(Full name William Warner Sleator, III) American author of juvenile novels, picture books, easy readers, and young adult novel and short stories.
The following entry presents an overview of Sleator's career through 2006. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volume 29.
A popular and prolific writer of fiction for children and young adults, Sleator is regarded as an imaginative author whose works utilize the genres of fantasy, mystery, and science fiction to explore personal relationships and emotional growth. Sleator incorporates current scientific theories, suspense, and the supernatural in his books, which challenge readers to take active roles in the stories while allowing them to resonate with the feelings and experiences of his characters. Depicting boys and girls who are often reluctant heroes, Sleator takes his characters from their everyday lives into confrontations with unusual, even unnerving situations. His protagonists encounter alien beings, doppelgangers, ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, black holes, evil spirits, malevolent dolls, weird scientific experiments, time travel into the past and the future, and other strange phenomena. In addition, the characters must learn to deal with their brothers and sisters—sibling rivalry is a consistent theme—as well as with their parents and peers. Through their physical and emotional journeys, the young people in Sleator's stories discover strength and confidence within themselves while developing a greater understanding of life in general.
Sleator was born on February 13, 1945, in Havre de Grace, Maryland. His father, William Warner Sleator, Jr., is a well-regarded physiologist and the Professor Emeritus of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. His mother, Esther Sleator, was a renowned pediatrician who was among the first pioneering researchers of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). His two younger brothers, Daniel and Tycho, are professors of Computer Sciences and Physics, respectively, at Carnegie Mellon University and New York University. This familial fascination with science is reflected in Sleator's science fiction novels such as Singularity (1985). Sleator, his brothers, and his sister, Vicky, were raised in University City, Missouri, where his family moved after his father took a job at the University of St. Louis. As a child, Sleator was primarily interested in music, eventually scoring high school plays and orchestral pieces for the high school band. An excellent student, Sleator attended Harvard University where he planned to major in music, though, ultimately, his writing aptitude emerged, and he instead graduated in 1967 with a B.A. in English. Still harboring musical aspirations, following graduation, Sleator moved to London to study musical composition, supplementing his income by playing the piano for the Royal Ballet School. After a year, he returned to America where he began writing in earnest. His first completed book, Blackbriar (1972), relates a fictionalization of his time in England when he shared a former pest house for victims of smallpox with his landlady. However, before the release of Blackbriar, he agreed to collaborate on a picture book with a friend, the illustrator Blair Lent, about a retelling of a classic Native American myth of a girl who is kidnapped by the moon after insulting it and who must be rescued by her friend. The Angry Moon (1970), which became Sleator's first published work, was eventually recognized as a Caldecott Honor Book. After the release of Blackbriar, Sleator took a job as a rehearsal pianist for the Boston Ballet Company, writing fiction in his spare time. He travelled with the company across Europe and the United States and continued to perform with the troupe until he became a full-time author in 1983. Sleator has since become a best-selling and multiple award-winning author, receiving, among his many honors, Best Books for Young Adults citations from the American Library Association for House of Stairs (1974), Interstellar Pig (1984), Singularity, and The Boy Who Reversed Himself (1986).
Sleator began his career as an author for children through his work with artist and illustrator Blair Lent. The collaboration between the two men resulted in The Angry Moon, a picture book which retells a Tlingit Indian legend. Elements of magic and fantasy, depicted in this story, have remained an essential part of Sleator's writing throughout his career. Blackbriar, his first work for young adults, incorporates mystery and suspense into a tale about a haunted house in an isolated area of the English countryside. The House of Stairs, one of Sleator's best known works, involves a group of teenagers who are trapped in a huge room containing a maze of staircases. They eventually realize that they are part of a mind-control experiment in which food is dispensed only after the subjects exhibit hostile behavior toward one another. In his subsequent works, Sleator explores such similarly unusual topics as ESP and telekinesis in Into the Dream (1979), black holes in Singularity, and time travel in The Green Futures of Tycho (1981). In each book, regardless of the scientific properties depicted in its plot, Sleator focuses primarily on the personal relationships and emotional development of the characters. In both Singularity and The Green Futures of Tycho, he examines sibling rivalry; through their encounters with scientific phenomena and each other, the characters of each story are able to clarify misconceptions and achieve reconciliation with their siblings. Sleator comments further on family relationships in Interstellar Pig, the story of sixteen-year-old Barney who drearily contemplates a boring summer at the beach with his insensitive parents. He is encouraged, however, when a fascinating trio of strangers moves in next door and invites Barney to join them playing a board game called "Interstellar Pig." Barney eventually realizes that the strangers are actually hostile aliens adopting human disguises, and the board game is actually a life-or-death struggle for planetary survival. Sleator later penned a sequel to Interstellar Pig, titled Parasite Pig (2002), in which the older Barney is kidnapped and taken to the planet of J'koot, where he once again must play the board game to determine the fate of the universe.
