- Roderick (#1)
- Published by Granada
- First published in 1980
- Social SF
- 348 pages
Roderick is a machine. The first artificial intelligence. Born in a lab, he has only one wish. To know what it is that makes humanity tick. His search for answers will lead him to adventure, and into danger . . .
I have a long-running enthusiasm for robots. I, Robot is an all-time classic (and the film adaptation is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe) and artificial intelligences of all kinds tend to be the high point of all manner of stories. One common trope for synthetic life forms is the idea that they would long to be as human as their design makes them look. While this is often the result of the simple fact that a human is playing said synthetic on screen, and actors tend to enjoy being able to play something other than emotionless robot, it’s a trope that has endured for reasons beyond simple budgetary restraints. Data from The Next Generation and the Android from Dark Matter are among the best portrayals of this humanity-seeking ideal.
Roderick, or The Education of a Young Machine, to give it its alternative title, is among the worst. Not necessarily because of the characterisation, but because of everything that surrounds it. You see, this isn’t just a story about a robot exploring the world it lives in. It’s also a comedy.
This next confession might draw the ire of any fantasy readers who stroll through this way, but one of my least favourite fantasy series is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Roderick reminds me a lot of that work, in that the constant hunt for humour overrides everything else, from plot to worldbuilding to character work. Every authority figure and organisation is ruthlessly lampooned and sent up, leading the whole book to become a farce. And of course, with this having elements of social satire, it is rooted in a period and place I have no experience of, so that humour just doesn’t work for me. Not that any of the rest of it does.
With none of the comedic elements tickling my funny bone, it falls to the rest of the book to grip me. Unfortunately, scraping around the edge of the humour fails to bring anything out. With everything subservient to the humour, the handful of decent science fictional ideas present don’t have enough meat on them to properly chew. I just find myself wishing there had been more moments of seriousness going on. There’s the barest bones of a good story in here, but Sladek’s writing (and dare I say his general attitude towards storytelling) just leaves me cold.
This book also has the odd structure of being divided in two by a seemingly arbitrary line. Apparently, there is a sequel that was originally intended to be an extension of the same volume. Part of me wonders if this is a story that grew longer and longer as Sladek though of more comedy ideas, but ultimately never developed some key elements any further than a short story would have been able to contain. Had the book been three hundred pages shorter, and tucked into a larger collection, I dare say I might have enjoyed it a little more. Certainly i wouldn’t have found it to be so intolerable.