Read Bugs Online

Authors: John Sladek




John Sladek

Enter the SF Gateway …

In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:

‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’


Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.

The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.

Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.

Welcome to the SF Gateway.

Chapter One

The televised naturalist looked a bit like Susan. She kept a fixed smile as she demonstrated how to use some sort of beetle to clean an animal skull.

‘We start with something like this badger head, for example. After skinning and boiling it, I cut away most of the meat. Then all I have to do is drop it in this box. My little darlings do the rest.’

The camera looked down into the box at a seething mass of pale beetles crawling over bones, into eye-sockets.

‘I put a few things in here yesterday. Let’s see how they’re doing.’

The gleaming white object she lifted from the box was a small human skull. It matched her own fixed smile.

‘Like little piranhas, they are. Clean as a whistle. Now, let’s see what else we have.’

She dipped her hand into the box again, as into a bran-tub for some prize. The smile held for a moment, then vanished. Her hand seemed somehow to be stuck in the box.

‘Help me, Fred!’

Fred reached out and took Susan’s other hand, but he couldn’t pull her back. She was not just stuck, but being slowly pulled into the machine. Susan screamed and screamed, but her voice never rose above the loud hissing of the hungry bugs.

Fred woke to find he was the last passenger on the Minneapolis Rapid Transit city bus. He retrieved his book, a paperback of
The Time Machine
, which had fallen to the floor.
The bus, full of sleep-inducing fumes, lurched off the freeway into a concrete lay-by and hissed to a stop.

‘This is it,’ said the driver, looking pleased. After a brief hesitation, he added: ‘Sir.’

‘Doesn’t this bus go all the way to Paradise Valley?’

‘Nope.’ The driver was positively gleeful now. ‘That’s eight more miles, sir. You need the extension bus.’

‘The extension bus. All right. When does the next one leave?’

‘Only one a day, at five-twenty
’ By now the driver seemed ready slap his knee and fall out of his seat. ‘Sir.’

Fred looked at the watch he’d bought from a man in the street in New York City: 9.10
Fred had twenty more minutes to get to his job interview at VIMNUT Industries.

‘Only one bus a day? I can’t wait here all day. I –’

The bus driver waited until Fred had stumbled down the steps. ‘Don’t wait. It don’t stop here anyways.’


‘Nothin’ to be sorry about. You gotta go back downtown to catch it. So long,
said the driver cheerfully, as he closed the door and drove off.

Fred looked around. He seemed to be on a round elevated platform, a kind of saucer of smooth concrete that jutted out from the side of the freeway and flew over a wild forest. There were no buildings below, no sign of civilization unless you counted the spray-painted graffiti on the parapet, most of which was illegible.
, he read. A street-gang? A rock band? Or some cryptic general observation, like ‘the pits’? Life in this here modern American gheddo is just the condoms. He leaned over the parapet and gazed upon translucent green aspen leaves. There was nothing to be seen through their translucency but other green aspen leaves, round and shuddering.

His full name was Manfred Evelyn Jones. A month ago he had been at home in Britain, thinking of himself as a promising young novelist. All right, a promising novelist.
Now he was desperately scrambling for a technical writing job in a strange disturbing land.
The pits
, he thought.

It was mainly from television that he knew how Americans went about defining this or that as
the pits
. Aside from sport, the main function of British television now seemed Americology – the detailed study of Yank culture and idiom. And the only way Britain could keep up was to import more and more American television: cop dramas, soap operas, chat shows, comedies and family sagas. When any genre began to pall, all you had to do was combine it with another: family comedies, cop operas, soap sagas. It was the way Americans liked to combine all the things they loved: cookies in ice-cream, maple syrup in sausages. If only a family crisis during an exciting car chase could somehow be combined with an American pro football game …

The British could not get enough of all this. The worst intellectual fast foods America could develop were eagerly devoured in Britain: programmes like ‘All My Cops’ were beginning to rival football or show jumping in popularity. For that matter, British kids now wanted to grow up to play American football – the kind that requires fifty pounds of padding and still causes crippling injuries in every game.

