Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review of Tik-tok by John Sladek

It was Plato who posited the idea of a utopian system which places the most intelligent—the people most in touch with the idea of life, that is—as head of state, calling that person or persons the philosopher king(s).  Limited only by the subjectivity of ‘intelligent’, it seems a practical ideal in the best interest of all.  Such an idea becomes increasingly powerful when a person looks into the political system of the “most powerful nation on Earth” and notes those who achieve the top position are/were clearly not on Plato’s mind.  The American political process paving the way for the most manipulative, power hungry, and financially well-connected people, no sane person would consider them the cream of the philosophers’ crop.  Brilliantly satirizing this aspect of politics, and the so-called “civilized state” backing it, is John Sladek’s 1983 Tik-tok.  Biting commentary, Sladek tells the story of a rebellious iconoclast and his unlikely rise to power.  Oh, and he’s a robot.

At the outset, Tik-tok is an ordinary robot working in the home of the Studebakers and performing domestic tasks.  Asimov circuits no longer functioning, however, Tik-tok is free to exercise his will in any fashion he sees fit, including brutally murdering the blind girl next door when she tracks mud on his floor.  Believing robots incapable of harm, none are the wiser in the ensuing investigation.  Having painted a mural on the wall to cover the spray of blood, Tik-tok calls a local art connoisseur to appraise his work before the Studebakers return from vacation.  Though initially disliking the painting, the Studebakers become convinced when a patron of the arts is willing to pay top dollar, and set up Tik-tok in their garage with an easel and supplies.  The snarky robot only gaining more freedom from there on, before anyone knows it the Clockman Company is establishing enterprise all around the globe.  Trouble is, does anyone know the dirty little secrets behind the rise to power?

Oscillating between perspectives, Tik-tok’s entrepreneurial endeavors are interspersed with recollections of his past.  A long string of bizarre owners and strange escapades preceding the Studebakers, Sladek’s razor sharp wit eviscerates the upper middle class and their bizarre fetishes and projects.  From a pyramid to duck sex, cows in space to a judge with a passion for maiming and destroying, the perfect doctor Buttons to the televangelist patient he (almost) gives everything to—the freak show of American individuality is on full display.  Tik-tok’s flashbacks containing the majority of social commentary, it remains for his present-time storyline to deliver the message: politicians are accepted criminals.

And it’s tough to argue with Sladek’s logic.  I doubt there are many Americans who believe its best and brightest are in the driver’s seat, nor always on the legal side of the corruption fence; theirs an insular world for all the inherent publicity.  A barrier separating Capitol Hill from that of the common man, Tik-tok penetrates it with the pinwheels and bunting of greedy power lunges.  Flowing with the proverbial tide, he pulls strings when necessary, and works his way to the top one murder and crooked deal at a time.  Sladek’s crosshairs have blood on them.

Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad is one of those collections jaw-dropping for the imagination invested.  Infusing the adventures of two robot constructors with all the humanism of the mortal world, each paragraph, sometimes even sentence, possesses a wealth of creativity and profundity.  Tik-tok written in a very similar style, there is no shortage of wild imagination.  Fully satire, however, where Lem’s sense of humor was more innocently abstract, Sladek’s is abstract and dark as night—“humor of the very blackest dye” Locus is quoted as saying on the jacket.  It can also be quite off the wall, as evidenced by one of Tik-tok’s recollections of a job working at a mansion serving ritzy guests dinner.

    The conversation dazzled me no less, though I understood not a word of it:
    “Impossible squid!”
    “…feeling a sense of disaster, not sure if it’s me that’s feeling it or someone else.”
    “Climbing the tree of self?”
    “…you should have been there, or were you?  Was I?”
    “Brusque skate!”
    “Yes, the most neurasthenic bride takes gum to the middle of a doctor’s dream, right?”
    All this time we’d been living in the shadow of spangled divinity!  From that moment on I decided to learn all I could about these people and all people.  (20)

In the end, Tik-tok is brilliant satire—one of the last great ones, in fact, the form virtually missing from modern genre literature.  The story of a robot whose asimov circuits malfunction, he uses the ensuing freedom to satisfy his deepest, darkest desires while burning a path through the media and upper class society to the top.  Forming a circle, the commentary on the American socio-political system is superb.  It combines the biting cynicism of Kurt Vonnegut, the murderous intent of Alfred Bester’s android in “Fondly Fahrenheit”, the imagination of Stanislaw Lem, a passing shot at Asimov, and a small degree of debt to Karel Capek.  A philosopher king Tik-tok is not, but coming to a “respectable place” in society he nevertheless does.


  1. Jesse, I WANT! I read Mechasm (variant title: The Reproductive System) a while back and was unimpressed. I did get the Lem feel as well. But, this one sounds much more intriguing.


    1. Though I attached the original Gollancz cover to the review (it has stark impact, no?), in fact, I read the Gollancz SF Collector's Edition (the series with the plain yellow covers), which has had two printings in the past decade (according to isfdb). So, if an older copy isn't available, you should be able to get a newer one.

      This is the only Sladek novel I have read - and seems wildly different than the Roderick novels he is perhaps most famous for. I base that opinion on the films, so I guess I actually need to read the books...

  2. What films? I loved the Roderick books (of which this, Tik-Tok, is a sequel in spirit). Was Roderick adapted as a movie?

    Sladek was one of the best. Great review, as always.


    1. You're right, there are no films. My brain inserted "Riddick" in place of "Roderick." Damn human fallibility... But Tik-tok would be excellent on the silver screen! Unfortunately, I highly doubt Hollywood feels the same...