How very little does the amateur, dwelling in home at ease, comprehend the labours and perils of the author, and, when he smilingly skims the surface of a work of fiction, how little does he consider the hours of toil, consultation of authorities, researches in the Bodleian, correspondence with learned and illegible Germans—in one word, the vast scaffolding that was first built up and then knocked down, to while away an hour for him in a railway train!
—Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, The Wrong Box (1889)
Quite so. I had no intention at all of plunging into the mighty research effort of assembling a book of someone else’s fiction, but somehow one thing led to another.
It was a terrible shock when that fine writer John Sladek died in March 2000, aged only 62. He’d been keeping his illness (idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) secret from all but his family and closest friends. As Tom Disch put it, “he just sighed away his life”, a few days after being told he had no chance of being listed for a lung transplant. Here’s part of what I wrote in my next Interzone column:
From his hilarious 1968 debut novel The Reproductive System (US Mechasm) to the much darker comedy of Bugs in 1989, he exploited sf themes of robots and consciousness to mirror human folly with devastating wit. “Literary” influences like William Gaddis and Joseph Heller were absorbed into the Sladekian narrative madness, replete with wordplay, anagrams, palindromes, ciphers, obsessive narrative patterns and mathematical games. He skewered irrational beliefs and pseudoscience in his nonfictional The New Apocrypha, parodied fellow sf authors in squibs collected in The Steam-Driven Boy, and lovingly recreated the locked-room puzzles of “golden age” detection with novels like Black Aura. In person he was splendidly entertaining company, and will be much missed.
When immediate grief had dulled a little, the idea of a memorial collection occurred to several people. Sladek’s science fiction was out of print in the USA, but in Britain—where he’d spent most of his creative writing life—five novels were scheduled for reissue in the Gollancz “yellow jacket SF” imprint, recently revived by Malcolm Edwards at Orion Books, or in Orion’s “SF Masterworks” series of classics. What an excellent thing it would be to reissue all the short Sladek fiction too! His British agent Chris Priest imagined an omnibus of the four published collections (The Steam-Driven Boy , Keep the Giraffe Burning , Alien Accounts , and The Lunatics of Terra ; the US The Best of John Sladek  was selected from the first two) plus a few uncollected stories.
I airily reckoned the latter at about seven solo pieces, not counting collaborations with Disch. Either as one fat volume or split into two, the collected short Sladek would be seriously comparable to the much-reprinted complete stories of Philip K. Dick. As connoisseurs know, John Sladek really was that good, with a unique mix of wild inventiveness, sharp satire, and haunting melancholy.
My only role at this point was to stand around supportively at an April 2000 Orion party while Chris pointed out the need for a Complete Sladek collection to a slightly glassy-eyed Malcolm Edwards. From time to time I interjected: “We are the chorus and we agree. We agree, we agree.” As a mere enthusiastic fanboy, I looked forward to handing over the list of uncollected stories and leaving the work to Orion/Gollancz.
All is flux, though, in the wonderful world of publishing. By May 2000, Orion was wavering between a Complete Sladek and a relatively slim Best Of. In June, the word was that any comprehensive edition should be taken to a small press; the Best Of suggestion theoretically remained on the table, but enthusiasm somehow seemed to be waning. As July slid into August, it was clear that mainstream British publishers in general had resumed their unholy alliance against the hated foe of short story collections. Summer gave way to autumn, and I tinkered less and less often with the Uncollected Sladek list originally drafted for Orion’s benefit.
Then came a slight paradigm shift. I’d been in touch for some while with the new British small press Big Engine, which rather encouragingly wanted to launch with a reissue of my own 1984 borderline-SF farce The Leaky Establishment. (Their idea rather than mine. The fact that Terry Pratchett had spontaneously offered to write an introduction to any new edition did tend to help.) Prompted by a mention of that homeless project, Ben Jeapes of Big Engine now fancied doing The Uncollected Sladek, with a possibility of later reprinting the existing collections. Talking terms in October, Ben and Chris agreed that the book could usefully be edited by one David Langford. Consternation! Panic!
