by John Sladek

Publisher: Corgi
Copyright: 1983
Printing: 1984
ISBN: 0-552-12454-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 174

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Tik-Tok is a domestic robot who, when the book opens (after the start of the framing story, putting him in a prison cell), is painting the dining room of his owners and watching a blind girl outside. Then a police officer comes, investigating the disappearance of the girl, and in the process treating Tik-Tok with the contempt that we find is a standard feature of human treatment of robots. After he leaves, Tik-Tok mentions that he's painted a mural in the dining room, which is both strange and completely against the desires of his owners. Then we find out why. And that's the start of this odd, short novel that takes aim at Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics and assumptions about the joys of household robots.

Nearly anyone who is familiar with science fiction knows Asimov's Three Laws, but of course Sladek fills the reader in. They're prioritized restrictions on the behavior of robots, designed (in Asimov's original idea) into their brains and programming so that they will always preserve human life, follow human orders, and preserve their own existence, strictly in that order. This, of course, was an idea made to be broken, and Asimov immediately set out to find loopholes, logical contradictions, breakdowns, and other problems with his rule set. But here, Sladek takes a different approach. Rather than launch a logical attack on the rules, he launches a sociological attack.

Tik-Tok is told in the first person from the robot's perspective. He's not so much an unreliable narrator as he is an elliptical one; nearly every event of consequence is circled and approached from behind. It turns what would have been a rather bloody book into one that walks a line between creeping nastiness and incongruous humor. In Tik-Tok, the three laws have broken down, after a life (told in flashbacks) of horrific and abusive treatment at the hands of one human after another. One half the story tells his systematic exploration of the possibilities of life without those restrictions; the other half tells his history in flashback, timed to reach the events of the start of the book just as the novel is ending. Throughout the main story, Tik-Tok mentions events before describing them, playing up revelations for sly shock value. The flashbacks, in contrast, are told in a much more matter-of-fact tone.

This is fascinating as an intellectual exercise, but unfortunately it didn't work for me as a story. There's not much in the way of a narrative. The main story shows the consistent stupidity of humans in the face of Tik-Tok violating their most certain assumptions about robots, while the flashbacks are mostly disconnected horrific stories of abuse (although the horror is — often thankfully — taken out of them by the flat affect of the narration). In both cases, it's devoid of any likeable characters unless one manages to like Tik-Tok, which is hard. The normal rising action of a story was missing for me, so without likeable characters I found it hard to either sustain interest or remember what was happening from moment to moment. The latter wasn't helped by the sideways, half-hinting way key events are revealed.

If one can get past the missing story, Tik-Tok does say some more interesting things about the hoary old trope of intelligent robots, and backhandedly about the difficulty humans have in seeing or understanding sociopaths. The comparisons of constructed intelligent robots to slavery are explicit and grotesque, and Sladek mixes them liberally with comparisons between robots and appliances or cars, vividly showing how cruel and vicious it would be to give such devices human-like intelligence. Humans do not come off well in this book at all. Neither do robots; the system corrupts both, creating either helpless servitude or Tik-Tok's eerily calm rage. I suspect Tik-Tok will make me uneasy about any Three Laws situation I read about going forward.

Tik-Tok is black comedy, but even for those who like that tone, it's very black. It's intellectually engaging, particularly if you (like I) have read innumerable stories on Asimov's Three Laws and the broader societal implications of machine intelligence, but without much of a story and no characters one can root for, I can't recommend it. I wish the ideas had been wrapped in a more engaging presentation.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-11-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21