Reading the BSFA Awards: 1983 “Tik-Tok” by John Sladek

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I’ve been reading and reviewing winners and nominees.

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1983 BSFA Award Winner)

Tik-Tok is the name of the robot whose viewpoint we follow through this sinister novel. An incident in which he (using that pronoun because it’s used in the novel) is beaten by a human has undone his programming that required him to follow Asimov’s laws of robotics. He’s taken to exploring his own murderous tendencies, alongside interactions with humans who are working to try to get pay and other rights for robots.

The book is thematically interesting, though only at a surface level. Other books have explored what happens when Asimov’s Laws are taken to their logical extreme (see the excellent novel, The Humanoids by Jack Williamson- link to my review), and certainly the implications of the laws themselves are fairly thoroughly explored in various literature. Here, however, a more novel question of “What happens if something happens to disable the laws?” is asked. It’s an intriguing premise, though ultimately not enough to carry the story.

The plot itself falters occasionally, especially when flashbacks start to intervene. It’s not a bad way of telling how Tik-Tok got to the point he’s at, but the choppy nature of the flashbacks, which are frequently broken up themselves over the course of several scenes, means that readers have to be hyper-aware of exactly what time they’re in as they’re reading. Thus, for example, there might be three timelines- A (present), B (5 years ago), and C (10 years ago), and the scenes might alternate like A, B, C, B, A, C, A, B or somesuch. It may never have been quite that extreme, but there were a few times I caught myself thinking I was in a different time than I was and getting quite confused. Again, this is largely because the flashbacks themselves are broken up so that the scenes aren’t entire vignettes at once.

The murders Tik-Tok commits are occasionally fairly gruesome, so readers with qualms about that kind of content will likely want to steer clear. One poignant scene has Tik-Tok describing why he does what he does, and he explains that he basically wants to know what it’s like to sin. It’s a powerful moment in the midst of what feels like violence for the sake of violence through most of the novel. Once we finally arrive at that scene, though, I as a reader had become mostly immune to the goings-on around Tik-Tok. The scenes shifted from violence to tormenting of robots to sexual or other deviancy to further violence to covering up violence and it all starts to get kind of jumbled together.

Sladek’s nearly bland way of telling the story works quite well in character. The matter-of-fact tone lends a sense of the truly depraved to our robotic point of view, and made me as a reader struggle to put a moral compass on the novel.

Ultimately, Tik-Tok may have worked better as a novella or short story instead of a novel. The question at the core of the novel is of interest, but can’t sustain the action across a work of a novel’s length. The few reasons to relate to Tik-Tok combined with a choppy storytelling style made it a difficult read overall.

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Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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SDG.

Reading the BSFA Awards: 2021- “The Animals in that Country” by Laura Jean McKay

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals in that Country won the 2021 BSFA Award, but wasn’t on a shortlist for the Hugo, Nebula, or Locus for best novel. It’s another example of the BSFA Award giving a different look than the other major speculative fiction awards.

I was skeptical going in to this one, to be honest. Literary science fiction is very hit or miss for me, and often seems to suffer from the authors having a kind of disdain for “genre fiction” that shows up in weird ways in their works. The cover was kind of off-putting to me as well. The expression on the taxidermized (I learned a new word!) goat’s face is a weird mix of seriousness with maybe a hint of stern, while the young woman examining it looks confused and perhaps put off.

The contents of the novel itself doesn’t match any of these expectations. The story follows Jean, a grandma with an alcohol problem who works at an Australian zoo giving tours. She’s trying to take care of her granddaughter, Kimberly, while also navigating the expectations and hopes she has for her own life. If you told me based on the cover of this novel I’d be delighted by an extremely sardonic, liquor-downing grandma who gives wildlife tours for fun and enjoys the occasional sex on the side with another zookeeper, I’d have told you to your face that you’re a liar. But here we are.

Jean is a delightful narrative voice to read, even as she goes off on tangents about conspiracy theories she finds and immediately believes on Reddit and other sites and comments on current events like someone who’s gone deep down the rabbit hole of believing literally any conspiracy possible. I honestly still don’t know how McKay manages to make this work because all of this is a character I have a kind of aversion to on paper, but McKay makes her personable and even sympathetic. It’s probably the relentless dark humor that got to me. Jean doesn’t pull punches, and she just comments on things without a thought.

There’s a plot about a pandemic, too. I didn’t think I’d like that aspect, but the pandemic lets people understand animals, and vice versa. I saw some readers saying this made the story creepy and even “horror,” but I didn’t get that vibe at all. Maybe it’s because of Jean’s tone throughout the novel, or the interludes of biting flies attacking her and getting slaughtered by her hands before one finally gets into her ear and says something like “This is nice” because it’s warm and safe, but I never was even worried in the novel. It was just a comfort read, despite sometimes graphic awfulness.

The only complaint I have about the novel is the ending. It just felt extremely abrupt. Huge spoilers here, obviously: the government just zooms in, vaccinates everyone, and Jean can’t hear animals anymore, losing her connection to the dingo that she’d forged throughout the novel thus far. It’s so sudden and accompanied by the idea of “going back to normal.” I don’t really know what point is being made with it. It just… ends.

The Animals in that Country is a great read that once again has a very different feel from other major speculative fiction award nominees. I enjoyed it immensely, though I’m still kinda bummed about the ending.

All Amazon Links are Affiliates

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.