The Reproductive System – John Sladek (1968)
Sladek has a particular writing style of manic and complex multi-character narrative, perhaps perfected in his magnum opus ‘Roderick’. Here, Sladek employs his sharp and incisive talent for satire and characterisation to expose the hypocrisies of US society.
In an effort to save their ailing doll-manufacturing business, the Wompler family apply to the government for a research grant, and very shortly find their research headed by the dysfunctional trio of Professor Toto Smilax and Kurt and Karl, the Frankenstein brothers. The aim of Project 32 is to create a Von Neumann machine, ie self-reproducing mechanisms which may or not ultimately have military applications.
Prototypes in the form of small mobile grey boxes are produced, and on being fed metal, proceed to construct others, each time improving on the original design.
Inevitably, some of the boxes escape and ‘The Reproductive System’ as Smilax terms it, begins to spread across America.
Sladek is fond of using a large cast of characters, and his novels resemble an intricate and complex farce, in that inevitably seemingly unrelated characters turn out to have some connection with each other, such as Mary, whose relationships with men seem to connect several of the characters leading to bizarre but oddly logical consequences.
A sub-plot involves Mary’s husband, an obsessively prudish newspaper editor, being drafted into the CIA and becoming the new partner of a deranged agent, determined to undermine the Russians’ attempt to infiltrate a French Moon landing attempt.
Sladek’s plotting is faultless, and in a brilliant scene in which various people (for various reasons) are wandering around Marrakesch in astronaut’s suits both the Russian and American agents end up in the rocket while the French astronaut is left on the ground. As the hijack of the rocket threatens to cause a major international incident, both agents are ordered to kill themselves in order that the blame for the hijack can be laid at the door of the country of the survivor. Thus, the agents are put in the surreal position of having to keep each other alive.
If this novel has a fault it is that is a frantic roller-coaster ride and one gets occasionally lost by the welter of bizarre yet fully rounded characterisations.
The Reproductive System itself, obviously, rather like Roderick the robot, is merely a device around which Sladek builds his savage vision of the US. It is a Heath-Robinson fantasy and Sladek makes no attempt to explain its physical workings or structure, but rather merely presents us with the surreal results of its development, the most strange and fascinating of which is the transformation of Kurt and Karl into robotic mannikins whose heads have been replaced with cathode-ray tubes.
Deceptively frothy and lightweight, It’s a vicious and very amusing portrait of American society of the 1960s, and a refreshing antidote to some of the more paranoiac novels of the previous decade.