Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A William Sleator Retrospective

A friend of mine told me that William Sleator recently died.  He’s probably not a household name, although he’s written over thirty novels, mostly focused on young adult readers, and that’s when I encountered him first.   Every reader has a couple of formative book experiences, serendipitous encounters with the right story at the right time that change you and stay with you throughout the years.  Sleator had a powerful influence on me, and I’d like to remember some of his work here.

 I happened to re-read perhaps his most famous book, Interstellar Pig, earlier this year after running across a copy of it at a used book store.  This was the first science fiction book I ever read, and I was surprised how much I remembered about it.  In any event, I was probably about eight years old at the time and hadn’t ever seen anything like it.  I have no idea what possessed me to even read it at the time but I do remember thinking it was completely awesome, and I have to say that it holds up reasonably well even now that I’m an adult.

The protagonist of Interstellar Pig is a sixteen year old nerd with the unfortunate name of Barney who is on vacation with his irritating parents at the beach.  He would have much preferred to stay home and play fantasy board games (I guess if this book were written today instead of 1984 he’d be playing World of Warcraft instead).  They’ve rented a house that used to belong to an old sea captain who, the caretaker informs Barney, had an insane brother locked up in one of the rooms until he died there.  I should mention in passing that, in addition to the SF elements, this book was where I learned about what keelhauling was, a bit of trivia that’s been surprisingly useful over the years.

The tedium gets broken up a bit when Manny, Joe, and Zena show up at the house next door.  These three are impossibly cool.  They’re twentysomethings with lots of cash and are kind of vague about what they do and where they come from.  They also claim to want to hang out with Barney, but he seems to think they’re more interested in the beach house, which is the one they truly wanted to stay in.  In addition, they’ve also got the greatest board game ever, called “Interstellar Pig”.  It’s like the craziest Euro game you’ve ever seen, and the goal is to play one of several alien races and be in possession of the Piggy when the timer runs out.  If you’re not, then you and your home planet are destroyed.  If you’ve ever read anything like this before then you know that these three weirdos are actually aliens in disguise and the game that they are playing is very real.  But if, like eight year old me, you haven’t ever read anything like this before then it’s pretty goddamned amazing.

The three disguised aliens all think that Barney knows more than he’s letting on, and they’re right – he managed to decipher the captain’s insane brother’s scratching and has recovered what turns out to be the actual Piggy.  So each of them comes to him in turn and tries to bribe him with really cool stuff to turn it over.  Zena in particular throws in some additional elements very tempting to a sixteen year old boy (and this went right over my head the first time I read it; good thing that he didn’t accept since she turns out to be a horrible arachnid beast).  When he refuses he’s informed that by doing so he’s entered the game on behalf of Earth and he’d better get ready to have a duel to the death.  This is pretty unfair but I guess that’s just how life goes sometimes.  By the terms of the game they do have to give him some equipment, and it turns out that they’re all mutually hostile as well – they were only cooperating until they had a pretty good idea of where the Piggy could be found.  So at least they’re all trying to take each other out as well, and they don’t think he’s their major threat.

It’s established fairly early on that humans are significantly less intelligent than the three alien monsters (the aforementioned horrible arachnid, a fish-monster, and some sort of floating jellyfish thing), but Barney still manages to spot a logical flaw in the description of the game, namely, how everyone knows that you get blown up if you don’t have the Piggy if there aren’t any survivors to tell the tale.  Everyone’s kinda vague on when exactly the timer runs down or when the last time it happened was.  He takes the somewhat obvious gambit of trying to contact the Piggy itself, which turns out to be reasonably communicative through telepathy.  When confronted, it tells Barney that it actually has bouts of hiccups which manifest as huge nuclear blasts, and that it spread the rules of the game itself so that it wouldn’t be exiled (it gets lonely).  So Barney has to decide if either one of these stories is true, figure out what to do with the Piggy, survive the attacks of three pissed off aliens, and avoid being eaten by the fourth alien race that arrives to try and claim the prize.  Simple enough.

It’ll probably never be on a Hugo short list but it’s entertaining, and it was enough of a formative influence on me that I remembered most of the details pretty well after nearly 25 years.  There are plenty of ostensibly better books that I didn’t remember as fondly or as well.  Apparently, Sleator wrote a sequel to this book much later, but I’ve never read it.

Sleator’s best-reviewed book is probably House of Stairs, which I read a couple of years after Interstellar Pig.  This was probably the first dystopian book I’d ever read and it scared me silly.  The protagonists of this one are also sixteen year olds, this time taken from orphanages and placed into a weird governmental facility from which they can’t escape.  There’s no outside human contact.  Instead, there’s a food dispenser which gives them food pellets (at intervals) and water (on demand).  There’s no disembodied control voice or anything, but gradually the dispenser only works when the teens engage in coordinated choreography.  The characters eventually figure out what they’re expected to do through trial and error, which means that if they don’t do what the machine wants then they’re in danger of starving.  Eventually it expects them to commit acts of cruelty against each other.  I had no idea what operant conditioning was at the time, but it’s a pretty harrowing story, especially since none of these kids will be missed if something terrible happens to them.  The overarching theme here is something that Terry Pratchett made explicit in one of his Discworld books – that every human being ultimately has the power to say “no” and take the consequences.  Rather than comply with the increasingly sadistic demands of the unseen controllers, two of the characters choose to starve themselves.  In any real life situation where the government is doing this sort of thing they’d probably end up actually dying or getting a bullet in the back of the head, but nonetheless they get a reprieve in the end.  It’s still pretty intense, and I was actually scared to read anything else by Sleator for some years as a result.

Eventually I did, though; some of them are pretty good (I remember The Green Futures of Tycho with great fondness) and all the ones I read were of at least above-average quality.  The best of the remainder was probably Singularity, in which a sixteen year old (again!) twin finds that his late uncle’s shack contains a spatial anomaly which creates a time dilation effect – time passes much slower in there than it does to an observer outside.  Since he’s tired of being overshadowed by his more confident and outgoing twin he decides to spend an entire year in the shed, during which time only a single night will elapse to the rest of the world.  Also, if you fill up the sink in there you can see a horrible creature getting closer and closer.  It turns out to be friendly, or at least benign, but mostly it’s just a psychological study of why he’d want to do such a thing and how he accomplishes it.

With their mix of hard science and space opera, most of these novels are far above the curve for what you generally see in juvenile fiction generally and juvenile SF in particular.  For whatever reason, I haven’t read any of his work written past the early 1990s, which is apparently of varying quality; Sleator apparently suffered from some personal issues and health problems in later life which affected his writing (but not his output, admirably).  So rest well, William Sleator.  I’m sure many other people have as fond memories as I do.

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