Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was first published in 1983. It won the 1984 British Science Fiction Association Award. I read the DAW 1985 edition with cover art by Peter Gudynas. At 254 pages, this is a relatively fast read, nothing overwhelmingly difficult or causing brain-drain.
The whole novel is something of a vicious satirical autobiography of the title character, a robot named Tik Tok. This name should be familiar to all of those who are acquianted with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. In that series, a servant “mechanical man” is named Tik Tok. Using flashbacks this autobiography, Me, Robot, is a parody of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot novel. Parodying Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Sladek utilizes the story of a robot to heap condemnation upon human society. In essence, the novel is not Tik-Tok, but rather Me, Robot and we are shown the worst of humanity through the eyes of the character Tik Tok.
When I say “the worst of humanity,” I think many readers may skim that phrase. Sladek traipses his robot character through many aspects of human society – the taboo, the ridiculous, the morally decrepit – and despises them. However, Sladek (and therefore Tik Tok) keep a distant and rather deadpan reaction throughout. Readers may be more accustomed to virulent and emotional ravings about the ills of society and so be surprised when, here, they come upon a muted bluntly stated criticism.
At most, Tik Tok expresses only a vague surprise at the depths of immorality and ridiculousness that humanity affects. Nevertheless, the experiences that Tik Tok shares in his autobiography are from all locations, walks of life, and classes of people. In particular, the tactless yuppie and the ennui of the absurdly wealthy are highlighted. However, a Southern plantation family’s fall from grace, religious organizations, politics – in and out of America, sports, art and artisan lifestyles, hippies, activist groups, health care and medical organizations, commercialism, etc. are all mocked and shown to be farcical.
The storyline of Tik Tok is only interesting insofar as reading about robots is interesting. Tik Tok is mostly honest and only once witty to a noteworthy extent, so his autobiography is more so about the reactions humans have toward him. His “owners” have been from a variety of walks of life – but all possessed of a wretchedness that is characteristically (as Tik Tok sees it) human. They are stupid, conniving, vicious, sadistic, perverted, immoral, sycophantic, hedonist, and lazy. Even the game-players are cheaters. This book is about as anti-human, anti-compassionate, nihilist, and bitter as any book I know of. But the most horrific element of humanity as depicted in this novel is that they are all totally and willingly blinded to truths that they do not like; i.e. that a robot can be just as evil as they are.
There were times when I wondered whether the asimovs even existed. It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had both been conned into believing in programmed slavery. The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive. People wanted it to be true. They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves. So of course the manufacturers of robots would invent imaginary circuits to make it so. Ecce robo, they’d say. Here is a happy slave with a factory guarantee of trustworthiness. – chapter E, pg. 63
From the first chapter to the last, humans deceiving themselves as to what robots are capable of is constantly thrown at the reader. It seems ludicrous and absurd that humans are so clueless to such an extent. There are incidents spoofing the Titanic, religious evangelists, and even fast-food.
The old-fashioned hamburger was, in some run-down areas, no longer made of genuine soya, but was bulked out with chili-favored sawdust, celery-taste cotton waste, and so on, ending up so highly flavored that no new additive would be detected. – Chapter S, pg. 216
The criticism and bitterness toward humanity is actually so profound that it seems difficult to believe that Sladek wrote this in the early 1980s, because it surely seems still relevant today. And while I am not usually a fan of “over the top” miserableness, I appreciate the work in this novel. The current “hype” of pseudo-dystopian literature seems outright heroic and also part of that “total, willing denial” of reality when compared to this novel. This book is decidedly not for everyone. Good for when a mostly intelligent reader feels sick of society and is repulsed by the plastic, immoral, and gross face of humanity. Tick tock…