But then, it was just a matter of assembling a few known stories. Had I not declared in August that (glossing over the fact that my list was already rather longer than April’s “seven solo pieces”) I now possessed all John Sladek’s published but uncollected stories? Had I not been made smug by the discovery that the on-line International SF Database was entirely unaware of his 1984 collection The Lunatics of Terra? This left me feeling well ahead of the game.
Hubris began to take a clobbering from Nemesis later that October. Sladek’s widow Sandy gave her blessing to the project and sent a list of literary assets which John had prepared in the sure knowledge that death was coming. Chasteningly, this schedule included ten stories wholly unknown to me. O brave new world. A routine Usenet query about these titles produced hurt e-mail from Phil Stephensen-Payne, chiding me for having missed the Interzone “Books Received” notice which in very small print listed his and Chris Drumm’s John T. Sladek—Steam-Driven Satirist: A Working Bibliography (1998). As the man said, it is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of one’s data. I abjectly ordered a copy.
Even before this arrived, useful material began to turn up. My on-line pleas had caught the attention of Matthew Davis, who runs a Disch website and had acquired photocopies of obscure Sladek poems, playlets, essays and esoterica in the course of researching Disch. The missing stories “In the Distance” and “Comedo” turned out to have appeared in the little magazines Concentrate (1968) and Corridor (1971) published by Mike Butterworth, whom I knew through his world-famous Savoy Books operation and who still had copies. Kindly fans in the New England SF Association, in particular Anthony R. Lewis, were quick to locate and photocopy stories from If. Prodding an itchy place in my own memory led to an issue of Foundation where the somewhat deflating Sladek review of Michael Moorcock’s The Entropy Tango (1981) had taken the form of a short parody. All grist to the anthologist.
Sometimes, even so, it became necessary to fall back on the sordid device of spending money. I found and bought a couple of anthologies via used-book web searches: Douglas Hill’s The Shape of Sex to Come (1978), containing John’s raucously funny “Machine Screw”, and Disch’s and Naylor’s New Constellations (1976) with the Disch/Sladek spoof “Mystery Diet of the Gods”. And for a wince-making sum in dollars, Cheap Street provided their all too beautifully produced Sladek chapbook “Blood and Gingerbread” (1990).
So much for the relatively easy stuff. When Steam-Driven Satirist arrived, it unerringly pinpointed the real difficulties ahead. Another story which like “Machine Screw” had appeared in Men Only magazine, an ephemeral glossy devoted mainly to naked female breasts and not archived by the British Library. Four short-shorts in Britain’s long-defunct weekly tabloid Titbits, helpfully dated—from John’s own best recollection—“1969/72?“. And one which fell altogether outside the usual bibliographic pathways, having been “printed in 1974 in theatre programmes for a London play, possibly at the Haymarket Theatre.” There came a certain chill sense that this project might never be completed.
By now our planned book had a name, confided by John in an 1980s interview as his intended title for a collection of intricately linked shorts that never materialized: Maps, which with the subtitle The Uncollected Stories of John Sladek seemed reasonably fitting. One alternative suggestion was culled from John’s remarks in the same interview about the mythic persistence of the US Midwest in his fiction:
I am planning someday to set a novel, or at least a short story, in Albania. All I know of Albania is that Americans aren’t allowed to go there and that it once had a King Zog; the rest can be made up. It’ll probably come out looking exactly like the American Midwest.
—Interview by David Langford, Science Fiction Review #46 (1983)
Chris and Ben failed to show any enthusiasm for my argument that King Zog in Minnesota: The Uncollected Sladek was an infinitely more striking title.