The Spirit House (1991), a young adult novel that incorporates Thai beliefs, is considered a stylistic departure from Sleator's other works. In this story, fifteen-year-old Julie meets Bia, an exchange student from Thailand, when he comes to stay with her family. Julie's younger brother, Dominic, builds Bia a "spirit house," or a traditional household shrine, in the backyard to make him feel at home. However, Bia is convinced that the house is inhabited by a vengeful spirit. Julie leaves offerings for the spirit, who appears to grant her wishes. However, Julie's health begins to decline, and things begin to go badly for her, her family, and Bia. At the end of the story, Julie goes to Thailand with a jade carving containing the spirit in order to restore it to its rightful place. All appears to be well until Julie loses the carving. Dangerous Wishes (1995), the sequel to The Spirit House, features Julie's younger brother, fourteen-year-old Dominic. After three years of bad luck have passed for Dom and his family, he and his parents travel to Bangkok for an extended stay. When everything goes awry, Dom suspects that the cause may be the jade carving that his sister tried, but failed, to deliver three years earlier. Dom and Kik, a Thai boy, try to find the charm and take it to its temple. In the process, the boys are pursued by a malevolent creature from the spirit world. They barely escape, but are able to restore the recovered charm to its rightful place. With Oddballs (1993), Sleator created a collection of ten short autobiographical and semi-autobiographical vignettes about his childhood and adolescence. The stories feature four creative, talented children growing up in a household run by freethinking parents who provide minimal supervision. The book is credited for depicting how, through all of their sibling rivalry and joke-playing, the Sleator children developed individuality, confidence, and independence. With Others See Us (1993), Sleator returned to the more fantastic subject matter of his early young adult novels, namely, a swamp full of toxic waste that can give those who fall into it, or accidentally ingest its waters, the ability to read minds. The narrator, sixteen-year-old Jared, has been looking forward to the annual summer get-together of his extended family at the beach. When he falls off his bike into the swamp, he begins to read the minds of those around him. His grandmother, who has the same mind-reading ability, has used it to steal money from people's bank accounts and to blackmail the neighbors into selling their house. She also blackmails Jared and his cousin Annelise to do her bidding.
Sleator's subsequent novels continue to explore issues of morality and friendship against the backdrop of science fiction and weird fantasy. The Beasties (1997) blends the modern world with an environment not unlike the land of the Morlocks from H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, in which a group of underground beasts convince two children to help them fight back against the commercial logging company that is driving them from their home. The text fully acknowledges the moral ambiguity of the situation, showing us both the positive and negative sides of the beasties and the loggers. In The Boxes (1998), based on the myth of Pandora, a teenaged girl named Annie received two heavy boxes from her mysterious Uncle Marco, with the admonition that she must not open either box. Predictably, Annie soon finds it impossible to resist her curiosity and opens the boxes, unleashing a horde of crab-like creatures. The occupants of the boxes are at first frightening, though Annie eventually develops sympathy for the unusual beasts. Marco's Millions (2001), a prequel to The Boxes, focuses on the early life of Annie's Uncle Marco. With his sister Lilly, Marco discovers a strange tunnel in their basement where a group of bizarre underground creatures live. The odd beings beech the brother and sister to help them complete a religious ritual to appease their malevolent god, "The Unknowable." In The Boy Who Couldn't Die (2004), after losing his best friend, teenaged Ken Pritchard hires voodoo priestess Cheri Buttercup to remove his soul and keep it hidden—all for the fee of fifty dollars. While he feels invulnerable for a period, Ken's friend Sabine convinces him that Buttercup is using his soul to manipulate him and, when he asks for his soul back, the priestess demands fifty-thousand dollars. Sleator moves from the occult to quantum physics in his next novel, The Last Universe (2005). Fourteen-year-old Susan takes her terminally-ill, wheelchair-bound brother Gary for walks every day in their family's massive, labyrinthine garden. Gary soon posits that the garden—with a seemingly endless number of paths—is actually a "quantum garden," in which multiple universes come together at one central hub. Complications arise when Susan and Gary spot other versions of themselves from an alternate universe also walking through the garden. Sleator next transitions from physics to wry social commentary in Hell Phone (2006), a tongue-in-cheek horror adventure built around the modern teenager's obsession with cellular phones. When the cash-strapped high-schooler Nick buys an unusually cheap cell phone to stay in touch with his girlfriend, he starts receiving bizarre phone calls, including a series of threats from a man named Fleck. When Nick reluctantly agrees to help Fleck to protect his girlfriend, he inadvertently allows the deceased Fleck to escape from Hell, which Sleator imagines as a bureaucratic nightmare.
