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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Reproductive System

John Sladek

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To purchase The Reproductive System

Title: The Reproductive System
Author: John Sladek
Genre: Novel
Written: 1968
Length: 192 pages
Availability: The Reproductive System - US
in Gateway Omnibus - US
The Reproductive System - UK
in Gateway Omnibus - UK
The Reproductive System - Canada
Mecasme - France
Die stählerne Horde - Deutschland
Il sistema riproduttivo - Italia
  • The US edition was originally published as Mechasm

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Our Assessment:

B : roams a bit widely and wildly, but sharp, and good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times A 30/6/1968 Edmund Cooper
The Times A 29/6/1968 J.G.Ballard
TLS . 3/10/1968 Edmund Crispin

  From the Reviews:
  • "(V)ery much on the Vonnegut wavelength and of the same high quality. In fact, the similarity of style, attitudes and technique is amazing. (...) He has written an original novel that will surely become a classic of the genre. Although there are minor defects, such as overemphasis (difficult to avoid when using an incisive style) and a touch of hazy development, The Reproductive System is superb entertainment. It is full of invention, wit and subtly sad comedy. The plot is absurdly prodigal. (...) I am going to read this book more than once." - Edmund Cooper, Sunday Times

  • "The same oblique humour fills this brilliant spoof on American industry's marriage of convenience with the United States Government. (...) Sladek's droll wit fills the narrative with grotesque characters" - J.G.Ballard, The Times

  • "The book has gusto and is often funny, but no amount of animation can disguise the banality of the basic theme. It would perhaps have been better if Mr. Sladek had matched outrageous manner with outrageous matter, as Mr. Kurt Vonnegut did in The Sirens of the Titan." - Edmund Crispin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Reproductive System begins with the Wompler family business on the cusp of closing shop: their signature product, Wompler's Walking Babies, no longer in demand -- "Little girls don't want Wompler's Walking Babies any more. They want Barbie dolls". They're resigned to the fact that that product has no future -- but then they have an idea of how to keep going: "Why don't we get some money from the govermint ?" Sure, "Times have changed since the WPA, y'know", and they'd have to come up with: "some real, some practical idea to sell them", but with a relative on the Senate appropriations committee, how hard can that be ?
       So the business becomes Wompler Research Laboratories, and Toto Smilax starts work on Project 32, to determine:

(a) if it were possible to set into motion an autonomous, self-reproducing mechanism, a 'Reproductive System', and
(b) the military use, if any, of such a system
       Needless to say, it proves possible .....
       In short order, metal boxes are scurrying about -- and before you know it they've really latched onto the 'autonomous' and 'self-reproducing' expectations built into them. They start gobbling up anything that's metal, and spitting out new variations of themselves. And they prove to have another dominant trait as well: that of self-preservation, as they don't look kindly on anyone trying to shut them down or stop their progress.
       After a first brief show of their potential everything still seems under (human) control; soon enough, it's clear things (these things ...) aren't. The boxes are on the march, decimating any site they set their sights on. Eventually it turns out that they aren't entirely autonomous: they're programmed to accept orders from the "unimpeachable source" Smilax: whatever he says trumps any other information they process. And, yes, he's a bit of a megalomaniac crazy scientist:
In a short time there will exist nothing else, only Project 32, only the Reproductive System, in my world.
       And unfortunately he's not in this to do good and make the world a better place:
     'My goal,' he said in ringing tones, 'is the infliction of the greatest possible amount of pain upon the greatest possible number of beings, at all times, everywhere: Weltschmerz !
       He is slightly worried about 'the Porteus effect' -- when an invention turns on its inventor -- but he thinks he has that covered; nevertheless, it hardly comes as a surprise that he will eventually find himself hoisted by his own petard. Which still leaves a rampaging Reproductive System -- and some still arguing that mankind should cede its preëminent place:
If there is not room for man, so be it ! Let man step aside, so that this greater, more perfect successor may have room in which to grow !
       Sladek opts for the all's-well-that-end's-well alternative, a best possible worlds spin that finds the Reproductive System pretty much taking care of all of humanity's problems -- a simple happy end to close what otherwise is a much darker and more sinister vision.
       While the creeping domination of the Reproductive System is central to the novel, the boxes and the workings of the system as a whole don't dominate the story. Instead, Sladek shifts between various characters, variously involved in the project -- and often at quite a remove from it. A secondary storyline goes completely elsewhere, with a CIA spy who winds up in Morocco on a mission that focuses on the first (and French, at that) mission to the moon, aboard a rocket called Le Bateau Ivre. (Published in 1968, the novel imagines the Americans getting pipped at the line, after spending untold fortunes in their own efforts to send someone to the moon.)
       Much of the novel is sharp and sharply observed satire -- though the humor can also be pretty basic, as with the MIT-graduate who wants to come clean about which MIT he had actually graduated from (Miami, rather than Massachusetts ...; hey, it wasn't his fault: when applying for the position: "In the tiny box on the card where he was to write the name of his school, there was only room for the abbreviation 'MIT'. He was hired by return mail"). Quite a few of the characters are over the top -- mad scientist, a super-entitled general, dedicated marines -- but enough others are sufficiently grounded to keep the book from seeming entirely silly; it's definitely of the Catch-22/Dr.Strangelove etc. school and era in this regard.
       If a bit free-wheeling and splattered all over the place, Sladek does show a lot of (uncontained) talent: the writing is sharp, and many of the asides -- scenes as well as sentences -- are very well observed and phrased. He avoids going too surreal, though description of the how and what of the self-replicating boxes demands a bit of this kind of freedom -- and the few places he really lets go also work:
Walls advanced, turned, retreated or collapsed, ceiling buckles and bulged, floors tilted alarmingly or dropped away like elevators. A door might lead to a room fifty storeys high, or to one only an inch deep, or it might be false.
       And the odd rocket-ship side-story has its moments too, not least in a final scene where the surviving character finds: "he was looking at a tower, very like the Eiffel Tower, sliding by him slowly. Amazingly real it was".
       The satire in The Reproductive System is fast and far-flung -- more splatter than carefully layered story and lesson. It can feel like Sladek has too much to say, and so he heaps it on in quick bursts; the story is also a bit torn here and there by its large cast of characters and just how much he wants to make of some of them; the constant back and forth give the whole a wobblier feel than the fundamentally sound and thought-through structure should have.
       The Reproductive System is a bit exhausting for a relatively short novel, but there's certainly enough here to make it worth the effort, both in Sladek's writing and with the issues he addresses. In particular, of course, the concern about autonomous AI and where it could go/lead remains a fundamental one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 September 2019

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The Reproductive System: Reviews: John Sladek: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author John Sladek lived 1937 to 2000.

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© 2019 the complete review

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