Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Robot redux

Sladek's sci-fi creation was heartless but lovable

Posted By on Wed, Jun 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

Imagine sitting in the waiting room of a psychiatric help center or a welfare office. The oversized, depressed man in the next seat declaims, "I’m a ma-chine. I feel like a ro-bot, man!" Then he sinks into his chair heavily, with vacant eyes. The determined automaton in John Sladek’s The Complete Roderick is without that anguish. If you’re going to write about a robot, it can’t hurt to make the thing lovable. This paperback includes two novels, Roderick and Roderick at Random, published in 1980 and 1983, respectively, and now in one volume, as the author intended. Sladek’s writing in Roderick is charming and baffling. The book is choppy; new scenes, often unrelated and out of sequence, pop up every few pages. It can be a hard read. But the compensation? Rolling half-page riffs.

The naive, open-valved Roderick tumbles from adventure to adventure, and we see the world through his button-eyes. Roderick is not, however, just a mirror to society: He has his own quirky personality- er, robot-ality. The trusting, spontaneous robot embodies many of the best human qualities. His antagonists – greedy businessmen, FBI goons, foggy academics – haven’t moral fiber fit for beast or machine.

Maybe the ’50s Japanese horror-flick idea of robots taking over is laughable today – unless you work in an auto factory being mechanized. Roderick is created at the second-rate University of Minnetonka. The NASA money is unfortunately cut off before the robot’s body is finished. Roderick is grabbed and mailed to a Nebraska farm family, the finest home he ever knows. He attends Catholic school (experiencing playground fights, a tough but fair gym coach and philosophical wrangling over his identity), washes dishes in a futuristic doggie dinette and even has sex once (yes, Roderick has a mechasm). Through all his escapades, "The Agency" cannot track him down. Money is spent and excuses made. Perhaps we need not worry about robots taking over, but about humans more completely taking over.

John Sladek was an American who spent much of his career in England. He was part of sci-fi’s New Wave in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s, stretching the form in experimental and comedic ways. This is gentle science fiction, not far-out, and it takes place on a recognizable earth. Sladek’s poking and mocking of church, politics, business, military and mores of his time recall Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen and even the dirty poet Charles Bukowski.

Sladek was a writer who wanted to make social comments, but he seemed to delight most in his extended jokes and pointed turns of phrase. Simply, he wanted to get off a good one. Quite often he did.

Dennis Shea is the MT proof reader. E-Mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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