Update 2012.0822: in 2006 I wrote an article titled "25 books by
William Sleator," covering the bulk of Sleator's oeuvre up to that point.
It wound up becoming one of the most visited pages on my site, and I
wondered whether I ought to keep it continually updated... but then I
thought, nah, I'll update it in batches. Maybe every five or ten books,
As it turned out, Sleator died in 2011, having released three books since
I posted my article. Unless he's got a bunch more packed away in a trunk
somewhere, this will be the only update. (I actually wouldn't be all that
surprised if he did have such a trunk somewhere. Hell, given how prolific
he was, I wouldn't be all that surprised if he'd lost a manuscript or two
under the sofa.)
So, first, the article as originally presented in 2006...
A few months ago, in my article on the movie
Primer, I wrote:
I imagine that Carruth got a pretty good return on his $7000 investment. I
hope William Sleator got a cut. Primer is highly reminiscent of
The Green Futures of Tycho, Singularity, The Boy Who Reversed
Himself, The Duplicate, and Strange Attractors — and
those are only the ones I read before losing track of Sleator in the early
1990s. Hmmm. I see here in Wikipedia that he's since written ten more. One
of them is called The Boxes. The one after that is called Rewind.
Crikey, this bibliography is practically a Primer plot summary.
After writing this, I decided to read the ten new ones. Then I figured I'd
go ahead and read the older books of Sleator's that I hadn't read yet, just
for the sake of completism. The only ones I skipped were the picture books
(though I did flip through Once, Said Darlene) and the non-fiction
book on psychological conditioning (though I did read it fifteen years ago).
So what does that leave?
For the most part, it leaves YA SF: science fiction for young adults. "Young
adults" is kind of a misnomer, of course; the target audience for these books
is in junior high. I mean, yes, junior high kids are adults to the extent
that they can get each other pregnant, but their books are still shelved in
the children's section of most libraries. This has made checking out Sleator's
oeuvre slightly embarrassing. Though not quite as embarrassing as going to the
library at age 20 and being told that I had a large fine due because I hadn't
returned my copy of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. (I had too!)
I first encountered William Sleator's work in the mid-1980s, when I got a copy
of The Green Futures of Tycho from Little Professor Books across from
the Supercuts in, hmm, I think Placentia? I still have my original, now quite
battered copy — I think that of my current collection it may be the book
I've owned the longest. (The prize for reading material in general on that
score goes to my equally battered copy of Iron Man #174.) I'll talk
about Tycho some more below, but for now I'll just say that while I
recognize that it's not really anything special, it was a pretty important
building block in my own development as a writer. I liked it enough to check
out some more of Sleator's work, some of which turned out to be better than
Tycho and indeed good enough to make me think, over twenty years later,
"Hey, maybe I'll read all of this guy's books."
(Specifically, after I read Tycho, I checked House of Stairs out
of my junior high library — it was in the Special Permission section, next
to a book called Rape. Interstellar Pig I got out of the Canyon
Hills Library. Fingers I happened to find a copy of in Mrs. Giroux's
classroom. And those are the Sleator books I read at the proper age. Everything
else I read either in college or this summer.)
Sleator's books are not very impressive at first glance. The prose is strictly
functional, not lyrical or witty. Characterization is fairly minimal. But
here's the thing. Scott McCloud wrote about how there are six levels to a
work of art — idea, form, idiom, structure, craft, and surface —
and also about how the more one delves into an art form, the less surface
matters. This is borne out by my own experience. For instance, when I was
fifteen and getting into the Beatles, my favorite songs tended to be the ones
that, right on first listen, sounded wild and different: "Revolution 9,"
"Because," "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the like. I couldn't understand why
critics paid attention to the old obsolete stuff from 1964... until years
later, when I started writing songs myself and marveled at what the Beatles
were able to create without sharply deviating from the strictures of
the standard pop song. And while YA SF is a much narrower and less powerful
type of art than rock music, Sleator too is a master of his idiom. He may not
be much of an experimenter where form is concerned, and his surface may not be
very glitzy, but his stories are almost always extremely solid.
In fact, Sleator's stylelessness achieves much the same effect as
Scott McCloud's "styleless" art. Or, to make another
analogy, by taking basic SF tropes and building small YA novels around them
in a clean, simple style, Sleator seems to me to be doing something similar
to restaurants like
preparing each ingredient well enough to showcase it without adornment.
These aren't sprawling novels; they're just the right size to make awesome
movies. Or, rather, they're just the right size to make movies, and by
keeping things spare, he leaves room for people like me to imagine all the
great little character touches we'd add to make them awesome ones.
