Roderick/Roderick at Random Analysis
by John Sladek

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Roderick/Roderick at Random Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The two Roderick novels were meant to be a single work, but Sladek’s British publisher was convinced that the length of a single volume would prove daunting and therefore unattractive to readers. In 1982, a version of Roderick that was shortened by about one third was published in the United States. It was advertised as the first volume of a trilogy. The second part, Roderick at Random, was not published in the United States until 1988.

The two joined novels represent an ambitious attempt by Sladek to fuse the conventional themes of science fiction to those of the mainstream picaresque novel. The titles contain an obvious allusion to Tobias Smollett’s famous novel Roderick Random (1748), a particularly telling choice of literary models because Smollett used the picaresque form to satirize British society. Sladek’s two novels unfold, in the picaresque tradition, as sequences of comic episodes.

The Roderick novels offer a compendium of the themes and qualities that make Sladek one of the finest science-fiction satirists. Much of his fiction deals with the theme of the dehumanizing effects of technology. Most of his satire focuses on the absurdity of contemporary American culture, and most of his books are funny.

Sladek’s humor has invited comparisons with writers as diverse and highly regarded as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., William Burroughs, and Joseph Heller. These novels in particular allow Sladek the opportunity to demonstrate his wit. From a musing on the obscene double entendres embedded in the names of computer companies such as Honeywell and IBM to a hilarious explication of the name L. Frank Baum, Sladek constantly reminds the reader of his artfulness.

Sladek’s writing is more consciously literary than most science fiction. In addition to directing the reader to Smollett and the picaresque tradition, he alludes to a wide range of science fiction, particularly the robot stories of Isaac Asimov. The beginning of Roderick, quotations taken from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) and the American comic drama film Dinner at Eight (1933), alerts the reader to expect references to both high and low culture.

The satire of the novels is based on the traditional device of the naïve but honest observer. Roderick is an innocent trying to make sense of contemporary American society. He spends much of his time learning about that society by watching television. Television provides Roderick his vision of America much as it provides America, Sladek seems to suggest, with an image of itself. Meanwhile, what Roderick encounters away from television ranges from the absurd to the malicious. The Orinoco Institute takes aim at the “think tanks” that have become so powerful a part of the intellectual landscape. The religious cults and fringe political groups in the novel are more interested in self-satisfaction than the public good. Other targets include the military mind, popular journalists, American higher education, American public and parochial schools, mainstream religion, and essentially anyone dehumanized by excessive desire for wealth or personal satisfaction.

The Roderick novels provide an example of science fiction as a medium in which the best authors are able to wed imagination and philosophy. For all of their humor and satire, they are also philosophical explorations. The two novels provide the most extensive explorations of themes that figure throughout Sladek’s fiction. Several of his earliest published stories (such as “The Steam-Driven Boy”) feature robots trying to fit into human culture. His first published science-fiction novel, The Reproductive System (1968), deals with technology run amok. Two earlier novels were gothics, written as Cassandra Knye: The House That Fear Built (1966, with Thomas M. Disch) and The Castle and the Key (1967).

The Roderick novels take this interest in technology a step further by addressing the question of humanness itself. One of the characters trying to sabotage robot research expresses the main theme of the novels when he says that humans “feed on meaning . . . we only survive by making sense out of the world around us. . . . So if we turn over that function to some other species, we’re finished.” Another human character, pondering some of the actions taken to find Roderick, wonders if “any robot” would be capable of such actions. This combination of the desire for meaning and the capacity for cruelty seems to sum up Sladek’s view of human nature.

Although highly praised, the Roderick novels are not Sladek’s best work, in part because their length and the complexity of the narrative detract from the satire, and in part because the satire takes aim at too many topics. The most memorable figure is Roderick, the learning machine who seems more humane, if not more human, than the human beings who seek to destroy him or anyone who stands as an obstacle to their ambition.