The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

Keep the Giraffe Burning, Alien Accounts, The Lunatics of Terra and The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers by John Sladek

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler

Keep the Giraffe Burning: Cosmos Books, Rockville, 2004, 151pp, $15.00, p/b, ISBN 1-58715-419-6
Alien Accounts:Cosmos Books, Rockville, 2005, 139pp, $15.00, p/b, ISBN 1-58715-442-0
The Lunatics of Terra: Cosmos Books, Rockville, 2005, 149pp, $15.00, p/b, ISBN 1-58715-410-2
The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers: Cosmos Books, Rockville, 2005, 145pp, $15.00, p/b, ISBN 0-8095-5096-2

John Sladek was a humorist, parodist, satirist, professional sceptic and anagram of Daleks who could barely be contained by science fiction. From The Reproductive System (1968) to Bugs (1989) his narratives were digressive, preferring to squeeze in another off the wall cameo of everyday madness than an extension to the laws of physics. He had the good fortune – for us at least – to come to fruition as a writer in the era of the New Wave, and with compatriot expatriate Thomas M. Disch found a niche in magazines like New Worlds, Ambit and, later, Bananas and Interzone which would accept stories which were Oulipo exercises in structural limitations, or took the form of forms, or masqueraded as articles. In addition he wrote two detective novels, Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977), several works of pseudo-pseudo-science (sic) and several computer manuals. He had taken the Ballardian mantra that the only alien planet is Earth to heart, and knew that the only aliens were humans: "these here humans are aliens". The shorter length perhaps plays to his strengths as a master of the paranoid vignette – secret codes found in pi, anagrammatical acrostics, palindromes, spoonerisms, filthy words to type on your calculator, Dalνesque tableaux – but perhaps the joys of his baroque narrative architecture.

The four volumes of short stories published in his lifetime seem deceptively slim in these glossy new Cosmos/Ansible E-ditions editions, but David Langford should be commended for his ongoing work with Sladek that has seen the uncollected stories of Sladek brought together as Maps, and another piece called Wholly Smokes, released by Big Engine and Cosmos respectively, as well as the books under review here. (Nevertheless I will continue to treasure my battered paperback editions of the earlier three collections for their covers by Peter Goodfellow and Chris Foss which allow them to pass for science fiction, and for the memories of unearthing them.) It might have been nice to see a single book collecting these four volumes – as far as I can see only "The Secret of the Old Custard" was repeated between them – but each has a subtly different flavour which may have been lost. The transfers and resettings are largely clean with only a couple of typos, and Sladek's diagrams are preserved. Most pleasing of all is the listing of original appearances for the stories, sometimes offering more detail than the original volumes.

The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers (1972) is the most straightforwardly parodic, with a section actually labelled "The Parodies". Here we have skewerings – some affectionate, some less so, of Poe, Wells, Gernsback, Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, Cordwainer Smith and Ballard. The Asimov story – as by Iclick As-I-Move – begins a dialogue with the Three Laws of Robotics and their flaws, which Sladek was to develop in the two Roderick novels and Tik-Tok (1983), as laws designed to stop robots from harming humans paradoxically almost oblige them to do so, although a twist in the tale makes this a positive thing. Dick, at least, seems to have taken his parody in good part, and later wrote that 'The Poets of Millgrove, Iowa' "changed in a flash my entire conception of what a good science fiction story is". The influence of Dick (along with that of Wells and Swift) can be seen in some of the stories not explicitly labelled as parodies, as Sladek develops Dick's theme of what defines the authentic human being – although he uses it more to satiric than philosophical effect. Curiously this means that this collection contains the short fiction by Sladek which is most straightforwardly defined as science fiction – complete with aliens and time travel – but the elements of parody and pastiche call that into question.

