Roderick/Roderick at Random Critical Essays

John Sladek


(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...

(The entire section is 783 words.)