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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,)

Core Values?

In yesterday’s Guardian G2 there was a wonderful scathing article written by the US born comedian Rich Hall dealing with recent events in his home country.

In it he satirises the US penchant for owning, and using on each other, firearms.

A striking sentence concerns the number of terrorist-related deaths carried out by people from the seven countries subject to the, now legally suspended at least till appeal, ban on entry to the US.

That number?


(Though Hall does balance this by saying there have been three – thwarted – attacks using knives.)

I don’t suppose such satirising of what Hall characterises as the US core value of gun crime will change anyone’s mind, though.

The Infinite Cage by Keith Laumer

Dobson, 1976, 221 p.

The Infinite Cage cover

Well this one took me back.

If it wasn’t yellow jacketed Gollancz hardbacks on the SF shelves at Dumbarton Library in my youth it was Dobson Science Fiction ones. Well, this has a yellow cover but it’s a Dobson. It’s also a former library book. I recently picked it up in a local charity shop.

A naked man wakes up in a police cell with no memories. He escapes more or less by accident and by turns falls into the orbit of Louella, a medium who quickly spots his ability to read minds and conceives of him as a route to riche. For convenience she names him Adam.

He has an ability to tune into voices but his knowledge of society and how to interact with others is limited. This gives Laumer the opportunity to engage in satire on late 60s early 70s US life. (The novel was first published in 1972.)

To make seed money Adam takes a job as an accountant using the experience of one of his voices. He quickly reveals the proprietor was being conned by suppliers and staff.

Through his voices he realises the level of need in the world and resolves to make money so that he can alleviate people’s worries.

This gives Laumer the opportunity to illustrate the difficulties of giving money away – or rather, having your motives for doing so misunderstood or impugned.

Various other adventures befall Adam including tangling with the darker side of the betting industry.

In this context I would note the utter immorality involved in a hospital precipitately discharging a very ill patient on its authorities’ belatedly discovering he has no money for the treatment.

The book is entertaining enough in a slightly old–fashioned way but falls in to metaphysics towards the end. It’s not without merit though, even if the characterisation is sometimes rudimentary.

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