Serendipity intervened in November 2000 as Matthew Davis’s regular web trawling for Disch and Sladek memorabilia led him to a bookseller’s listing of The Lost Nose: A Programmed Book, a literally unique piece of Sladekiana produced towards the end of the 1960s as a present for the girlfriend who later became his first wife Pamela Sladek. This is a multiple-choice gamebook in which the reader must guide hero Fred on the quest for his lost nose. (Which in some story branches is less than cooperative: “He called for it to come down, but it merely wrinkled itself with disgust and thumbed itself defiantly at him…“) Hand- and typewritten text is supplemented by collages, primitive cartoons, and gummed-in artifacts including paperclips, cigarette cards and cogs from a watch mechanism.
Unfortunately, the people at Ulysses Bookshop in London’s posh Bloomsbury district understood the rarity of The Lost Nose very well, and wanted £550 for it. They also reckoned it was too fragile to photocopy. In a fit of dynamism early in December 2000, I travelled into London to visit the bookshop, bought a digital camera on the way, photographed the whole booklet (with permission) while being jostled by other customers in the very narrow confines of Ulysses, and used a palmtop to transcribe the text sections that seemed likely to reproduce poorly. All this would have been a great coup if I’d had more than ten minutes in a pub to learn the workings of the camera. As it turned out, some paragraphs were still blurry, and I sheepishly returned two weeks later to reshoot the pages with improved technique.
My fear here had been that The Lost Nose could vanish forever from SF circles at the whim of some well-heeled outsider. Happily, as a result of extremely broad hints dropped in my newsletter Ansible, the British SF Foundation later acquired this chapbook for its collection at Liverpool University library. An interactive CD-ROM edition with page images in full colour is being planned by the Foundation; I was content with the full text, supplemented where necessary with a few line graphics like John’s origami Buckingham Palace which folds into a perfect, featureless cube.
No Sladek collection would be complete without such weird and gratuitous diagrams, and I felt I was following the obsessive footsteps of the master as I spent hours fiddling with CorelDraw software to recreate his elaborate flowchart of possible reading routes through The Lost Nose—including the restoration of a pathway he’d omitted. Quite unexpectedly, Maps now contained a map. Next I was reminded that John had written bridging passages to cover lost pages in a certain Philip K. Dick MS (Lies, Inc., 1984), since now I found myself concocting plausible sentences to replace a fragment of gummed-on Lost Nose text that came unstuck and vanished long ago.
Meanwhile, letters and e-mails too numerous and tedious to relate had gone out in all directions, seeking clues to the three fantasy quest objects of Titbits, Men Only, and that uncertainly specified theatre program. Some gloom arose from the sheer off-puttingness of the British Library’s information sheet, which made it very clear that no one should so much as think of approaching this Court of Last Resort until they have absolutely, for sure, exhausted all other possible resources. Interesting hoops must be jumped through for even a short-term pass, including satisfying a stern interviewer that one’s purpose is Genuine and Worthy. It came as no surprise that mere British authors and taxpayers appear right at the bottom of the various categories of desirable applicant, whereas for example Open University undergraduates are three rungs up from lowlifes like myself and get an automatic five-year pass. Bah. As I gibbered to Chris Priest, “In an ideal world, Society of Authors members would be wafted to the head of the queue!”
But wait… Titbits, it emerged, did have some scanty news content and was therefore archived at the far more approachable British Newspaper Library, housed in a vast and charmless building far out from central London (close by Colindale tube station on the Northern Line). One can reserve up to four volumes in advance by e-mail, giving 48 hours’ notice. Thus, shortly before Christmas, I sat at a battered reading table with the complete Titbits for 1969 and 1970, bound up in six-month chunks as massively unwieldy volumes. As the long day wore on, these were replaced by 1971 and 1972, laboriously wheeled from the stacks on a large trolley or tumbril.
