WHO COULD RESIST a novel about a robot named Tik-Tok who blithely murders a little girl, no, who murders a blind little girl, and from this impropriety builds himself a career that leads to the threshold of the presidency? To bring off this delicious -- albeit improbable -- jeu d'esprit, John Sladek in Tik-Tok (DAW, $2.95) adopts the meticulous, formal diction of a gentleman's gentleman. Listen to the novel's opening:
"As I move my hand to write this statement of my own free will -- we can argue about the free will later -- there is in me no remorse, no desire to justify. I wish only to tidy up, now that my life is nearly over. I'll be taken from this cell with its chipped yellow paint on rusty bars, to a courtroom, then to another cell and then to wherever it is they execute robots by dismantling. So it's time to put my life in order: we domestic robots generally believe that neatness is all. In life, in death.
"This cell could use a coat of paint."
In recounting his career Tik-Tok -- named after the mechanical man of Oz -- alternates memories of his early years in service with descriptions of his various crimes in later life. Naturally, as a good robot, the young Tik-Tok suffers one disaster after another: at a Southern plantation he endures mockery from a family as grotesque as any in Flannery O'Connor; later he works at a madman's pancake house, goes into cahoots with a charlatan preacher, and even joins a band of space pirates. Once, he is nearly demolished by a retired judge whose hobby is sledge-hammering robots. Throughout all these trials Tik-Tok preserves his imperturbable sang-froid. Eventually, no longer callow and inexperienced in the ways of the world, he sweet talks Barbie and Duane Studebaker into buying him off a used-robot lot.
It is while in their employ that Tik-Tok's "asimov circuits" -- designed to prevent robots from harming humans -- short out. He kills little Geraldine Singer and pins the blame on a neighboring old fogey; a mural painted to disguise the crime leads to celebrity as an artist; soon the exhilarated Tik- Tok is experimenting with "sin" -- planting bombs on planes, replicating the torments of Job, organizing an army of derelict hobo- robots, appearing on talk-shows, and eventually leading the campaign for equal rights for robots. In short, the roguish machine smoothly travels up from slavery to artistic triumph, criminal mastery, business success and high political ambition.
Because Tik-Tok is so well-mannered -- especially compared to the louts and ninnies around him -- the reader instinctively roots for this charming metallic con man. We want to see just how much he will get away with. Imagine the dapper Charlie Chaplin of Monsieur Verdoux or the refined and aristocratic murderer of Kind Hearts and Coronets -- Tik-Tok belongs in their slick and genial company.
Little wonder then that this masterly novel received the 1984 British Science Fiction Award. But Sladek's satiric wit (Mechasm, The Muller-Fokker Effect, Roderick) has been savored for too long only by sf fans. Anyone who enjoys Evelyn Waugh or movies like Dr. Strangelove will hug himself with pleasure while reading Tik-Tok.
OVER THE PAST few years Bruce Sterling has been constructing a universe, first in short stories (''Cicada Queen," "Swarm"), and now in his ambitious novel Schismatrix (Arbor House, $15.95). In an undefined future earth has colonized much of the solar system; in so doing mankind has divided into two major political-ethical factions called Shapers and Mechanists. Shapers believe in cloning, genetic experiment, periodic rejuvenation, and psychological control; Mechanists, by contrast, improve their bodies with prosthetic devices, are able to wire themselves into extensive electronic networks, and are generally on their way to becoming true cyborgs. "The scanners assured him that the visitor, a woman, bore only harmless Mechanist implants: plaque-scraping arterial microbots, old-fashioned teflon kneecaps, plastic knuckles, a porous drug duct in the crook of the left elbow. Much of her hair was artificial, implanted strands of shining optical fibers."
Abelard Lindsay -- the hero of Schismatrix -- is a human being from an aristocratic family, schooled by Shapers, who finds himself exiled among Mechanists because of a change in political policy on his home planet, the Mare Serenitatus Circumlunar Corporate Republic. In good sf tradition -- that of the outcast who grows into a superman -- Lindsay gradually wins his way back to power. In the process he becomes a theatrical impresario, the lover of a beautiful brothel-owner (who eventually undergoes her own drastic transformation), a pirate, a happily married Shaper husband, a leading diplomat (expert in dealing with the aliens mankind soon encounters), a scientist, and an all- round political wheeler-dealer.
