John Sladek’s 1968 The Reproductive System is a stand-alone near-future science fiction novel.
Faced with impending bankruptcy due to declining sales, the board of Millford’s venerable Wompler company (manufacturers of Wompler’s Walking Babies) uncharacteristically embraces bold change. Rather than looking for ways to better appeal to their traditional market — young girls — they decide to become part of America’s thriving military industrial complex.
Exactly what a minor doll company located in the middle of nowhere has to offer the military industrial complex is of no concern. The important thing is to get their hands on those sweet, sweet government funds.
The gambit proves successful. Millford becomes home to Wompler Research Laboratories, a military research facility specializing in self-assembling machines and other matters, guided by the mysterious Dr. Smilax. The Womplers are not intellectually gifted men, but as long as the money keeps coming in, they are not inclined to ask a lot of questions about what their labs are doing. Just as well; they probably would not understand the answers and would be terrified if they did.
Cal was hired at the lab because he headed his class at MIT. The Womplers not being detail-focused, they saw only the coveted initials and not that that in this case MIT stands for the Miami Institute of Technocracy or that there were only four people in Cal’s class. Educationally crippled by his eccentric father, armed with a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in biophysics, Cal offers nothing of value to the lab. Painfully aware of this, Cal comes to work every day hoping that nobody will discover the lacunae in his background.
Dr. Smilax is as competent as Cal is worthless. Accordingly, his facility does in fact accomplish its goal of creating a machine able to replicate itself using scavenged materials. Indeed, the program appears to have been all too successful, as the machines run riot1. Cal shuts down the system’s central computer to prevent the machines from swarming out across America, saving the world — at the cost of his job.
In fact, while Cal has very definitely been fired, he has not saved the world. Dr. Smilax’s goals are far more expansive than the Womplers know and the scientist is brilliant enough to have contingency plans for premature exposure.
The Reproductive System was not destroyed. It was merely driven into hiding. When the moment is right, and the moment will be soon, cities across the world will fall to the System. The System will rule the world and Dr. Smilax will rule the system.
I encountered this as Mechasm.
The Reproductive System seems to have been Sladek’s preferred title.
John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was a member of the New Wave way back when. In his day, he was a well-regarded satirist, a reliable source of black comedies. Unfortunately, his day seems to have ground to a halt around 1990, after which date no new novels were published. I have no idea what led to the abrupt hiatus, whether it was an author-driven reason like writer’s block (or illness) or simply that publishers no longer cared to publish his novels.
In this setting, almost everyone with wealth and power is either stupendously ignorant — a Japanese researcher is hired because one of the Womplers believes all Asian people know martial arts and he wants to learn the deadly art of origami — or deranged. Unfortunately for the world, Smilax falls into the second category. Worse, there is no real system of checks and balances because the people in a position to enforce such a system are either stupendously ignorant or deranged.
To balance this, eccentricity, incompetence, and a very impressive capacity for paranoia are well distributed through the population. In large part this is due to the terrible childhoods to which many characters have been subjected. Do reviews need a terrible parenting warning? If so, consider this such a warning. Despite extreme brevity, this novel demonstrates an impressive range of ways in which parents can damage their children, methods such as forbidding them to read or raising them as a dog2. Unsurprisingly, kids raised by loons often (although not always) grow up to be subpar parents themselves.
The plot moves along with enormous speed, leaping from character to character across the whole of the world and into space itself. Irrationality often devolves into violence — this is a comedy but a very dark one. While the plot sometimes flirts with collapsing into complete chaos, it never quite plummets over the brink3. The novel somehow avoids outright nihilism. The characters may be absurd, their plans ridiculous, their love affairs needlessly convoluted and doomed, but enough of them are sympathetic that readers will (probably) not want the world to simply burn.
It would be wonderful if one could dismiss Sladek’s worldbuilding as absurd nonsense driven by the needs of black comedy. Alas, we now seem to be living in a John Sladek world. At least Sladek offers readers the chance to laugh in the face of unrelenting absurdity.
1: Why did the Womplers not consider the possibility that their machines might run amok? The Womplers prefer to keep their focus on business and their hobbies. When someone name-drops Frankenstein in their hearing, their only reaction is to be worried they’ve accidentally hired a Jew.
2: The servant who drives a bewildered girl out of the house for having been scandalously raped at gunpoint by a madman hired by her excessively optimistic father is only acting as a parent but still deserves special mention.
3: Which is more than a number of the less fortunate characters can say.