But enough generalities. Let's get to specifics. [For those not familiar
with the scale I use on this site, ratings range from 0 to 24,
24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16
15 14 13 12 11 10
9 8 7 6 5 4
3 2 1
An asymmetrical 0 to 24 scale may not be intuitive, I realize. But as a
rule of thumb: a double-digit score means I liked it without any serious
reservations, while a single-digit score means "maybe not so much."]
trope: haunted house
An orphaned boy named Danny and his guardian, a school secretary, move from
London to a cottage out in the middle of nowhere that all the locals seem to
be afraid of. There is some mystery about a strange wooden doll and
some chanting and a list of names in the cellar that ultimately leads
to the boy trying to save his guardian's cat from Satanists.
Though Blackbriar is not really an auspicious debut —
Sleator had already published a picture book called The Angry Moon,
but this was his first novel — quite a few of the themes that would
go on to dominate Sleator's work are already on display here. You've got
missing parents: a hallmark of nearly all children's stories, to be sure,
but we'll see it crop up over and over. Sleator's parents, even when they
are around, tend to be ineffectual and shallow. You've got a bad guardian:
the secretary isn't nasty and crass the way some of Sleator's later guardians
are, but she actively chases off all of Danny's potential friends so she can
have all his attention. And then you've got a remarkably sexless romance
subplot. Sleator's characters are all exasperatingly reserved. I can think
of only one place in his entire body of work where anyone dares to talk
about love, whether it be between family members or potential sweethearts.
In Blackbriar, Danny meets a girl named Lark (great evocative name,
but she turns out to be kind of a cipher) and they actually kiss at one
point. Having read Sleator's later work, I was shocked. But the kiss is
never mentioned again, nor is there any follow-up.
trope: the calls are coming from inside the house
This story is basically warmed-over Denny O'Neil stuff. A girl left
home alone (missing parents!) at an isolated cottage meets two boys who
are on a biking trip and then have to stay over because of a sudden
thunderstorm. There is no hanky-panky (sexless!) but a small mystery
does develop when the radio and TV go missing and one of the boys starts
acting weird. The kids also think they see some sort of intruder, both
outside and inside the house.
Sleator wasn't an SF writer yet, so it turns out that the explanation
is that a junkie has been stealing stuff to feed his habit. There is
some discussion of whether they should turn him into the corrupt local
police or help him hide from them, along with ruminations about who's
really to blame for the way things have turned out. The problem is
that these three kids are no fun to spend time with, and the protagonist
is particularly annoying. This book was the hardest of the 25 to track
down, and there's a pretty good reason for that.
House of Stairs, 1974|
If you've heard of one William Sleator book, this is the one. It's a
classic. It also holds a special place in my heart because it came up
in conversation during the brief window after I had decided that I had
a crush on Jennifer but before I had told her so, and so I told her I'd
send her a copy (not mentioning that it was my only copy) and, after
getting her address, proceeded to do so. It was my first gift to her
(and yes, it would be hard to find a less romantic one, but hey).
Eventually I moved in with her and so I never bought a replacement copy
because, hey, it was still in the house, right? But when we split up,
I didn't take it, because I had inscribed it to her. I should probably
stop talking about this.
So. House of Stairs. In a dystopian near future in which the
air has become unfit to breathe, the culture has turned disturbingly
prudish, and the government has become a police state, five orphans
(missing parents!) are taken to a sort of bio-dome full of nothing
but white staircases and a machine that dispenses food. But it
doesn't do so on command. When the machine's light flashes, they
have to dance for it in order to receive their food. And they never
know when the light will flash. But it seems to flash more often when
they are cruel to each other.
House of Stairs is Sleator's first SF book, not just because it's
set in what was then the future but also because it's a story organized
around a scientific concept rather than just a story about a house Sleator
happened to be living in. Sleator was big enough on behavior modification
through operant conditioning that he co-wrote a non-fiction book about it,
making it a natural subject for his initial foray into science fiction.
But while with House of Stairs Sleator had located the genre he
would be writing in for decades, it is still quite unlike his subsequent
books in a few ways. For one, it's largely a character piece, a sort of
teenage No Exit in which hell is the four other kids. One of them,
Blossom, is a character Sleator would go on to use over and over again:
she's one-dimensional, fat, ugly, and nasty with no redeeming qualities.
Lola's a tough girl of a type Sleator would never use again, partly
because she didn't really fit into his later stories but also because
she's pretty firmly a creature of the 1970s. I can practically smell
her unwashed hair. Then there's the third girl, the pretty one, Abigail.
Abigail gets involved with one of the two boys — Oliver, the hunky
one. Oliver is the alpha-male extrovert of the group, but since in the
outside world boys have little or no contact with girls, he's intimidated
around a pretty one. The same is true for Abigail: in the outside world
she's had little or contact with boys, and so she's very shy around him.
