The Rime of the Postmodern Mariner

More ramblings of Rhys Hughes.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Too Clever For His Own Good

I’ve just come back from Odyssey 2010, a Science Fiction convention held in the grim location of Heathrow. The book dealers' room in the hotel was gigantic and full of second-hand SF books. I’m addicted to buying books, an addiction I’ve been struggling with for years. I thought I was winning the battle but the sight of so many volumes by so many great writers proved a severe strain on my willpower. As it happened I only bought two books and they were both by authors I have given myself ‘permission’ to buy on sight, namely Jack Vance and John Sladek.

The Sladek book was a collection of short stories that I owned more than twenty years ago and lent to a friend named Gavin. Needless to say I never got it back. What made it worse was that I hadn’t actually finished reading the book when I lent it. But I was too busy for reading at the time, and he wasn’t, so I gave it to him. I thought he was only going to keep it for a couple of weeks and then return it, so I could go back to reading it myself. That was in 1987.

I thought a lot about that Sladek book in the years that followed. The stories I had managed to read influenced my own fiction considerably. I wanted to write the same type of stories. Funny but disturbing stories that managed to lampoon the SF genre while simultaneously contributing to it. Stories that made use of paradox and conceptual twists. Stories that were playful, relentlessly ironic and extremely clever.

It was a long time before I learned that cleverness isn’t a quality guaranteed to endear a writer to critics, readers and other writers!

Sladek specialised in writing stories and novels that deconstructed some of the most cherished clichés in science fiction. For example he once wrote a story demonstrating that the imprecision of the wording in Isaac Asimov’s famous ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ made them unworkable, with hilarious and catastrophic consequences for the human race. Far from being grateful for his insight, SF fans tended to react with hostility. Sladek found it increasingly difficult to get published as time went on, and even the support of such figures as Michael Moorcock didn’t prevent him from lapsing into relative obscurity.

I say ‘relative obscurity’ because his name is still familiar to true devotees of the imagination. Two of his best novels, Roderick and Roderick at Random, are both in print in a single omnibus volume and comprise volume 45 of the SF Masterworks series published by Gollancz. Another novel Tik-Tok, is also available from the same publisher. But his short stories have fallen into neglect, and his short stories are arguably his finest achievement.

I have heard it said that Sladek was “too clever for his own good.” It’s the same accusation that has been levelled against me. I find this a perverse and depressing criticism, as it fundamentally misunderstands the motives behind such writing. Sladek had original ideas that no other SF writer ever had before him, and he also had a deeper philosophical understanding of the workings of certain themes favoured in the SF field, and he also had a playful attitude to the possibilities offered by form as well as content. Surely he was generous to want to share these qualities with readers? That’s the way I see it, anyway.


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