He needs to be all these things just to survive in a world where assassins take on their victims' features, whole cities are built from flesh, people are iced out for decades, and humanity is gradually fragmenting more and more -- into Concatenates, Black Medicals, PostHumanists, SuperBrights, Zen Serotonins, Cicadas, Cataclysts. To evoke this complex, ever-evolving universe, Sterling writes in a fast-moving, concentrated style; but like Samuel Delany, he sometimes makes the reader work overly hard in following the action. Indeed, there is a sketchiness to his characters and a gray tonality to the narration -- the result, perhaps, of an ambition to compose a monumental future history in the manner of Olaf Stapledon. Whatever the reason, Sterling's action climaxes -- a battle between Shapers and Pirates, a duel between Abelard and an old enemy within the bodies of alien animals -- fail to generate the excitement one might expect of such shoot-'em- ups.
Sterling's real forte lies in the evocation of technological, human and alien strangeness. His vision is Balzacian in its scope and richness, above all in its obsession with new science, party politics, and the complex of changes brought about through genetic engineering. His is a brave new world of nearly constant future shock -- contact with aliens, odd religions, the advent of terraforming, the biological and prosthetic transformation of man. Many of his themes will be familiar to sf readers: Shapers and Mechanists, for instance, recall respectively the adherents to Asimov's First and Second Foundation, and Lindsay's progress pays frequent homage to Alfred Bester's Gully Foyle of the classic revenge epic, The Stars My Destination. For all my nits about Schismatrix it is with such books that Sterling's should be placed.
IN THE past few years Rudy Rucker has published a half dozen sf novels, a collection of stories, and a book on the fourth dimension. No slouch he. The novels -- blending mathematical speculation, such concepts as Hilbert space, rock 'n' roll, drugs and sex -- have earned considerable praise (Software winning a Philip K. Dick award for best original paperback). In style they recall an improbable hybrid of automatic writing niness, and imaginative ideas worthy of H.G. Wells. If they sometimes feel as though Rucker made them up as he went along, these loose and baggy books nonetheless sparkle with deadpan wit and a natural storyteller's flair.
Called a science fiction novel about the '60s, his The Secret of Life (Bluejay, $14.95) is heavy on the '60s and light on the science fiction. Its basic premise is this: teen- aged Conrad Bunger suspects that he may be an alien sent to earth to discover the Secret of Life.
Nearly every adolescent feels that he is somehow different from his parents, from his classmates, and that he unquestionably possesses some special destiny. This alienation Rucker captures perfectly, along with those sharp moments of dizzying angst that people experience -- often late at night or when drunk -- when we achingly realize that our lives are slipping by, that yesterday we were in 7th grade and today we are getting married and tomorrow our grandchildren will be playing around our sickbed. "I can't conceive of being in college," says Conrad, while bombed at a classy high school dance, "but that will come, too, and when it comes it will feel like now. I will go to college, and marry, and have children, and all the time it will be me doing it, me doing it in some mysteriously moving now. And then I'll die. It seems impossible, but someday I will really die."
To escape this universal fate Conrad resolves to discover the Secret of Life and more particularly of his own life: Why, for instance, does he have no memories before the age of 10? What of the mysterious crystal belonging to a neighbor who claims to have seen a UFO? And how can he account for his remarkable powers of survival, powers that come into play whenever he's in danger? A string of adolescent adventures ensues -- lots of drinking, rock concerts, car wrecks, love affairs -- but, surprisingly, Conrad finally does discover the Secret of Life. Sort of.
Even though this isn't really much of a science fiction novel, it does possess an immense charm -- and Rucker is an artist well worth discovering, reading, and keeping up with.
DURING HIS LIFETIME, Phil Dick used to have trouble getting his books published. Then he died. In some ways, as he himself would be the first to admit (with a sad smile), that was the best thing that could have happened to him as a writer. Soon there was a Philip K. Dick Society, Bluejay began reprinting his books in attractive trade paperbacks, small presses like Zeising issued his unpublished mainstream novels, several biographies and memoirs were announced, and critics started his canonization as the most important voice in American science fiction of the past 30 years.
I am one of those critics, and I still push Dick's work into the hands of colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, the stories in I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (Doubleday, $12.95) don't show him at his best. As usual, they do include the standard Dick fixtures: small- time repairmen, psionic powers, smarty- pants robots, an obsession with theological- philosophic questions. In novels Dick has the room to really complicate his characters' lives and to delve into such knotty issues as how we distinguishe the real from the artificial from the imagined, but in his stories he is bound too closely by the demands of plot alone, especially in the work reprinted from the '50s.
The best part of the collection is the opening essay, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later." There Dick launches into his favorite topics -- "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" -- while displaying some of the religious nuttiness of his last years (best exemplified here in the story "Rautavaara's Case," about the clash between alien and human images of the Godhead).
Like many of his readers, I think all Philip K. Dick's work should be in print; but for those new to this enchanting and mind-boggling imagination the place to start is with The Man in the High Castle or Martian Time-Slip.