It was a dreadful, tacky little magazine. Shock horror exposé stories, tedious celebrity chit-chat, and lubricious reports of “perverts”: I was reprimanded for laughing aloud when a solemn THESE PICTURES WILL SHOCK AND DISGUST YOU headline proved to relate to an exceedingly tame night-club drag act. There were innumerable photos of young ladies in fancy tights—sometimes wearing nothing else, though artfully placed tree-branches or wisps of gauze tended to occlude actual nipples. (Sociological note: was this 60s fascination with tights the lure of the relatively new and exotic? Naughty magazines seem to have reverted to stockings over the subsequent decades.) All in all it was enough to make people look at me oddly when I complained that after a whole day paging through Titbits, my right arm was too stiff to use.
Though one-page, sting-in-the-tail stories appeared regularly, none of these was by John Sladek or his admitted Titbits pseudonym Dale Johns. The inference was that John had misremembered his “1969/72?” dates. “Oh yes,” Chris Priest confirmed with disarming speed, “it was 1967 when Titbits started running SF!” I thanked him coldly.
Real life got in the way for a while (a death in my family), and the tale resumed halfway through January 2001. Our postman brought the dozenth confirmation, this time from the Theatre Museum in London, that “printed in 1974 in theatre programmes for a London play” was not sufficient story identification without the name of the play. More than one theatre bookshop had genially invited me to hunt through their three tons of unsorted programmes in a dusty back room—“There might well be a few from 1974”—but life seemed too short. The next envelope in that day’s wad of mail came from the Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection (Salvation Army Headquarters, PO Box 249, 101 Queen Victoria Street, London, EC4P 4EP), enclosing a photocopy of John Sladek’s lost story “It Takes Your Breath Away” and a letter that sourced it to the programme for ”Play Mas at the Phoenix Theatre”. Whoopee!
“It Takes Your Breath Away”, a multiply punning title, proved to be a short murder mystery starring John’s series detective Thackeray Phin, from his witty detective puzzles Black Aura (1974), Invisible Green (1977), and the prize-winning short “By An Unknown Hand” (already secured for Maps). The haziness about just where this was published was partly explained by another, identical copy that turned up a week later—this time in response to an appeal I’d sent to The Stage magazine—and which had been found in the 1974 Piccadilly Theatre programme for A Streetcar Named Desire. Apparently the specialist publishing outfit Theatreprint would commission material and include it in multiple programmes. No doubt there are further instances out there; let’s leave them as a little exercise for Phil Stephensen-Payne’s next bibliography.
A second round of research at the British Newspaper Library began with Titbits for 1967 and ploughed steadily through the 1967-1968 “season of science fiction,” still without finding John Sladek. The “season” opened on 6 May 1967 with a story by “C.C. Shackleton” (Brian Aldiss) and continued until 20 January 1968—complete list, including some surprisingly famous names, available on request. In the next Titbits the SF gave way to “a season of thrillers” and pay dirt soon followed. Thriller number two was a hitherto unbibliographed reprint of “The Way To A Man’s Heart” by Sladek and Disch, and more Sladek stories appeared throughout the year. Six, in fact (three bylined Dale Johns), although John himself had only remembered four. Another file closed at last… although, being forbidden to use a camera or make my own photocopies in the BNL, I remained uneasy for several days until their official, expensive copies arrived by mail.
Later came another agonizing decision about tampering with a sacred text, since (thanks no doubt to the Titbits printers) one short murder story had the protagonist reaching the scene of his planned crime at 10:15pm, setting a laborious trap that required eight paragraphs of climbing and hauling, and then discovering the time to be 10:15pm. As with the ersatz Lost Nose paragraph, the resulting editorial intervention is duly confessed in a note at the end of the book.
What of Men Only? My local library in Reading suggested that it might be classed as pornography and (pause to consult huge tome) could therefore be archived by the only relevant organization listed under that heading. This was the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, professional takers of offence who are hot for censorship of British media. Somehow the prospect of asking permission to study a hypothetical NVLA collection of naughty magazines did not appeal. Instead I wrote to the British Library, which as already noted doesn’t keep Men Only but helpfully reported that Cambridge University had a run from 1950 to 1963. Alas, we needed 1974. Then why didn’t I contact the magazine’s owners, the Paul Raymond Organization in London? Of course I’d tried that right at the outset, and they still haven’t replied, rot them.