But ultimately they find themselves slipping off to faraway staircases,
where they... kiss. And they're both really into it. But every time,
Oliver finds that at some point he's done, and is overcome with shame
and revulsion, which in turn makes Abigail feel like a skank. Given
these reactions, it is very strange that they are always described as
kissing and not as having sex. I wonder whether it's because Sleator
wanted to reinforce the idea that their society was so prudish that a
couple of kisses made them feel sexually active, or whether the publisher
would only go so far (though by the end of the book the kids are urinating
on each other, so I dunno), or whether perhaps Sleator just didn't feel
comfortable going that far.
And then there's Peter, the first kid we meet. I can't really call him
the protagonist, because he's by far the most passive character in the
book, spending most of his time catatonic. But we do get to sit in on
his daydreams, and while Sleator never uses the word, it turns out that
Peter is obviously gay. And remember how I said I could only think
of one place in Sleator's body of work where love is explicitly mentioned?
It's Peter talking about his friend Jasper back at the orphanage. It's
interesting that Sleator would take the bold step of making a gay boy the
initial focal character of a YA book in 1974 and then never really touch
the theme again.
House of Stairs is also the only Sleator book with profanity in
it. Put it all together and it looks like here he was writing for an
older audience, actual high school kids. Which makes it all the more
interesting that he would next publish:
Among the Dolls, 1975|
trope: nested worlds
House of Stairs appears to be aimed at an audience ever so slightly
older than Sleator's eventual demographic; Among the Dolls is aimed
younger. This isn't YA. This is a children's book. But it's actually not
entirely dissimilar from House of Stairs, and is possibly Sleator's
most effective message book.
Vicky is a ten-year-old girl who is disappointed to receive a large antique
dollhouse for her birthday. She plays with the dolls, but has them bicker
and mistreat each other. Meanwhile, her own family environment becomes
worse and worse, with her parents having terrible arguments that she goes
on to reenact with her dolls. And then one day she suddenly finds herself
in the dollhouse, surrounded by life-size versions of the wooden, plastic,
and cloth dolls, and they're plenty nasty. They also have a dollhouse of
their own, of a modern house...
The dolls keep telling Vicky that "we are what you made us," and she finds
that she's stuck in a loop: her home life sucks, so she takes it out on
the dolls, who are hurt by her treatment of them and lash out at their
dolls, who happen to be Vicky and her parents, and around and around. The
implications about child abuse — and the cycle of violence in the
Middle East, for that matter — are clear but, commendably, not spelled
Into the Dream, 1979|
Into the Dream is also aimed at younger kids, and like Among
the Dolls it has illustrations. And the initial setup — two
twelve-year-olds with nothing in common start having the same dream
every night — isn't initially an SF concept. But then we learn
that the reason the two kids have the same dream every night is because
they were given telepathic powers by a UFO, and that the dream is a
message from someone even more strongly affected (exactly who turns out
to be a neat twist). So it becomes clear that this isn't going to be
Sleator handles the telepathy really well, though. This isn't the
kind of telepathy that's just a magical walkie-talkie; this is the
kind of telepathy that is love. First Paul and Francine
discover that they're having the same dream every night... then they
find that every now and again they just happen to know things about
each other without being told... next they're replying out loud to
each other's unspoken thoughts when they argue... and one day they
don't need to speak anymore. It's thrillingly romantic. And Sleator
capitalizes on this in the climax by... having Francine give Paul a
hug. Okay, they're twelve, but still, where my smoochies at?
The Green Futures of Tycho, 1981|
trope: time travel
And this is where I came in.
Tycho Tithonus, age 11, is the youngest of four children. His parents named
his eldest brother Ludwig, and Ludwig turned out to be a music prodigy.
They named his sister Tamara, and she became a gifted dancer. They named
his other brother Leonardo, and he is an astounding artist. And then
there's Tycho. He isn't into astronomy. He isn't into anything, really,
not the way his siblings are: his interests come and go. So the rest of
his family hates him.
One day, digging around in the yard, he finds a small metal egg. After
a few experiments, he discovers that it's a time machine. He jumps ahead
five years and his older self explains to him how it works. And then he
goes back to the past and scares the hell out of his older siblings as
they are tormenting his six-year-old self. When he returns to the present,
his siblings are different. Ludwig's paranoid, Tamara's cripplingly shy,
and Leonardo, always overweight, is obese. Now, remember, this was the
first Sleator book I'd ever read, and I was younger than Tycho when I
did so. And so this was the first time travel book I'd ever read based
on the simple premise that changing the past changes the present.
Tycho starts to visit the far-flung future of April, 2001. The first
time he visits, he finds that his future self is a total loser. Boo.
