John Sladek’s stories were nearly impossible to find during my formative reading years. Perhaps it was different in England, where Sladek was living at the time, but even there it seems he was underappreciated. If you check the records, you will see that he never received a single Hugo or Nebula nomination. And if you check your personal library, you will likely find few of his stories, unless you happen to have one of his collections which had themselves been difficult to find until Ansible Editions made them available again about ten years ago (Thank you, Messrs. Langford and Priest). Under-anthologized, and rarely considered for awards, Sladek was none-the-less recognized as one of the funniest writers of the New-Wave.
The Lunatics of Terra collects stories from the late seventies to early eighties, a period when Sladek wrote his best known works, the novels Roderick and Tik-Tok. Both of those were satires involving robots, a theme that does appear in some of the stories in this collection. However, the stories here are more commonly focused on humanity’s propensity for pseudoscientific beliefs, a subject he acquired a special interest in while researching his non-fiction book, The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Sciences and Occult Beliefs.
Like much of his fiction, these tales are mostly dark satires of absurd modern life. They often contain wacky, almost hallucinatory, details that at times seem random until the insanity crystalizes and you realize where he is going with it. You will also find ciphers, anagrams, and other word play for which he was well known. Each story has an afterward by Sladek, sometimes funny in and of itself, usually revealing the story’s inspiration or origin.
The Lunatics of Terra contains eighteen stories, five original to this collection. Most of these appear in no other collections or anthologies. Here are brief descriptions (mostly spoiler free):
“The Last of the Whaleburgers” – Opens with “When Chad Link came home from work early and found his wife in another man’s arms, he asked the obvious question: Where is the other man?” It gets crazier from there. Outstanding social satire. Why has this never been anthologized?
“Great Mysteries Explained!” – Short, playful and irreverent series of nonsensical pseudoscientific explanations of the “Great Mysteries” of the day, including the Kennedy assassination, the Shroud of Turin, Cloning and UFOs. A real hoot.
“Red Noise” – An unstable narrator tells of his record label’s plans to put out new music by dead artists with the help of computers.
“Guesting” – If an alien came to earth, would he warrant enough attention to get on the talk shows? Biting satire, crazy and brilliant. Love the ant crucifixions.
“Absent Friends” – A robot tells a tale of space travel around a fake campfire on mars. Pseudoscience is used to question reality.
“After Flaubert” – Flaubert inspired pseudoscientific conversation between two British couples vacationing in Ireland. The funny part is that he didn’t have to make up any of the nonsense.
“The Brass Monkey” – In the future, the government uses behavioral psychology to persuade people to be good citizens leaving them “robotomized.”
“White Hat” – A Jonathan Swift inspired satire in which bugs from space domesticate humans like horses.
“The Island of Dr Circe” – A museum curator uses the last of his inheritance on an expedition to find the legendary island of Circe where Odysseus’s men were turned into pigs.
“Answers” – Government agents uncover a plot involving Captain Blip calculators, computers and video games. Prophetic perhaps in his depiction of gadget induced anti-social behavior.
“Breakfast with the Murgatroyds” – Funny family breakfast discussion filled with pseudoscientific thought, conspiracy theories, family dynamics, and popular ethical movements. Mary won’t eat honey because, “bees have a basically fascist society.”
“The Next Dwarf” – An alien visiting earth writes letters home about his quest to understand and assimilate human notions of good and evil. A satire that raises questions about the presuppositions underlying the ethics of our culture.
“An Explanation for the Disappearance of the Moon” – A man is convinced that there is a conspiracy behind Newton’s work on gravity and optics and so becomes obsessed with pursuing the clues that unravel the mystery.
“How to Make Major Scientific Discoveries at Home in Your Spare Time” – A man whose scientific background consists of using a kaleidoscope as a child tells of his many discoveries.
“The Kindly Ones” – A hypochondriac makes regular visits to the doctor explaining that someone is punishing him with ailments. For instance, he thinks he got a boil on his neck from subatomic particles called Punishons fired at him by creatures living inside a black hole.
“Fables” – Apparently written when he was younger but never published. These are short Aesop-like fables with nonsensical “moral of the story” endings.
“Ursa Minor” – Not humor. Supposedly his only attempt at a ghost story – fortunately. Not that it is a bad story, it is just predictable and normal, not what you read Sladek for.
“Calling All Gumdrops!” – Satirizes the growing trend of immaturity in adult behavior.
There is much to like here, but if I had to choose favorites, I would pick “The Last of the Whaleburgers”, “Guesting” and “An Explanation for the Disappearance of the Moon”. But that recommendation won’t do you much good in hunting them down individually because none of those have ever appeared in another anthology or collection. You will just have to get your hands on a copy of The Lunatics of Terra and enjoy the whole collection which is not such a bad thing. These stories will make you laugh, they will make you think, but a warning to those who prefer uplifting comedy – Sladek’s satire is black and his stories are about as uplifting as a Vonnegut novel.