Web searches for Men Only tend to bring up millions of pages of blushful embarrassment. Nevertheless the truth is out there once you know where to look—as the British Library chap really should have known. At COPAC there’s a database of British university library catalogues, which led me rapidly back to my own alma mater with the revelation that Men Only is archived in the restricted stacks of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
It was the work of minutes to e-mail a friendly Oxford postgraduate—the estimable Tanaqui C. Weaver, one of the less well known influences on the character of Delirium in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman—who immediately stormed the citadel and emerged with a copy of the not particularly filthy but very funny Sladek time-travel story “Peabody Slept Here”. Could this be closure?
A fascinating incidental discovery was that the naughty parts of the Bodleian had long since grown beyond the bounds of the traditional “Phi” cupboard, and that Men Only was trucked in as required from a repository well outside Oxford. Apparently the real location is Nuneham Courtenay, an almost oppressively quaint and well-preserved winner of Best-Kept Village prizes. It did my heart good to learn that somewhere behind those exquisite, tasteful façades there are all those bound volumes of tit magazines…
Looking at the latest Maps contents list, it seemed that we’d nailed down all the solo stories John Sladek was known to have published. Various poems and playlets had turned up en route, and according to the 1998 bibliography only one was lacking: “The Brusque Skate” from the launch issue of Ronald Reagan: The Magazine of Poetry (ed. John Sladek and Pamela Zoline, 1968). As it happened, the former Disch/Sladek/Zoline flat in London’s Camden Town had been taken over in 1969 by John and Judith Clute, who still live there and “inherited” various material abandoned in attics, including copies of Ronald Reagan #1. Thus, thanks to John Clute, I very soon had the poem and—more serendipity—a one-page surreal cartoon strip contributed by Sladek to the same issue. It was instant art using stock images of people from the dry transfer sheets of those pre-digital-clipart days; later I located them all in an old Letraset catalogue. This may well adorn the jacket of Maps.
Incidentally, the back cover of RR #1 is a Sladek-created “cut out and dress your own Ronnie Reagan doll” feature, offering four complete changes of clothing: sportswear, motoring outfit (i.e. Hell’s Angel), drum majorette, and senior citizen, complete with truss, surgical stocking, etc. SF, the genre of prediction.
There remained some early collaborations with Tom Disch, which I’d kept telling myself weren’t essential to “The Uncollected John Sladek”—indeed there once appeared to have been a tacit Sladek/Disch Pact agreeing that joint stories would be reprinted, if at all, in Disch collections. The lure of completeness drove me on, although I’d always been a little nervous of Tom Disch. In a nice-cop-nasty-cop scenario, I obscurely felt, it would be Sladek who gave you a soothing cup of tea and softened you up with witty anagrams and palindromes… whereupon Disch would stalk from the shadows and thwack you across the face with a quotation in the original German from The Magic Mountain.
All entirely irrational, since Tom Disch was highly approving and supportive of the Maps project. With a single imperious phone call he caused photocopies of five countem five early Sladek collaborations, three never published, to be sent to me from the Yale archive of his papers. Other sources provided the 1966 issue of Escapade magazine that published their “The Incredible Giant Hot Dog” (a title which is not a metaphor), and I wondered whether anyone but myself, even the authors, had previously compared the MS and published story to discover that Escapade’s editor had brutally cut both the opening and closing sections.
Just to be on the safe side, I showed the “final” contents list to assiduous bibliographer Phil Stephensen-Payne. He shyly confessed to having found a reference to one more hitherto unrecorded Sladek poem, “The Four Cows”, said to be in a 1967 issue of Leland Sapiro’s upmarket SF fanzine Riverside Quarterly. This, at least, was easier than the back rooms of theatre bookshops or the restricted stacks of libraries. Fandom is my home turf. A quick query on a fanzine e-mail list brought two copies within hours, a scanned image from Ned Brooks in America and an electronic transcript from Damien Warman in Australia.