The second time, his future self is a criminal. Yecch. Ludwig starts
to get suspicious about what Tycho's up to and Tycho pulls some tricks
to scare him off. Then he travels into the future again, and this time
his future self is a total psychopath. And Tycho begins to realize
that maybe this isn't coincidence — that maybe the longer he holds
onto the time machine, which is itself changing and becoming more powerful,
the worse a person he becomes...
The Green Futures of Tycho is not great literature, but it's a
much deeper take on time travel than "we must go to the past and bring
back Blackbeard's treasure!" and when I was a kid it rocked my stripey
little socks. The family dynamics also made quite an impression on me.
Though the Tithonus parents aren't missing, exactly, they are flaky
psychologists who insist on being called "Bobby" and "Judy" and leave
their children to their own devices. (Hmmm, a squadron of gifted siblings
left to fend for themselves... where have I read that before?) It didn't
hurt that Sleator based the Tithonus kids on his own family, and that by
sheer coincidence, both Sleator and I are the eldest of boy-girl-boy-boy
siblings. (Sleator's borrowing went further. The eldest Tithonus,
Ludwig, is a musician, and he often plays for Tamara, the dancer; at the
time he wrote Tycho, Sleator was a pianist for a ballet company.
Oh, and Sleator's youngest brother in real life is named Tycho Sleator.)
There's even more to this book than I'm noting here — I haven't
really talked about how this is probably the first book I ever read that
revolved around one character manipulating others, or about the secret
of the egg, or about the color motif — but anyone who knows me
and reads this book will start to see all sorts of elements that I
drew on for inspiration in writing my own stuff later on.
Did I mention that Sleator was a pianist? Well, here we go again.
Sam and Humphrey are half-siblings. Half-witted Humphrey is a piano
prodigy whose career seems to be over now that he's hit puberty. So
the family cooks up a scheme to get him some more bookings: Sam will
make up some music, and the family will tell the media that Humphrey
wrote it while in a trance, channeling the spirit of a long-dead
This is not one of Sleator's best. Too much like the shipping
clerk who says, "Hey, you know what would make a great book? A
thriller about shipping clerks!" It is notable, though, for
being Sleator's first book written in the first person, which
he would go on to use most of the time thereafter.
Interstellar Pig, 1984|
If you know one William Sleator book, and it's not House of Stairs,
it's this one. And this one's even better than House of Stairs.
It's part of the YA canon and deservedly so.
Barney is staying with his shallow, preoccupied parents — when
Sleator has the parents stick around, they are generally shallow
and preoccupied — at a beach house. Barney's room is all scratched
up, the work, the local old salts say, of a sailor back in the nineteenth
century who'd been brain damaged after being keelhauled and thought he
saw the devil. Interestingly, the people who arrive next door apparently
already know all about this obscure story.
These three seem to be European jet-setters: their English is not yet all
it could be, they're independently wealthy, and they're extremely hedonistic,
spending their days tanning and sucking down wine. They also play this
strange sci-fi game called Interstellar Pig. It's sort of a board game and
sort of a collectible card game. You wander around from planet to planet
with a hand full of attribute cards and weapon cards, trading, fighting,
and chasing after this thing called the Piggy. The game's on a timer, you
see, and when the clock runs out, only the species that holds the Piggy
survives. Every other life-bearing planet in the galaxy is destroyed.
This is all good fun until one day, back in real life, Barney goes exploring
on a nearby island... and finds the real Piggy.
One reason this book works so well is that the game is supposed to be
entrancing and addictive— and it actually is, at least when
you're ten. After reading this book I made my own Interstellar Pig game
out of posterboard and tried to play it with my brothers. I'm astounded
that there was no Interstellar Pig spinoff back during the Magic cards
This is the only other book of Sleator's to feature a character who is
obviously gay, only "he" turns out to be a female alien who has put on
a male disguise. I'll take Gender Dysphoria for $200, Alex.
trope: twin paradox
Another great one, with another great title.
Harry and Barry are twins. Their parents have gone on a trip and sent
them to an isolated farm out on the prairie. (Missing parents!) Barry's
the dominant twin, so much so that even though they're identical, people
remark that Harry acts like he's the little brother. When they
meet a girl, Harry isn't the one she goes for.
Out on the farm is a shed. One day Barry steps inside and the door slams
behind him. Harry immediately opens the door again to find Barry asleep
and in need of a shave. He thinks he's been locked in overnight. It
turns out that inside the shed is a singularity which distorts time. For
every second that goes by outside the shed, an hour goes by inside.
One night, Harry realizes that that means that he doesn't have to be a
twin anymore. He can go live in the shed and a year will pass for him
before anyone outside notices he's missing. The only problem is: how do
you live in a shed for a year?
It takes discipline. Harry learns to meditate. He fasts. He exercises.