While some critics have questioned the occasionally dark thematic matter and ventures into graphic imagery in Sleator's juvenile and young adult novels, others have argued that these very qualities account for much of his popularity among teen and pre-teen readers. Many reviewers have applauded his suspenseful plot development, believable protagonists, and skillful blending of the realistic and the bizarre. Particularly in his young adult novels, Sleator has also won acclaim for the moral complexity and ambiguity of his narratives, with several critics complimenting the author's reluctance to talk down to his adolescent audience. In his review of House of Stairs, Michael M. Jones has characterized the novel as "a disturbing social commentary mixed with a terrifying psychological experiment. This may be one of Sleator's bleakest books yet, especially since its rooted in reality and could very well be carried out today … But, boiled down to its essentials, what we have here is a darkly fascinating story about five teens who undergo a terrible experience in a dystopian setting." Sleator has additionally been praised for his attention to detail in character development, settings, and in the often-complex scientific concepts that lie behind many of his more fantastic narratives. Ann A. Flowers has commented that, in Dangerous Wishes, the author's "Thai setting is firmly constructed, the shaky friendship between representatives of two quite different cultures is believable, and the rapidly escalating chase sequence is riveting. Vintage Sleator." Several reviewers have noted that Sleator's texts do feature occasional inaccuracies in his depiction of scientific phenomenon, though, on a whole, he has been lauded for his ability to not let his high-concept backdrops—such as outer space or alternate realities—overshadow his characters or their emotional development.
Young Adult and Juvenile Fiction
The Angry Moon [illustrations by Blair Lent] (picture book) 1970
Blackbriar [illustrations by Blair Lent] (juvenile novel) 1972
Run (young adult novel) 1973
House of Stairs (young adult novel) 1974
Among the Dolls [illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman] (juvenile novel) 1975
Into the Dream [illustrations by Ruth Sanderson] (juvenile novel) 1979
Once, Said Darlene [illustrations by Steven Kellogg] (easy reader) 1979
The Green Futures of Tycho (young adult novel) 1981
That's Silly [illustrations by Lawrence DiFiori] (easy reader) 1981
Fingers (young adult novel) 1983
Interstellar Pig (young adult novel) 1984
Singularity (young adult novel) 1985
The Boy Who Reversed Himself (young adult novel) 1986
The Duplicate (young adult novel) 1988
Strange Attractors (young adult novel) 1990
The Spirit House (young adult novel) 1991
Oddballs: Stories (young adult short stories) 1993
Others See Us (young adult novel) 1993
Dangerous Wishes (young adult novel) 1995
The Night the Heads Came (young adult novel) 1996
The Beasties (young adult novel) 1997
The Boxes (young adult novel) 1998
Boltzmon! (young adult novel) 1999
Rewind (young adult novel) 1999
Into the Dream (young adult novel) 2000
Marco's Millions (young adult novel) 2001
Parasite Pig(young adult novel) 2002
The Boy Who Couldn't Die (young adult novel) 2004
The Last Universe (young adult novel) 2005
Hell Phone (young adult novel) 2006
Things That Go Bump in the Night: A Collection of Original Stories [edited by Jane Yolen and Martin H. Greenberg] (young adult short stories) 1989
Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence [edited by Marion Dane Bauer and Beck Underwood] (young adult short stories) 1994
William Sleator (essay date winter 1988)
SOURCE: Sleator, William. "What Is It about Science Fiction?" ALAN Review 15, no. 2 (winter 1988): 4-6.
[In the following essay, Sleator discusses some of the necessary elements for creating successful adolescent science fiction.]
Many adolescents tell me, in letters and in person, how much they enjoy science fiction. I believe them since, as we all know, one of the (sometimes charming) characteristics of adolescents is that their responses to books, as well as people, are pretty genuine. I also believe them because, judging from my royalty statements, a great many of them read my books. But what exactly is it about science fiction that appeals to them?
I will begin my very subjective treatment of this question with a few words about science fiction conventions, or "cons," as the participants refer to them. I have spoken at several of them. They are very different indeed from meetings of English teachers and librarians. I was apprehensive about the first one I attended because of the warning in the brochure: "Weapons are absolutely not allowed. Costume weaponry ONLY may be worn at the masquerade party, and no swords may be unsheathed, no guns may be drawn."
