Fiction Reviews

New Maps: More Uncollected John Sladek

(2019) edited by David Langford, Ansible Editions, US$20, pbk, 256pp, ISBN 978-0-244-15877-4


John Sladek died back in the year 2000, and his unique take on things is much-missed given what’s happened in the near twenty years since his death. I first came across Sladek thanks to David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels which started, unsurprisingly at number 1 with “1984” and ended at number 100, with Neuromancer, and among the classics in between at number 94, was The Complete Roderick by John Sladek containing the novels Roderick and Roderick at Random. From Pringle’s description I knew I had to read it, and discover other novels like Tik Tok and Bugs and the collections The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers and Keep the Giraffe Burning. Sladek was one of those writers who could write anything, from satire to locked-room mysteries to studies of pseudoscience and black, black humour.

New Maps is a companion piece to the 2002 collection called Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek. Here, editor Langford has dug deep into a variety of sources, bringing together a variety of Sladek’s writing under different headings such as “Stories and Surprises, “Essays and Oddments”, “Some Early Poems” and “Book and Film Reviews”. The back of this collection features a quote from The Scotsman’s review of Maps hailing Sladek as the finest satirist to grace the SF Field with his presence” and this is illustrated right from the off, in “Stories and Surprises” by the title of the very first story: “Is There Death On Other Planets?” Has anyone ever come up with a better title for a story? Ever? Further title shenanigans occur later in this section with “Seven Great Unexplained Mysteries of Our Time (with explanations)”. These great unexplained mysteries include answers to such questions as “What’s So Great about the Great Pyramid?”, “How Did Nostradamus manage to predict the rise of Clement Attlee?” Well, the answer is that he didn’t, although Sladek points out some things he got spot on, but sadly the theory that Stonehenge was used by the Druids as a giant computer to calculate their payroll, will have to remain a mystery. Among the essays and oddments are a letter home to his Aunt Wanda from the time he was living in Minneapolis, or “the headquarters of “Germs Unlimited” as he called it; and an article called “Peace and Paradox”, about the “last game”, i.e. thermonuclear war and our chances of surviving it, or not. I once studied “Decision Making in Organisations” which included “Prisoners’ Dilemma” as a topic, and that theory appears in Sladek’s article, which is worth reading if only from the standpoint of knowing what to do when you and your co-accused get arrested and are questioned by the police.

Reading New Maps I remembered visiting bookshops during summer holidays (yes, real live bookshops, well, we are talking a long time ago) and being confronted by the latest best-seller from Erich von Daniken, so it’s interesting to read Sladek’s take on pseudoscience by itself, or coupled with science fiction. He also wants to give us four “reasons for reading Thomas M. Disch”, as if we need any excuse, although is Sladek biased in his appreciation of Disch? Given that we also get an appreciation of the gothic horror novelist Cassandra Knye who was the joint pseudonym of Sladek and Disch who co-authored The House That Fear Built together before Sladek wrote The Castle and The Key with an appropriately “gothicky” cover”. And, of course, the two of them also wrote Black Alice under the name Thom Demijohn.

Later, in the section “Book and Film Reviews”, we get Sladek’s opinions of the book and film releases of the time, including those by von Daniken (Space Hopping with Captain God), Frederick Pohl, Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas Berger, Greg Bear, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and many others, as well as films such as Blade Runner, and Return of the Jedi (in a piece called “Revenge of the Teddies”, ouch) all of which underlines how much his laser-guided insightful eye with a twinkle in it, is missed, rather like Lucius Shepard’s film reviews in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Maps is one for Sladek fans and the completists among them. Hats off to Langford for pulling this altogether – you can stand down now, soldier. And for those who haven’t read Sladek, go back and read The Reproductive System and join us here later, for as it is often said, if you haven’t read Sladek, you are in for a treat.

Ian Hunter


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