The Complete Roderick: SF Masterworks 45 by John Sladek
(Victor Gollancz, £7.99, 611 pages, paperback; first published as two separate volumes, 1980 and 1983; this edition 11 October 2001.)
Originally published during the early 1980s, Roderick and the sequel Roderick at Random are presented here in one volume. The novels are about a unique robot who is fully conscious, is reared as a human and wants to be one. So at one level the novels are about the difficulties of being human. Sladek thinks that most people make a lousy job of it, for more than being novels about a robot, the novels are misanthropic social satires, which examine some of humanity's many faults, spotlighted by the interactions with Roderick's life of a series of mostly unlikeable but comic characters.
The characters, plots and events of both novels are usually savagely farcical in tone with people's characters and behaviours generally being eccentric and self-absorbed. People generally either fear Roderick, baby him, or deny his robotic nature entirely. Both the robotics and the social satire have dated rather in the last 20 years, with the robotics dating less. Nothing remotely like Roderick can yet be built. Incidentally, the novels are extremely erudite about the real history and problems of robots. Isaac Asimov's 'laws' of robotics are just one of the things that get a good savaging.
For me, it was a mistake to read both novels back to back because savage farce can become tiresome eventually, except in the hands of Jonathon Swift. Also, apart from Roderick himself, the characters don't develop but rather, as in farce, just display more of their fixed personality quirks. It is not that the sequel is inferior to the original, but it is too much the same. Sometimes the same quirk is reused until you could scream. For example, one character has a ring set with a pinball ball. Almost every time he appears this is mentioned again. More seriously, certain comedy devices are overused in a similar way. For example, there is an incompetent hit man who always comes to misadventure just as he is about to kill Roderick. This is funny the first three times maybe. In a way, the books are ahead of their time, as over milking comedy devices, even bad ones, is now of course itself comedy in a knowing post-modern type of way. But that was not the fashion when these were written. The author keeps a straight face throughout and at points this comes to read like pompousness.
Another aspect of the writing that is outstanding in small doses, but tiresome in the long haul, is Sladek's use of overstatement to convey characters' thoughts and feelings. This makes for some great, often hilarious, paragraphs, but it becomes too much, particularly as most of the characters are fools in one way or another. Is it OK to be hit and miss in comedy, if there are enough hits, or do the misses detract from the overall effect? These novels are definitely hit and miss.
Yet, these things that I see as weaknesses, others may appreciate. Many 20th century English novelists are basically misanthropic, create exaggerated and eccentric characters and overstate. I remain dubious that this was the best way to tackle the often serious and fascinating issues about robotics and the nature of being human that the books address. SF fans will want to read this for its ideas and will get some laughs along the way, but most will need to put it down regularly and come back to it, because it all gets too much.
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© Richard Hammersley 27 July 2002