Obviously, I did survive the experience. I learned that the population of these conventions consists of two distinct groups, the pros and the fans. The pros are all the people involved in publishing—the writers, editors and artists. The fans are everybody else, many of them teenagers, and they consider themselves to be an elite. The fans refer to all other people in the world as "mundanes," in such statements as, "Did you see how we freaked out those mundanes in the elevator?" Many of the fans wear costumes and bizarre makeup throughout the entire convention, not just at the masquerade parties. Many of them are involved in role-playing strategy games of the "Dungeons and Dragons" variety.
I suppose one could say that these fans are escaping reality. But, in most cases, I don't think there is anything wrong with a bit of an escape. On the contrary, Dr. Jerome L. Singer has demonstrated, with rigorous scientific studies (The Inner World of Daydreaming and The Child's World of Make Believe), that the richer a person's fantasy life, the better s/he is able to deal with real life. I was really happy when I found out about these studies; they suddenly gave my own work validity. Imaginative literature is not only entertainment; it stimulates and exercises the reader's imagination and improves fantasy skills, making him/her better able to cope with frustrating situations in the real world. For example, it is a very useful and practical to put yourself mentally in another time and place when you are sitting in a traffic jam or waiting in line at the super market. And revenge fantasies, if you have the practiced technique to construct really good ones, are a lot more satisfying in most ways than actually taking revenge on somebody, which can make you feel guilty or get you into trouble. In fact, it seems logical to me that kids who read science fiction are less likely to become criminals, but I can't really say that because, as far as I know, no one has demonstrated it—yet.
But what precisely is science fiction? My own definition is that science fiction is literature about something that hasn't happened yet, but might be possible some day. That it might be possible is the important part; that's what separates science fiction from fantasy. No one would ever think that the Tolkien books (which I love), with their talking animals, elves and magic swords, could ever really happen, and so they are considered to be fantasy. But, a book like Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke), which in certain ways is just as fantastic, is considered to be science fiction; we and the author assume that these things could actually happen in a universe like ours. It's not just unexplained magic that makes a large cylindrical body of water possible—it really is possible, because of the centrifugal force inside a rotating space ship.
One could argue that my definition breaks down when it comes to time travel, since time travel is always thought of as science fiction. Yet, time travel is totally out of the question scientifically. However, spinning black holes might make time travel possible after all. One of the things I love most about science is that the more we find out about the universe, the weirder and more bizarre it turns out to be.
The appeal of science fiction to adolescents, it seems to me, is that it is about things that might be possible. Of course, any writer of any kind of fiction tries to establish credibility. If the reader doesn't believe the story, if it doesn't have some connection with reality, s/he's not going to care about it, won't have an emotional response to it. So, why bother to read it? In fact, I think the reader's emotional response is directly proportional to how believable s/he finds the story. Which is more frightening, a book about vampires in 19th century Transylvania, or a book about a homicidal maniac in a suburban neighborhood?
I don't want to get into which kind of writing is harder to do, imaginative or realistic, but I will say that the writer of imaginative fiction has an added task. S/he has to do everything the realistic writer has to do, and also must convince the reader to believe in something that has never happened. This question of plausibility is especially vital when writing for skeptical, suspicious teenagers. Anything contrived or artificial in a book will scream at them; they'll spot it right away. And then they will be contemptuous of the book, they won't care about it, and they won't want to read it.
If you are writing a book about the fourth dimension, for instance, you have to be even more rigorous about establishing credibility than if you are writing a book about baseball. The baseball book, by its very nature has a firm foundation of credibility. You don't have to go to a lot of trouble to convince the reader that a baseball game could really happen. But, the reader doesn't believe in the fourth dimension. So, if you are writing about the fourth dimension, your first and most fundamental objective is to make it seem real. But how do you do that? How do you get the reader to believe in something that has never happened?
One way is to begin the story in the real world, in a situation with which the reader can identify, and then unobtrusively sneak in the unreal elements. The Boy Who Reversed Himself begins with something extremely mundane with which all readers are familiar—a school locker. Laura opens her locker to find a note taped inside the door, in mirror writing, warning her of a surprise quiz the next day. These events are the first suggestions of science fiction in the story. Though odd, they can be rationally explained. There are ways of getting into other peoples' lockers and leaving notes; anyone can write in mirror writing with practice; it is not unheard of for a student to learn about a surprise quiz in advance. No suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept any of it. But, these incidents do, I hope, prepare the reader to accept the first truly unexplainable occurrence—the next day Laura takes her biology report out of her locker and finds that it is entirely in mirror writing, completely reversed from back to front. Once that is accepted, it is not a very big leap to believing in the next unlikely event—the mirror reversal of her neighbor Omar.