‘All My Cops’ was the formula cop drama that combined violence with elements of soap opera. The producers took pains to balance the number of drawn guns with an equal number of tearful, hugful family reconciliations. The show featured policemen and policewomen of all known races, gays and lesbians, good junkies and (for contrast) an occasional bad junkie. Thus it reached all audiences. Mum might take an interest in the sergeant’s blind wife, the lieutenant’s alcoholic father, or the captain’s homosexual son. Dad meanwhile could identify with danger and duty – the need to ‘blow away a few scumbags’ every week. For the kids, there was up-to-date slang, detectives in fashionable clothes, and car chases.

After a time, Fred found the stairway and descended. Below the trees was a Tarmac road, Roman-straight, leading
nowhere discernible in two directions. Endless. No footpath, nor anything like a phone-box or a taxi-rank.

Fred wasn’t sure he could have afforded a Minneapolis taxi anyway. He had gathered some idea of their prices from the signs they carried, depicting the credit cards they would accept – Mr Card, Vice Charge, Americana Excess, Gourmandcard – with the implication that, for passengers going
the way across the city, a bank loan might be arranged. There was nothing in the credit-card class that Fred could really afford. That was why he dined only at McIntosh’s. That was one of the reasons he desperately needed this job at VIMNUT Industries.

The main reason was to save his marriage. Money, Fred believed was the secret ingredient of successful marriages. At least, a marriage could not last unless both partners had mutual cash for each other. He knew that if he could heap up a pile of wealth, and fly back to Britain on Concorde, it would at least make Susan pause and pay attention. Money could heal a marriage. Money could do anything in America.

If only Susan believed that.

It was the lack of money that had brought them to America. His American agent had asked Fred to come over and meet publishers. He’d promised a big breakthrough, swearing that ‘British novels are in’. Fred and Susan had scraped together the air fare (standby passengers on Air Zambezi) and arrived in New York with rather high hopes. If they could make it there, as the song went …

Not only hadn’t they made it there; they had been destroyed by it. New York had turned out to be noisy, dirty, dangerous, expensive, and crammed with obnoxious people who got on each other’s nerves. Within days, he and Susan had also begun to get on each other’s nerves. She’d gone back to London – leaving him, as she put it, to enjoy the city of cockroach motels.

He’d sat in an Irish ‘pub’ and said: ‘My marriage was eaten
by cockroaches.’ An Irishman had told him to bugger off out of Northern Ireland.

‘No, but listen. My marriage –’

‘Why don’t you Brits just bugger off?’

Buggering off seemed like a reasonable idea. He’d buggered off to La Guardia, and from La Guardia to the high technopolis of Minneapolis. He’d arrived only yesterday, and he now calculated that his money would last two more weeks. By then, Fred had to be VIMNUT’s technical writer.

Fred found Minneapolis exciting and disturbing, especially its sky. Here the sky was huge, a living presence forcing itself upon the attention of the Cro-Magnons below, showing them that there was room for One God Only. No wonder the people here all trooped round on Sundays to their churches (designed by Finns who were obsessed with ‘natural’ wood and askew spires) to pay homage – they’d better. Even the atheists here glanced at the sky and hurried off to their Unitarian temples to ponder questions of sociology, Third World politics, and the birth of the blues.

He compared this great brooding presence to London’s miserable patch of civilized grey. Even when blue, London’s sky was about as prepossessing as a faded soiled Cambridge sweatshirt. No one looked up in London; there was nothing to behold.

Growing up in London, Fred had been five years old before he managed to catch a glimpse of a rainbow. It was not at all like the illustration in his book,
Our Friend the Rain
, by Dimpleby Dunbort, which clearly showed red at the bottom. This real rainbow, framing the gasworks, had red at the top.

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