|John Sladek: The Reproductive System|
Gollancz (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-57507-116-8
Consider this -- an autonomous machine capable of reproducing, learning and sustaining itself. Result, freedom from humans!
Science fiction? Of course.
In The Reproductive System, first published in 1968, the late John Sladek catapults the reader into an over-the-top robotic romp. Set one year in the 'Sixties, the book captures the decade's no-holds-barred craziness, freedom and defiance, protest marches, pot smoking, a manned moon flight, the military/industrial complex, and CIA and Soviet spies. The many characters sport names such as Calvin Codman Potter; Barthemo Beele; Toto Smilax, M.D.; Aorura Candlewood, Ph.D.; and Daisy le Duc. They experience danger, coincidence, surprise, loss, happiness and, for some, death in this universe of the bizarre.
Once wildly successful, the Wompler Toy Corporation in Millford, Nev., now faces failure. No one buys its sole product, Wompler Walking Babies, based on a wonder child actress wildly popular in the 'Thirties, but now long forgotten. (Catch the reference?) Little girls of the 1960s prefer Barbie(r). Dissolving the corporation seems the only option.
But during the dissolution board meeting, Louie Guthridge Wompler, son of company president Grandison Wompler, experiences a brainstorm. Apply for government funding for an absolutely useless product -- a self-replicating machine!
Hiring scientific personnel, Wompler Toy transforms itself into Wompler Research Laboratories. The mysterious Dr. T. Smilax heads TOP SECRET! Project 32. His invention, the Quantifable Universal Integral DNA Computer (QUIDNAC), creates a "Reproductive System" for machines.
Eureka! The Reproductive System works. Unfortunately, the Reproductive System works all too well. Once activated, cigarette-size gray boxes gobble up tons of metal and machines. The boxes grow. The boxes seek energy. The boxes reproduce. The boxes think and learn. Compete independence from human control!
The boxes mutate into the Mother of All Machines, which sets out to conquer the world by devouring other machines and tapping into every available energy source. It eats Altoona, Nev., and then Las Vegas. Worst of all, the machine's menu includes humans who get in the way.
Sladek emigrated from the United States to England during the mid-Sixties. His obituary in the London newspaper, The Guardian, commented that Sladek joined the "New Wave" writers producing avant-garde fiction. "His favorite mirrors of fallible humanity were robots and artificial intelligences, often more sympathetic than his absurdly tic-ridden, trend-obsessed, culture-programmed human characters."
Read the novel with attention to detail for the characters and their histories. Sladek never throws in gratuitous material but employs understated foreshadowing.
One request: if any reader ascertains the significance of the three old men in uniforms playing the Far East game of Go in the book's last paragraph, please, write.
Lynn I. Miller
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