He reads philosophy books. By the end of his year in the shed, he's got
the soul of a sage and the body of a Greek god. "Yeah, great," I thought,
reading this for the first time back in college. "I could do that too if
I were spending a year alone in a shed." Then I looked around the tiny
single dorm room I would be living in until the following summer. Then
I said "oh."
Sleator dedicated this book to his sister Vicky. "We were never actually
twins — though people sometimes thought we were — but we are
just as important to each other as any twins I ever heard of." Remember
that, because it'll be important later.
The Boy Who Reversed Himself, 1986|
trope: fourth dimension
Cosmos has a bit about
Edwin Abbott's 1884 book about an animate and indeed genteel square in
a two-dimensional world who has his perceptions radically altered by a
visitor from the third dimension. Sagan went on to discuss what this
tells us about how we in the third dimension would experience 4D
creatures. In The Boy Who Reversed Himself, Sleator riffs on
this theme. Omar can get things out of Laura's locker without opening
it, but sometimes — whoops! — they wind up with mirror
writing. The book gets really abstract by the end, as the two of them
wander through 4D and 5D worlds and interact with the creatures there.
This book is the beginning of a ten-year span of subpar offerings by
Sleator. By the end of it I had stopped following what he was up to
and therefore missed his late-90s resurgence.
The Duplicate, 1988|
trope: magical cloning
David finds a machine that allows him to make a copy of himself so he
can send the copy to grandma's birthday party or whatever while he goes
on a date. But it turns out that his clone is slightly unstable, and
when the clone makes a clone, forget it.
The only thing memorable about this one is that it has a nonzero amount
of sexuality in it: the big fight scene at the end is prompted by the
clone-of-a-clone trying to deflower David's girlfriend.
Strange Attractors, 1990|
More time travel, but this time, if you change the past, you don't
change the present or the future: you leave the timeline in a chaotic
mess of overlapping possibilities. One hedonistic version of the local
eccentric scientist and his daughter don't care, and cheerfully mess up
the timestream. Max has to stop them even though he finds using their
time travel device extremely addictive.
This isn't a great one, but it's notable as the first time Thailand
figures into one of Sleator's books. Sleator himself moved to Bangkok
around this time, and would go on to bring up Thailand almost as often
as Kim Stanley Robinson compared women to dolphins.
The Spirit House, 1991|
trope: Thai spirits
A Thai exchange student comes to visit the Kamen family. Julie had
been expecting a nerd, but the guy who shows up is very different,
older, kind of a hipster. It turns out that he's in contact with a
spirit that makes wishes come true... but someone else always suffers
It looks like this one is out of print despite Sleator's fame, and
I can't say I'm too surprised. At this point he was really crankin'
'em out. "Hey, I'm in Thailand, people here believe in spirits, that
might make for a good book, scribble scribble scribble, ka-ching."
This is a collection of stories about the childhoods of Sleator and his
siblings. The stories are often vulgar and actually lowered my opinion of
Sleator just a bit — when he talks about stupid crank calls, for
instance, I came away with the sense that not only did he think they were
funny when he was a kid, he actually still thinks they're funny. I noticed
that the entire text of this book is up on Daniel Sleator's web site, and
that's probably a more appropriate place for it than a bookstore.
Others See Us, 1993|
Back to telepathy, but instead of it being shared by two nice kids as in
Into the Dream, it is a weapon used by some very ugly people. I
disliked Others See Us. People fall into a swamp a few times over
the course of the book, but I felt more like I'd fallen into a sewer.
Really repugnant characters.
This is the last Sleator book I read before 2006.
Dangerous Wishes, 1995|
trope: Thai spirits
This is a sequel to The Spirit House, and while I still wasn't
all that enthralled by the Thai spirit stuff, it is better than its
predecessor: Sleator finally gets his chance to write a whole book set
in modern Thailand, and he does a good job of getting across what the
Third World is actually like.
I've been reading the industry reviews of these books and I keep seeing
things like this quote from the School Library Journal: "Everything
wraps up nice and tidy, with everyone suddenly having good luck and bright
futures." Er, excuse me? Did you even read the ending? Sleator
actually very rarely goes for the unalloyed happy ending, and this is not
one of those times. Sheesh.
This review also complains that the parents in this book are "so blindingly
ignorant about the country they are visiting." That's a more legitimate
complaint, but, well, all of Sleator's parents are like that.
The Night the Heads Came, 1996|
trope: alien abduction
Awright, now we're talkin'. This is a decent riff on Communion-style
alien abduction stories with some pretty interesting twists to it. It's a
well-told page-turner. I liked it.
