John Sladek
Tik-Tok Cover



Full Discloure: I have never read read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. I saw part of the Will Smith film in a hotel once but dozed off before it was over -- $9.00 down the drain. With no more exposure than I have had, however, I know the basics about the Asimov circuits and the rules for robots -- they cannot injure human beings, they must obey orders, they can protect themselves so long as such action does not harm humans.

Sladek's protagonist Tik-Tok lives in a future world where millions of robots perform for humans a range of life enhancing functions. But as it seems would be bound to happen occasionally in a time of such mass production, Tik-Tok has defective Asimov circuits. He is a totally amoral machine. You learn that early on when in the first chapter he murders a little blind girl and arranges to pin the crime on a elderly neighbor. The girl has tracked mud into the home Tik-Tok keeps immaculate for the Studebaker family who happen to be out of town for summer vacation. But the slaughter has an up side. In painting over the blood splatter on the wall, Tik-Tok feels an aesthetic stirring that leads him to paint a mural rather than a solid surface. The novelty of a robot with artistic tendencies sends Tik-Tok on a trajectory that catapults him into the highest echelons of power, although his sharp business sense, some murders of convenience, and a total lack of morals will also serve him well

Sladek's published this black comic romp in 1983, and its satire holds up well thirty years later. Tik Tok narrates his progress in the artistic, business, and political communities with frequent flash backs to his life before the suburban idyll of the Studebaker home. The humans he has served are for the most part a scurvy lot. Sladek has most fun with the Southern Culpepper clan, eccentrics and deviants who have taken advantage of robot culture to restore their plantation to antebellum splendor. Their comeuppance is complete and quite satisfying. There is also the purveyor of a popular but crooked pancake emporium and a retired judge who buys scrap robots on the cheap for the pleasure of dismantling them a ghoulishly as possible. "It relaxes him," his sympathetic wife explains. When Tik-Tok meets up with a band of space pirates they will prove to be valuable allies.

I've read some reviews that complain Sladek's satire is scattershot and pointless. That observation is true but beside the point. Tik-Tok is a "Rake's Progress" without the impediment of a moral. It's jaundiced vision is redeemed by sheer liveliness. Although redemption is not a concept Sladek traffics in.