Keep the Giraffe Burning (1978) contains elements of surrealism – as the title might suggest – and is the most experimental and fragmented. Some of the stories feel as if their protagonists are ciphers, named for letters in the alphabet as much as an identity, and some of the stories definitely do that. The relationships from Andrews to Yoniski in 'The Design' are literally mapped out for us in a design. (There is no Z—.) In 'A Game of Jump' we have Ann, Bill, Clara, Dot, Eddie, Felix and Granada as characters, and the whole is limited otherwise to the seven hundred word vocabulary listed in an old Ladybird dictionary for young children. Other stories are mosaics of vignettes – the nested storyline, typographically distinguished, of 'The Master Plan' (eat your heart out, David Mitchell), the reviews of not quite the same book in 'The Commentaries' and the not-quite or not-at-all utopias of 'Heavens Below'. In 'Undecember' we have a parallel to Sladek's pseudonymous The Thirteenth Zodiac and a description of a missing month from the year and descriptions of the anniversaries it (does not) contain(s). Pleasingly the volume includes the surreal afterword as by Cassandra Knye (a pseudonym used for the gothic horror novels The Castle and the Key (1966) and The House that Fear Built (1967) by Sladek and Disch), which makes graphical and diagrammatic links between the stories, well, because.

Alien Accounts (1982) is composed in the key of Kafka, with Charles Dickens's Circumlocution Office visible over his shoulder. In 'Masterton and the Clerks' the same forms are written, read, rewritten, amended, corrected, voided, stapled, uncoupled, resorted, erased and circulated around the same nine desks, only occasionally leaving the loop, a loop increasingly cursed by entropy as economic realities bite. 'Name (Please Print):' is a cautionary tale even more appropriate in the age of identity theft and over reliance on biometric ID: the fall of a man who cannot prove his bureaucratic identity, and who has disappeared from the books. 'The Interstate' is perhaps more of a Dischian tale, reminiscent of 'Descending', an seemingly endless escalator ride. Here it is an infinite bus ride and the parade of photofit fellow passengers and off the peg service stations. The most laugh out loud pieces for me remain 'New Forms' and 'Anxietal Register B'. In the former we see 'The Corresponding Choice Test', with MENSA style questions: "(a) is (b) as (c) is to: (a) (b) (b) (c) (c) (b) (d) (a)" (answer on page 37), the "Indiana Name Opinion Register", an "Individual Bend Record", "Poetry Itemization", "Character Simulation Form" and a table of letters "A ... AB BA ... ABC ACB BAC BCA CAB CBA ..." which may prove useful in some bizarre circumstances I can't immediately imagine. 'Anxietal Register B' is an increasingly personal questionnaire, posing such questions as "Do you feel sexual desire for, about, during: a) Those of your own sex b) Those of both sexes c) Children d) Your mother e) Your father ... bo) The act of filling out a form". Don't let your human resources department know about this one.

Finally The Lunatics of Terra (1984) was the last collection to be assembled during Sladek's lifetime. In many ways this is the least experimental, and the least dependent on the voices of others. There is, however, perhaps the sense that Sladek was recycling himself – I'm sure I recall a variation on the riff on Macintosh (the unnamed guest at a funeral in Ulysses) from a novel, 'Absent Friends' draws on a deleted sequence from Tik-Tok, the computer filth of 'The Next Dwarf' also appears (was to appear?) in Roderick, one of the allegedly unpublished fables in 'Fables' is a section from 'Heavens Below'... Of course, Sladek has reused material before, so this is probably to carp, but there is perhaps a sense here of flagging invention – although the exegesis on the seven dwarfs as the seven deadly sins is more than worth a look. His interest in science and antipathy to pseudoscience comes to the fore in many of the pieces here, again themes explored previously. But the old faultless (and yet fallacious) logic is there, especially in 'An Explanation for the Disappearance of the Moon' and its abolition of circles and 'How to Make Major Scientific Discoveries at Home in Your Spare Time' with its refiguring of pi: "From now on, all circles are going to be a whole lot rounder." An innovation here is that Sladek provided afterwords to each of the stories, although we learn more about him than the stories, or they provide a vehicle for more deadpan irony.

At the end of the day I perhaps still feel that whilst the stories are worth seeking out, it is to the novels I will return. Paradoxically, Sladek needed the length of the novel to cram in his playful digressions; he needed the discipline to usurp. But there is much to discover here, and anyone who likes their science fiction comic, or wants to see the interstitial before it was soft and cuddly, should start here. The best single collection is Alien Accounts, still making me laugh – and still disturbing me – twenty years after I first read it. Indeed, in some places it feels truer than before. That cannot be science fiction.

Andrew M. Butler edited Vector between 1995 and 2005.

This article first appeared in Vector 247. Back issues of Vector are available from