Then in April 2001, when I thought I’d finished, along came the word that a run of David Morton’s little Minneapolis literary magazine region had surfaced in London, and it was time for further camera-work. I liked the first issue’s contributor note on our man, reminding us that he did indeed work for a little while as a railway switchman:
john sladek is 25. he once lived in the physics building & now works for the railroad. (what do you want to be when you grow up?)
—region #1 (Summer 1963)
Those four mimeographed issues contained three further Sladek poems, a Joycean stream-of-consciousness extract from a hitherto unrecorded novel which pushed back his first known publication date to 1963, and a somewhat different 1965 version of the familiar story “Is There Death on Other Planets?” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Dec 1966, collected in The Steam-Driven Boy). All but the last item went into Maps.
(Sladek’s revisions to his spoof SF spy story “Is There Death…” consisted mainly of updating various characters’ pointlessly archaic speech. Thus the 1965 “Fie on’t… Marry, sir, you lie! What hastow in the satchel, caitiff?” very sensibly became the 1966 “What have you got in that satchel?“)
Early estimates of how much material remained uncollected were thus exposed as pathetically inadequate. The latest Maps contents list shows 21 solo Sladek stories, 14 poems and playlets, 8 pseudonymous shorts, 11 Disch collaborations, and a handful of autobiographical fragments, the whole lot ranging from 1963 to 1992. It was all over except the introduction, which I’d been preparing with copious assistance and illustrative quotations from such old friends of Sladek as John Clute, Tom Disch and—not mentioned above but admirably informative and helpful throughout—Charles Platt.
The one fly in the ointment was that my draft introduction included a quotation from Bob Shaw’s Fire Pattern. In one brief scene of this 1984 SF novel, the hero contacts paranormal expert John Sladek (supposedly the author of Psychic Superstars) and gets only flip, joky, totally unhelpful answers to his queries about spontaneous human combustion: “Maybe people do burst and make ashes of themselves.” The secret punchline was that, far from being denigrated by Bob, John had actually had great fun writing all his own dialogue for this passage.
This point seemed well worth making, since I’d come across readers who’d inferred some terrible, bitter Shaw/Sladek vendetta from that fragment of fun. Unfortunately I committed the routine courtesy of checking whether Bob’s family had any objection to what I’d written and quoted, and his son stunned me by demanding a £300 permission fee. For 175 words. The mind reels.
Professional editors conveyed to me that “the late author’s family” is a term of terror in the industry. Charles Platt robustly suggested I should tell the son and heir to piss off. Though knowing that Bob Shaw’s own suggested fee would have been at most a pint of beer, I cautiously made a modest counter-offer; silence fell, and despite a follow-up letter continued for months. In the end, for safety’s sake, that passage was paraphrased almost out of existence. No ideal book project entirely survives contact with reality.
Meanwhile, Maps brings together enough nifty fiction to make me proud of the result, and of its late author. Aiming for completeness, though, inevitably means including a few prentice works and potboilers now characterized by Tom Disch—with particular reference to their James Bond pastiche “The Floating Panzer”—as “turd-rate and at the Scott’s Tissues end of the spectrum of Collected Papers.”
With what I imagined to be great editorial cunning, I shaped the material into internally chronological sections headed “Stories, Mostly” (including some wildly non-factual essays), “Poems and Playlets”, “Sladek Incognito” (thus burying the Titbits squibs deep in the book), “Sladek and Disch” (good lightweight fun overall, despite that shaky start), and lastly “Sladek on Sladek”—the man himself caught in the act of introspection, both comic and perceptive.
Then, of course, I had to resist the Sladekian urge to spend compulsive hours diagramming a recommended reading plan for the whole collection, gently directing visitors to the most entertaining and uplifting quarters. In fact, another map.
Published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 155, July 2001, and Vector 219, September/October 2001.
Copyright © 2001 by David Langford.