The Beasties, 1997|
This isn't really one of my favorites — I'm more into time distortion
than chuds, at least when we're supposed to take the chuds seriously —
but it has some interesting elements. There is some good sibling stuff with
narrator Doug simultaneously extremely annoyed by his bookish younger sister
Colette and nobly protective of her. But once again we hit the trademark
Sleator reserve: would it kill a Sleator protagonist to actually express
some of these feelings? Dude, when you've been worried sick that your
sister's been eaten by chuds and you discover to your immense relief that
she's okay, you're actually allowed to give her a hug.
It was also with this book that I realized that another one of Sleator's
motifs had been staring at me in book after book without me articulating it
to myself: characters who get in trouble by doing something impulsive, even
when they know it's a bad idea. "Hey, a chud hole. These are extremely dangerous.
Everyone's been warning us about these. Going into the chud hole would be
the stupidest thing we could do." "Yeah, chud holes are incredibly dangerous.
All right, let's go in." "Okay." [...] "Eeeagh! Chuds!" I guess this sort of
thing actually is pretty representative of the decisions most teenagers make.
I wasn't one of them, but that's me.
The Boxes, 1998|
tropes: aliens, time distortion, telepathy
The Boxes marks Sleator's return to top form. Nearly all his tropes
are on display, but it never becomes a matter of "Cripes, this
again" — he makes them work.
Annie is an orphan (missing parents!) under the care of her obese,
chain-smoking, television-addicted Aunt Ruth (bad guardian! crass
fat woman!). One day her dashing but usually absent Uncle Marco
gives her a pair of boxes with strict instructions to keep them
separate and never to open them. Within a few pages, Annie has
opened one (impulsive teenager!) and let out a little bug. Very
soon, the bug has grown to the size of a crab, bred tremendously,
and started to build a city for alien bugs in the basement.
The bugs speak to Annie telepathically, not just in words, but also
imparting wordless information: Annie starts to know things,
can sense objects in the dark. They show her how to open the other
box up in her room, which contains some sort of complicated machine,
apparently an alien clock. Annie becomes the "nervous system"
relaying messages between the bugs and the clock, which they consider
their god and worship in the manner of rural Thais (Thailand!). So,
to recap: a shy, sympathetic teenage girl who starts to develop
mysterious powers and keeps an alien civilization running in her
house? I'm sold! And that was before I got to the part about how
the alien clock had the power to slow down time. Yee-hah.
This one even has one of Sleator's trademark romances. Girl
meets boy. Girl and boy discover that they share a superpower, have
harrowing adventures, save each other's lives. Girl and boy will
clearly be spending the rest of their lives together. Girl and
boy consider expressing their bond with a handshake or by saying
"I like you" or something but decide that might be too intimate.
trope: time loop
In 1999, Sleator released two books that both told the story of a boy
who has to retroactively prevent his own death by healing his family
relationships. In Rewind, the problem is that his parents are
not just neglectful and shallow but actively hostile to him, because
he's adopted and they're now finally about to have a biological child
of their own. After one too many bouts of psychological abuse he runs
out into the road and gets himself killed. Then he finds that he's
actually allowed to redo the previous few weeks to see if he can't
prevent his own death. He does so, alas, by redoing his puppet show
(yes, puppet show) so that instead of featuring monsters and aliens it
deals with a family much like his own, thus allowing his parents to
see how they're tearing him apart. Yeah, it's as bad as it sounds.
It also made me worry that Sleator was announcing a new, Oprah-friendly
direction by ripping his own previous work.
trope: particle physics
Boltzmon! continues in this vein, but fortunately it's closer to
The Green Futures of Tycho than to Rewind. It's actually
very close to Strange Attractors in its rather silly interpretation
of its topic — remember how Sleator read that "strange attractors
drag systems into chaos" and oblingly wrote about strangely attractive
people who do the same? Well, this time around he read that a boltzmon is
a theoretical particle that, when perturbed, disappears into another universe,
and responded with a book about a boltzmon that takes human form and, when
faced with backtalk, shouts, "You are perturbing me!" and pops everyone
into an alternate universe. And do I have to tell you that the alternate
universe in this case is an awful lot like Thailand? Or that when the boy
runs into the alternate-universe version of his sister, she is a fat, nasty,
shallow chain-smoker? Unlike Rewind, it's not as bad as I'm making
it sound, but still, this is no The Boxes.
Marco's Millions, 2001|
trope: aliens, time distortion, telepathy
...and neither is this one, even though it's a prequel to The Boxes.
More brother-sister stuff, continuing a string from The Beasties to
Boltzmon! to this one and then to The Last Universe. Marco
likes to travel. Unfortunately, it's his younger sister Lilly who has
been chosen to travel through an interdimensional portal in order to save
several universes from a violent singularity. She's the one with the
psychic gifts. But she's also cripplingly shy — she doesn't really
talk to anyone but Marco — and is too afraid to go on the quest. So
Marco goes in her place, with telepathic assistance from Lilly. And yes,
they are immeasurably dear to one another and save each other's lives and
stuff, and no, they don't actually say "I love you" or hug or anything.
This one's interesting to me because of the sibling dynamics. The classic
formula from fairy tales — and, like, King Lear and stuff
— is that the two older siblings are nasty and the youngest is a
sweetheart. In Marco's Millions, the two older siblings have such
a close bond that the youngest feels left out and becomes... well, she
becomes Aunt Ruth.
Parasite Pig, 2002|
This is a sequel to Interstellar Pig, and while it's not on that
level, it's pretty good in its own right. Barney has an alien parasite
in his brain. The parasite wants to lay eggs, but it can only do so in
the body of a human-eating alien crab from the planet J'koot. The parasite
has control over his hormones and thus subtly nudges him toward a course of
action that will take him to J'koot (along with three new Interstellar
Pig players, two of whom turn out to be aliens themselves) and get
There's a lot to like about this one. I mean, if you're writing for kids
in junior high school, what could possibly hit home more than the idea of
strange hormones making you do things that rationally you know aren't in
your best interest? Parasite Pig makes explicit the "impulsive
teenager" meme of some of Sleator's other works.
Not that this kind of behavior is exclusive to teenagers! A running
theme through the book is the drive to reproduce. The brain parasite
that drives the plot and gives Barney all these strange urges is itself
motivated by the urge to lay eggs. One of the other aliens, a sort of
wasp, is also looking to lay some eggs of its own, but it's less picky:
it doesn't need a particular species, but whatever organism it picks will
be eaten alive from the inside and die in agony. And it occurred to me
that Sleator missed out on a prime opportunity to complete the circle
here. See, when Barney and the other human player, Katie, land on
J'koot, the crabs try to fatten them up like Hansel and Gretel so they'll
be tastier to eat. Barney, prompted by the parasite who wants him to get
eaten, chows down like a maniac. Katie, realizing that staying thin is
all that will keep her alive, refrains. It was obvious to me what the
next plot development should be: Barney should try to impregnate
Katie in order to fatten her up. That parasite should have had
Barney doing everything in his power to bed Katie! And the especially
fun part is the fact that in real life, we don't need brain parasites
driving us to try to impregnate each other — it's actually very
uncanny to sort of mentally sit back and observe how your body rewards
you for getting closer to this goal. It is a shame that, whether because
of skittishness from the publisher or because of Sleator's own reserve,
this angle didn't get explored.
The Boy Who Couldn't Die, 2004|
Ken's friend Roger has just died in a plane crash. Ken goes to a
voodoo priestess who performs a ritual that makes him invulnerable
to harm. Yay! But wait, the reason he's invulnerable to harm is that
he's a zombie who does her bidding at night! Boo! This one was not
my thing. Caribbean superstition is no more interesting to me than Thai
The Last Universe, 2005|
trope: Schrödinger's cat
You will remember that twenty years before this book came out, Sleator had
dedicated a book, Singularity, to his sister Vicky. The Last
Universe is also dedicated to Vicky. But this time it says (1946-2003)
after her name.
Susan has never really been close with her older brother Gary. He was a
popular jock and never had time for his little sister. But now Gary is
dying of leukemia. He's confined to a wheelchair. Susan has to push him
around when he wants to go anywhere. She's not thrilled about it, but
she doesn't complain too much. Yes, she's a moody fourteen-year-old, but
she still has, y'know, a soul. She's not going to refuse her dying
Gary mostly wants to be pushed around their ten-acre garden. It's a very
strange place. Designed by their great-uncle, a world-renowned scientific
genius, it has some unusual properties. Sometimes you'll follow the path
and find it taking you somewhere it just doesn't normally go. Strange
tropical plants pop up that just don't grow in New England. And when Susan
and Gary go into the hedge maze, they see other versions of themselves darting
around the corners.
The first book I ever wrote about for my web site was
Tom's Midnight Garden. Here is an American sci-fi take on the
concept. Gary and Susan's garden isn't just generically magical. It's
quantum. All the possible universes meet here, those in which Gary will
live and those in which Gary will die. And Gary's only chance at life is
for Susan to lead him to a universe where he isn't dying. Sometimes they
seem to be on the right track and he feels a little bit stronger —
though it's disconcerting to find that other things are different, too, be
they vases or people's personalities. Sometimes they find themselves in
universes where Gary is much worse off and Susan has to get him out before
he dies. And sometimes things are more different still.
This is a very well-written YA novel. But the dedication makes it more
than that. Years earlier, Sleator might have said, "Hmm, haven't written
a Schrödinger's cat book yet — that might be fun!" and dashed
off an amusing trifle. Wikipedia has a whole section devoted to
Schrödinger's cat jokes. But when your sister dies, the idea
of other universes in which she is alive is no longer very funny. It
takes on no small amount of emotional urgency. Or at least, that's my
experience, and I know a little bit about this. So The Last
Universe isn't a funny book. Though Gary and Susan are as reserved
as any other Sleator characters, it is heartbreaking — all the
more so because of the SF trappings that keep it from becoming
to be perfectly honest, the glurge works for me too. In fact, with the
last chapter of this book, William Sleator, of all people, made me cry.
And that makes 25. Welcome back to 2012. Let the addenda commence!
Hell Phone, 2006|
trope: hell (also, phone)
Like The Green Futures of Tycho with its egg, or Interstellar
Pig with its Piggy, or Strange Attractors with its phasers,
or really pretty much any book on the list above, Hell Phone is
about a kid who gets hold of a sinister artifact and desperately tries
to hang onto it even as he sees that it's destroying his life. The book
is full of moments when the protagonist says that he knows he should get
rid of the titular infernal telecommunication device but that he has a
strange compulsion to hang onto it, as a way of explaining the illogic
of his actions. In fact, a lot of the book seems to be an exercise in
fending off "Why don't you just...?" questions: the phone is crippled
in various ways ("Why don't you just screen your calls?" "Why don't you
just turn off the phone?" "Why don't you just send a text?"), and the
protagonist is extremely poor and has no car ("Why don't you just buy
a...?" "Why don't you just go to...?"). It's kind of awkward.
The other awkward thing about Hell Phone is that hell, as I
understand it, is supposed to be a place of unimaginable torment, and
yet portraying it as literally as Hell Phone does forces the
author to imagine it — and, in so doing, shows how trivial
the very concept is. Hell is a place where people are subjected to
head-meltingly agonizing tortures!! ...you mean, like in pretty much
every culture in human history? It's all smoggy and smells like shit!!
...you mean, like the places most people on earth live in? (More on
this theme here.)
I was optimistic when I started this one, as it quickly became clear that,
for the first time since House of Stairs, this wouldn't be about
some modern-day kid having a brush with the supernatural, or getting hold
of some futuristic device, but rather about plausible events in a
near-future world. In Test, the rich have grown much richer and
the poor have grown much poorer. (Who could've imagined?) The masses
live in giant projects run by corporate slumlords, while those who can
manage a small apartment and a car sit in traffic for four hours each way.
The ticket to avoid ending up trapped in the projects is a college degree,
but public school students can't even get a high school diploma without
passing a test called the XCAS. Teachers' and administrators' jobs depend
on their students' XCAS pass rate, so classes become exercises in "teaching
to the test." The rich, by contrast, get around in private helicopters,
and their young ones go to private schools and don't need to take the XCAS
It seemed like a promising enough set-up, but what Sleator does with it
isn't very interesting. Will there be a substitute teacher who assigns
the public school kids a real story — a science fiction story,
say — and thereby introduces the jaded youngsters to the
wonders of reading? Will there be a whip-smart foreign student —
perhaps from, oh, how about Thailand — who is in danger of
failing the XCAS? Spoilers: yes. Also, the teenage heroine will be bland
and pretty, while her opposite number, the big villain's spoiled daughter,
will be ugly, stupid, bulimic, and flat-chested. And it will turn out
that the secret to fixing the educational system is for the students at
one school to boycott the test and walk around with picket signs saying
"No Child Left Behind = Never Cripple Lollipop Bambis," because it
will demonstrate to the public how absurd high-stakes testing is. (Thus
confirming that, yes, Sleator did indeed think that the, er, "humor" in
Oddballs was still funny.)
The Phantom Limb, 2011 (with Ann Monticone)|
trope: magic mirrors
This time the artifact is one of those mirror boxes that have been shown
to relieve the pain amputees feel in their missing appendages. But for
once it isn't evil, or even a temptation to do evil — it is
possessed by the amputated arm of a kid who fell prey to a sociopathic
nurse. Said nurse now wants to chop off the arm of the protagonist's
mother, and the arm in the mirror is the protagonist's chief ally in
This is pretty hackish. It seems like the work of someone who read
some articles on Wikipedia (about mirror boxes, optical illusions, and
the Macdonald triad) and then threw together a story about them while
waiting for a bus. Or, given the credits, had his assistant do so.
And thus I am afraid that this article no longer ends on a high note.
But we tend to remember artists for the greatest achivements in their body
of work rather than the entire corpus, and I'd say that House of
Stairs, Interstellar Pig, Singularity, and The Last
Universe constitute an impressive enough legacy that the various
misfires in the list above don't tarnish it very much.
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