Saturday, October 28, 2006

Robot book is painful to read

We've all had the experience of reading a book someone has recommended - and hating it. It's still a surprise to plough through a book the Guardian describes as "A classic novel.. it reeks simultaneously of Candide, Player Piano and The Wizard of Oz", and find it unreadable.

There are spoilers here, but I wouldn't recommend the book to anyone, so don't worry. Roderick by John Sladek, is painfully hip, in a sort of 1970s way. This means it's full of throwaway remarks and Big Ideas, all referred to rather than explored, and overlaying and strangling an episodic story where nothing much actually happens.

Roderick himself doesn't even appear for the first hundred pages or so, because Sladek is too busy painting a tedious and un-funny picture of all the ins-and-outs of a small university, with pointless subplots about the Shah of Ruritania (he's rich, and doesn't understand Western ways! Ha ha!) and a bad poet and a poor student (he reads Lord of the Rings instead of Ring Lardner! Ho ho!)

When the story properly starts, I'm ready for the profound ideas. And sure enough, it's full of references to other people's thoughts on artificial intelligence. Name checks, that is, for the titles of books, or quick asides about golem myths. To be fair, Sladek has clearly done his homework. He works in so many, I never want to hear another one.

While that's going on, we get more of Sladek's ideas of what would be funny. And we get them all over again, because as we all know a joke is even funnier if you repeat it.

There's s a priest who's too busy running the school sports to do his job. Whenever he appears he's ordered another set of sports kit, with another amusing misprint. There's a doctor who's too busy playing golf and developing property. Every time he appears, he amusingly gets the name of his patients' medication wrong. How hilarious.

Roderick's step-parents seem like they're going to be intersting, but like every other character in this book, they turn into completely contrived cyphers for punning jokes, and unlikely plot developments. They turn out not to be what they appear - but who cares?

I've made it to the end of the first of the books paired here - partly because I remember laughing out loud at The Muller-Fokker Effect as a teenager. I don't think I'll last through the second part, Roderick at Random.

Luckily, it's a library book. Unluckily, it's fallen apart. A previous reader must have found it as hard going as I did, and got stuck. I can't see any other reason why the book should fall open - and apart - at page 54.

No comments: