Bugs by John Sladek

Macmillan, 1989, 215 p.

Bugs cover

Sladek was one of those writers who contributed to the New Wave of Science Fiction in the 1960s. His SF always had a kind of sideways slant, not as bonkers as R A Lafferty but not conventional in any way.

This novel has a Science-Fictional premise in that it postulates the creation of a thinking robot but is designed more as a satire on the contemporary corporate culture of the 1980s and of USian manners, usages (Tea tier tgo for “To eat here, or to go) and sexual mores. It also rather spectacularly blows out of the water Gene Wolfe’s first rule of writing: ‘never name a character Fred.’

Said Fred is Manfred Jones, an English writer who has come to New York at the behest of his agent only to find that the project he had been lured with does not exist. His wife, Susan, is disgusted by their cockroach infested rooms and soon flies back home. Fred applies for a job as a technical writer at VIMNUT Industries in Minneapolis. He is mistaken for someone else and taken on – as a software engineer – and the misapprehensions go on from there.

He is rescued from a cloud of gnats by a Soviet spy calling herself K K who, of course, “speaks” with v replacing w, omits words like ‘a,’ ‘the’ and the odd ‘it,’ and says ‘darlink’ rather than darling and tries to recruit him. Various organisations offer him money over the phone, he is investigated by the IRS even though his pay-check from VIMNUT, which becomes Cyberk Corporation before he even joins, then later VEXXO, only one of a string of companies in the book constantly being renamed, while Fred’s British accent also leads to him continually being asked, “Why don’t you Brits bugger off out of Ireland.”

The whole is interspersed with background news items – most with ludicrously named reporters such as Aramis Whiteflow and Porthos Floog – on the killer targetting the Little Dorrit Restaurant chain. There is, too, an ongoing set of presidential sanity hearings. (If only, I hear you say.) There are embedded quotes from Bookends era Paul Simon songs and explicit references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose fate the robot fears, especially after it is kidnapped and blamed for a death that took place during the incident.

Bugs is entertaining and clever, a perfect light read for lockdown or any other time, but sensitive souls should note there is a character described as a Negro who at one point says to a receptionist, “all you gotta do is put it in your ad: No niggers need apply.”

Pedant’s corner:- Talos’ (Talos’s,) “all he could do was to put down the chair” (all he could do was put down the chair,) caviar (caviar.) “Seeing her though tears” (through tears,)

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