Too Clever By (n-1)/n… a review of The Reproductive System by John (T.) Sladek
John Sladek was one of the most remarkable authors of his time, which is to say, roughly speaking, 1965 to 1990. Not that he did not live beyond that time (he died in 2000) but that pretty much brackets his key works. His short fiction is often brilliant — like a diamond so bright it hurts the eyes. This book was his first published novel. And novel it is.
Make no mistake, this is a remarkable book. Sladek’s writing is marvellous — controlled, evocative, effective. His invention seems boundless, his ability to draw a character in a few lines rarely matched. Even if a few are caricatures, they are well-drawn ones.
He is one of my favourite authors. Often compared to Vonnegut, Sladek is even less sentimental and in his own way grimmer. He is often very funny — his short fiction can be coruscatingly hilarious. ‘Elephant with Wooden Leg’, ‘The Secret of the Old Custard’, ‘Masterson and the Clerks’, these are not stories quickly forgotten. Yet the humour is often dark — it’s at the expense of all of us. It is not comfortable. People are stupid, obsessive, short-sighted, ignorant, venal and violent. Machines — a key occupation of his was machines — are relentless, logical and always, always demonstrating that whatever we do there are repercussions we could never anticipate — and often we don’t even bother trying.
In The Reproductive System we get self replicating machines released from a rogue US weapons laboratory, a laboratory set up by a failing toy company to tap into the boundless funds of the US military. We have an effective villain and a couple of reasonably sympathetic protagonists and a cast of crazies swirling about them.
As a reading experience, I kept turning pages because I did want to find out what happens. But hanging over the whole work is a sense of it being a game. Characters, even carefully drawn ones, seem to do what is required of them rather than what grows out of their nature and their situation. There is an artificial-ness about it all that is quite intentional — Sladek played with Oulipo. A section in the middle consists of 26 paragraphs whose first letters are A, B, C… Sladek uses his own name as a source of an anagram… At least one heading is a palindrome… And so on. I am left with the nagging feeling that the book is a game whose rules I do not know.
In essence, the book is enjoyable but in a very specific way. Sladek is never emotionally in the trenches with his characters. He is the God, manipulating them from above, putting them through the movements he needs to complete his pattern. Any author does this, but in this book it is more evident; the characters seem subservient to the pattern, rather than it growing out of them. Sladek throws up sharp insights, economical and remarkably effective turns of phrase, uses a great selection of quotes from a wide range of sources to begin each chapter, delights with his deft character portraits, weaves a complex, interlinking plot, has much to say about the time and places in which the story is set, and is often deeply, bleakly funny.
However, you don’t laugh or cry with anyone in the book, but smile ironically with the author. The people in the book are the rats, Sladek is the behavioural scientist, and you are looking over his shoulder. While the rats run through the maze, electrocute themselves, attack each other, mate, and occasionally get the fragment of food, Sladek describes their ridiculous behaviour to you.
It’s brilliant, it’s admirable, it’s clever. It’s not lovable; nor is it meant to be.
Now hear this.