a William Sleator primer

Once you read 20 books by the same author, you are almost inarguably a fan (but probably not an expert) of that author. This post is a partial “primer” of the works of William Sleator (1945-2011) wherein I provide at least a sentence or two about every title of his that I’ve been able to find and read.

Sleator was a science fiction author who wrote for the juvenile and young adult markets. I read The Green Futures of Tycho (1981) in my grade school library (back in late 1980’s), and it was my first legitimate science fiction reading experience. I’ve retained vivid memories of that book ever since, making Sleator one of the most important writers of my reading history.

A couple of years ago, I came across some more Sleator titles while helping my own kids find books in the juvenile section of the library. I decided to check out The House of Stairs (1974) … and have been reading every Sleator book I could find since then.

As seen in the descriptions below, Sleator’s works tend to feature life growing up in imperfect families, but also a deep distrust in non-family institutions (corporations, schools and medicine in particular). He adopted a large variety of SF tropes to these themes, and with well-realized characters, made a career’s worth of consistently readable novels.

Essentials

The Green Futures of Tycho (1981) describes the adventures of Tycho, the youngest of five siblings, who all (but for Tycho, who begins the story digging holes in backyard in a quest for dinosaur fossils) possess some sort of special talent. Tycho uncovers an egg-shaped time-travel device, and rapidly learns the power inherent in its use. His adventures take a troubling turn when he encounters other versions of himself.

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James Nazz cover for E.P. Dutton (isfdb.org)

Like many Sleator titles, this novel features the theme of sibling rivalry and the burden of keeping secrets. Also typical is the use of a familiar SF trope (here, it’s time travel) and an aggressive pace to the plot. We get to know the characters (good and bad, or ambiguous) in a very short amount of pages. This title obviously holds a special place in my memories, and remains one of my favorite books: 10/10.

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Richard Cuffari cover for E.P. Dutton (isfdb.org)

The House of Stairs (1974) features a group of five teenagers trapped in a maze of stairs and rooms, explicitly modeled after M.C. Esher’s “The House of Stairs.” As they attempt to survive, understand their prison and plot an escape, they appear to be behaviorally manipulated by disturbing outside forces. This tense mystery is probably Sleator’s most famous work: 8/10.

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Broeck Steadman cover for Puffin (amazon.com)

Singularity (1985) features twin brothers visiting the property of their recently-deceased relative in the middle of central Illinois cornfields. While exploring a strange shed, they come across a disruption of time and space, which soon provokes their competitive relationship. A very clever take on the “singularity” SF trope: 8/10.

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Penguin (amazon.com)

Oddballs (1993) is a semi-fictitious collection of stories about Sleator and his siblings during their childhood. Every episode is entertaining and worthwhile, and often very funny. This might be the only autobiographical work that has held my attention in recent years: 8/10.

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Paw Prints (amazon.com)

The Boy Who Couldn’t Die (1993) is Sleator’s version of a zombie story, where the zombies involved are of the voodoo, Caribbean variety. It is an adventure tale, but the characters are interesting and the plot has some surprising twists. His later works are not necessarily well known among the large amount of series these days, but I really enjoyed this one: 8/10.

Other favorites

Interstellar Pig (1984) is a moderately famous novel about a vacationing teenager who meets up with a group of mysterious but charming strangers, who have a strangely passionate relationship with a board game. This one deserves to be little more well known among the board gaming hobby: 7/10.

The Boxes (1998) is a “Pandora’s Box” story where the main character opens her strange uncle’s parcel to reveal mechanical automatons. Corporate villains soon take notice. Unlike the Pandora of myth, the protagonist Annie is a willful and clearly intelligent girl who struggles with her introverted nature and distrust in most adults (a character type Sleator makes use of in several books): 7/10.

Parasite Pig (2002) is a bizarre and, at times, disturbing, follow up to Interstellar Pig, where the game continues with new and even stranger “players.” This one made me suspect Sleator was a vegetarian: 7/10.

The Last Universe (2005) features a teenage girl who starts the story by pushing her brother (who is confined by severe illness to a wheelchair) through an expansive garden. This garden has something in common with the setting of the 1941 Borges story “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” which leads to a first-hand exploration of the quantum wave equation. As that last sentence implies, Sleator ambitiously handles some extremely tricky concepts, especially when there is an undercurrent of the impact of illness on family and social life. 7/10.

Hell Phone (2007) is a supernatural tale about cell-phone hacking and the afterlife. It is far better than I thought it ever could be, and is well worth a look: 7/10.

The Phantom Limb (2011) is a medical drama where a lonely boy works to save his mother from the confines of an nefarious hospital. This one also features illness, supernatural elements and a dogged protagonist. This is Sleator’s final book and has an abrupt ending among other flaws, but there is enough here to recommend it: 7/10.

Other works

The Boy Who Reversed Himself (1986) features journeys into an extra dimension: 6/10.

The Duplicate (1988) is about a cloning device, and corruptive influence of power: 5/10.

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Puffin. (amazon.com)

Strange Attractors (1989) begins with a our hero (Max, in the middle of the cover) receiving a phone call from a strange girl, which immediately makes him suspicious because he does not get calls from girls. Max then puts on his fanny pack, because he rarely goes anywhere without it. These two items might be related. The time-travel story that follows felt pretty standard: 5/10.

Others See Us (1993) involves mind-reading and some very strange swamp water, in a story about the hidden corrupted nature of a New England family. Though the SF trope he used is not my favorite, Sleator accomplishes some of his most interesting character development arcs in this one: 6/10.

The Night the Heads Came (1996) is a very fast-developing story amount alien invasion – the “heads” come on page 4: 5/10.

The Beasties (1997) describes adventures in the woods around a remote cabin, where nasty gnome-like creatures are involved. This one has quite the ending: 6/10.

Rewind (1999) is the tale of a junior-high loner who is killed by a car, but receives a chance to relive his final days and escape his fate: 5/10.

Marco’s Millions (2001) is a pre-quel to The Boxes, describing the adventures of Annie’s mysterious uncle Marco. Marco goes on a strange and interesting trip through a wormhole of sorts, but the character development did feel incomplete: 6/10.

Test (2008) is a fairly complex exercise in world-building, where a corporate-controlled school system yokes our main character to a dreaded final test. She rebels with the help of a shy Thai immigrant, but unfortunately the villain characters are not as well realized this time: 5/10.

By my ratings, his stronger works tended to come from the first half of his career, although I obviously found much to like from his post-Oddballs output as well. His style is very direct but he seems to always be capable of at least one or two surprising elements in every story.

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About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
This entry was posted in books, list, science fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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