My life in outer space

The Complete Roderick – John Sladek (1980)

The Complete Roderick (SF Masterworks, #45)

‘Roderick is a robot who learns. He begins life looking like a toy tank, thinking like a child, and knowing nothing whatever of human ways. But as he will discover, growing up and becoming fully human is no easy task in a world where many people seem to have little difficulty giving up their humanity and descending to other levels. Published here for the first time in one volume, the two novels which comprise The Complete Roderick are John Slack’s satirical masterpiece.’

Blurb to the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks edition.

‘Roderick was in his room reading I, Robot, wondering when the I character was going to put in an appearance. There must be one, because otherwise the author would have called it He, Robot, or They Robots. He couldn’t imagine how it would feel, being hooked up these three terrible laws of robotics….’ (p 227)

Roderick is a robot, and has been given a copy of the famous Isaac Asimov book by Father Warren, head of The Catholic School in which he has been enrolled. The priest hopes that the book will persuade Roderick – whom he believes to be a severely disabled boy – that robots are fictional creatures.
This develops into a wonderful theological discussion in which Roderick brutally and logically demolishes Asimov’s three laws, which is – in some SF circles I am sure – tantamount to blasphemy. This is only one of the many small jewels in this modern twist on the story of Pinocchio.
It’s interesting that Sladek’s creation should be a robot, rather than an android or An Artificial Intelligence (Capital A, Capital I). Robots as such are rare devices in late Twentieth Century SF. The word has become dated, rooted as much in a cinematic history as a literary one, and is associated with the clanking metal creatures of B-Movies and low-budget TV series. Asimov, of course, though not the first author to explore the concept, is arguably the one most associated with robots.
The term has acquired an air of absurdity, which is why perhaps Roderick fits so neatly into the world Sladek has created for him.
The novel is more about the humans who are woven in a complex pattern around Roderick’s ‘life’ from the outset, the absurdity of their obsessions and irrelevancies ruthlessly reflected from Roderick’s child-like naivety and inarguable logic. It is densely packed with ironies, subtle jokes – many of which are genre-specific and which are aimed at seasoned SF fans – and observations of actions whose consequences are often dropped casually into the narrative pages later.
Roderick’s journey through life is a hectic roller-coaster of a ride. Created in the University of Minnetonka he is ‘liberated’ by his creator and sent to live with foster-parents, one of whom he accidentally kills before nailing himself into a crate and getting posted on to his next home, from where he is kidnapped by gypsies, sold into slavery, rescued… and so it goes on.
Postmodernism in some aspects of its manifestation employs the use of icons and conventions of the past, given a contemporary twist, which is exactly what Sladek does here with the term ‘robot’, lifting a genre convention of SF of the first half of the Twentieth century and making it the centrepiece of a Nineteen Eighties novel. If by the Nineteen Eighties the term was unfashionable in SF, it was still very much a part of the English Language, as it is today, though used on the whole to describe the automated devices employed in manufacturing industry, something of which Sladek was no doubt well aware. There are constant references and examples within the text of our dependence on robots/computers/labour-saving devices, and our attitude toward them, polarised by the surreal opposed views of Hank Dinks (Leader of the Luddite movement) and his ex-wife Indica (Leader of the Machine Liberationist).
As a novel, it is sometimes over-complex and demands re-reading if only to pick up on jokes and references one might have missed the first time round.
It’s witty, farcical, quite brilliant and, although listed in Pringle’s 100 Greatest SF Novels is, strictly speaking, not an SF novel at all.
Roderick is a literary rather than a mechanical device who, like Pinocchio and The Tin Man before him, embodies more humanity than the ‘meat’ specimens with whom he comes into contact. But at no stage is he a fully realised ‘mechanism’ and although Sladek gives us clues as to his appearance, the details of his construction are a mystery, but arguably an unimportant one.
Through this device Sladek mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy, inhumanity and absurdity of The Military, The Church, The Media, The Art World, The Business Community and the Publishing Industry, often so subtly that it almost passes one by.

‘Maybe he is a priest, maybe he ain’t,’ the General said to Roderick. ‘You can’t hardly tell the clergy from anybody else these days, they go around wearing drag and smoking pot just like human beings.’ (p. 435)

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