read a collection of John Sladek short stories, you are in for a treat. Doubly so as he has appended an Afterword to each piece which offers a little bit of context although, with Sladek, you always have to be watching over your shoulder.
The treat with these works is twofold. To begin with, Sladek is an accomplished writer. He knows how to make words work for him, producing work that is easy to read but which can be peeled back layer after layer until you realise there is no end, that this is the work of a sophisticated, brilliant, and slightly skewed imagination. Then there is the other skew. Sladek’s wit. He is a satirist with all the sharpness of acid in a paper cut. Which is to say it is no blunt instrument. Subtle, slight, and deeply biting.
And the range of his targets? Well… everything, really. But it is not an empty, lashing out. He does not suffer fools, especially people who do not use their intelligence. Yet beneath his devastating wit is a warmth often lacking in satire. As an example, Sladek had no time at all for flaky pseudo-science. But he still respected people whose beliefs led them to make or try to make a better world. He sent up all the tropes of science fiction, yet clearly had a love of the genre because he knew it inside out.
Sladek was also a literary writer. These aren’t just funny science fiction stories. They go way beyond that in much the same way Gulliver’s Travels goes beyond being a set of funny science fiction adventures. Human life with all its flaws is laid bare. And for Sladek, human frailty is, in fact, our saving, because ultimately, it is our idiocy that will throw grit into the gears of our plans for world domination.