Arachne Rising: the search for the thirteenth sign of the zodiac by "James Vogh" (John Sladek) (1977)
It takes a special kind of person to go searching for the thirteenth sign of the zodiac. It takes an even more special kind of person to find it. John Sladek was not like the other children.
Sladek (1933-2000) was an American (Iowa-born; you can't get much more American than that) who spent the first twenty years of his writing career in England and was associated with science fiction's "New Wave." He was one of the field's greatest satirists in the last half of the twentieth century. Nothing, it seemed, was too sacred for his pen. His first science fiction novel, The Reproductive System, (he had published two paperback gothics previously, one with Thomas M. Disch) was a brilliant allegory of technology gone wrong and featured a self-replicating robot. His next, The Muller-Fokker Effect, had his hapless protagonist'spersonality tranfered to a computer, then replicated a number of times with each "clone" encountering fantastic (and sometimes terrifying) experiences with Big Business, Big Religion, patriotism, and the decline of America. Roderick and Roderick at Random (whose full, unexpergated taxt was later relased as The Complete Roderick) is a bildungsroman about a young robot child who is trying to understand his place in human society, and Tik-Tok gives us a sociopathic robot with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.
And there were the short stories -- "Masterton and the Clerks," "The Poets of Millgrave, Iowa," as well as a number of satires that skewered well-known writers such as Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury -- each a spot-on parody. And his two Thackeray Phin detective novels, Black Aura and Invisible Green, each brilliant locked room mysteries that deserve to be more widely known. And Black Alice, written with Disch, a fantastic thriller in which a missing white child is hidden from sight by turning her into a black child.
You may have noticed that I haven't started to talk about Arachne Rising yet. What can I say? The title tells you what the book is about. For 203 pages, the author details his theme, then he dives further in with even more appendices of Celebrities and Statistics (four pages), The Psychic Horoscope (eleven pages, including four pages of "Conversion Tables"). and an exhaustive twelves pages of Biliographic Notes (exactly 300 of 'em). as well as a ten-page index. References there a-plenty -- of alien visitors, prehistoric myths, Atlantis, ancient civilizations, moon cycles, Stonehenge. folklore, King Arthur, christianity, the Kabbalah, the Tarot, Nostrodamus, Psi, the occult, reincarnation, psychic surgery, Edgar Cayce, Bishop Pike, Charles Fort, telepathy, out-of-body experiences, Uri Geller, mediums, dreams, and prophecy. (I'd list more, but my fingers got tired just typing these.)
Sladek, you see, was a rationalist. He also had a strong antipathy for gullible people. In writing Arachne Rising, his intent was to demonstrate that people will believe anything. It worked: "many readers apparently believed that it recorded an authentic discovery," according to critic John Clute. Never underestimate the power of a detailed, dead-pan hoax.
Sladek's previous non-fiction book, The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Sciences and Occult Beliefs, was a straight-forward examination of fringe thinking and pseudosciences, many of which were revisited in Arachne Rising and two further hoax examinations, The Cosmic Factor: Bioastrology and You (as "Voht") and Judgment on Jupiter (as "Richard A. Tilms"). Sadly, any copy of The New Apocrypha after 1973 has been cut/censored after a threat of legal action from the Church Scientology. (Pooh on you, L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige!)
Sorry I didn't go into more detail about Arachne Rising, but the book has to actually be read to be
As for Sladek, that's one writer due for a major rediscovery. He was funny, talented, incisive, a tad melancholy, and more than a tad spot-on.
Hey, Kids: My copy of this book is up for grabs! If you are interested, just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your snail mail address. Be sure to reference your e-mail as Arachne; otherwise it may be deleted without being opened due to the fact that I hate Spam. The first to reply gets the book.