These three elements—getting into closed spaces, seeing the future and mirror reversal—at first have no apparent logical connection. They are unlikely juxtapositions which make sense only after learning the theory of the fourth spatial dimension. My intention is sneaking them in without explanation is to make the reader curious enough so that, when the explanation does come, s/he is willing and even eager to sit back and listen to it. In a textbook, one might give the equation first, and later give examples of its function. In fiction, you first toss the reader some intriguing examples, and only then, when s/he's begging for it, provide the equation.
Another important element is establishing credibility—and an area in which a lot of science fiction falls flat on its face—is characterization. The reader must know the characters are not fictional creations, but real people. When s/he can understand, and identify with, a character's motivation s/he is more likely to believe in that situation, even if it is quite improbable.
In Interstellar Pig I based the three aliens—as I do many of my characters—on people I know. I try to make them rather ordinary at the beginning, to avoid the predictable "weirdness" of so many alien characters. I lift their likes and dislikes, their conversations and petty bickering from real life. It the reader comes to accept them as actual personalities, how much more frightening—and believable—it is when they become monstrous caricatures of themselves at the end.
When I was writing Singularity, a book about twins, I asked everyone I know who is a twin, or who has children who are twins, exactly what it is like, and especially what problems they have being twins. And they all said, "Oh there are no problems at all, it is just wonderful, it is perfect." So, cursing them under my breath, I invented the twins' problems based on my own interactions with siblings. And when these same people read the finished book, they said, "That's exactly what it is like, we have the same problems." And, I said, "Gee, thanks for telling me now."
I always try to stay away from heroes and villains. No one is totally perfect, just as no one is totally rotten. And, I will do almost anything to avoid the ridiculous battle between the forces of good and evil that wages interminably in so many books. I don't believe in abstract good versus evil; I can't relate to it; it means nothing to me, and always detracts from credibility whenever it rears its ugly head.
Beginning a story in the real world and peopling it with believable characters are techniques used by fantasy, as well as science fiction, writers. But, there is another element that is unique to science fiction, and the basis of its appeal to me, and I think for teenagers—science. Science is the ultimate down to earth reality. It's fact. I can truthfully tell my readers that gravity really does slow down time. Mathematicians make computer displays of four dimensional objects. And, according to a new theory in physics, the Superstring theory, there actually are ten dimensions in this universe. Once you have a scientific principle going for you, you can then slyly stretch it beyond the limits of reality without the reader being aware of it. What science fiction does is to take scientific laws—which have built-in credibility—and use them to make nearly anything possible. Only in this genre can you really have your cake and eat it too. All sorts of wonderful, almost magical things can happen, and at the same time you can really believe in them.
In fantasy we are asked to believe in elves, ghosts and magic spells, which we all know do not exist. In science fiction we are asked to believe in aliens—and no one can tell me that aliens do not exist. I know I will not run into an elf tomorrow, but I can't say for sure I won't run into an alien. I tend to doubt that I will get to another world by walking into a wardrobe, but I don't doubt at all that I could get there in a space ship. Science fiction confronts teenage skepticism head on, and does away with it. It's imaginative literature that adolescents can really put themselves into, as exciting to the skeptics as to the romantics. And that's why science fiction is so effective at attracting teenagers to books.
Sometimes a science fiction writer can stumble upon a useful scientific principle almost accidentally. When I began writing Singularity I wasn't thinking at all about gravity or black holes. I was writing a story about a place where time moves at a different rate, an idea that had been in the back of my mind for years. Sixteen-year-old twin brothers are house-sitting at an isolated farm house. They discover a small playhouse that contains a time contraction field—time goes faster inside the playhouse. If you go inside and stay for an hour, when you come out, only one second has elapsed in the real world. One of the twins is frightened by the place, but the other sees its exciting possibilities. Let's say that it is 8 a.m. on Monday and you haven't done any of your homework. The school bus is coming down the street. If you have this playhouse, you can go inside, spend three hours doing your homework, and when you come out, only three seconds have gone by and the bus is only a little closer.
What I found out half way through the book is that it is a scientific fact that gravity slows down time. People living in earth gravity age a bit more slowly than people in orbit. However, the effect is so infinitesimal that under most conditions it is essentially non-existent. It only becomes noticeable in extreme conditions, such as in the vicinity of a black hole.
It's well known that black holes are collapsed stars with tremendous mass and relatively little volume, and that their gravity is so extreme that not even light, the fastest thing in the universe, can escape them. But, what most people don't know is that because of gravitational tidal forces there is a radius around a black hole, known as the event horizon, in which time almost completely stops. (I love the scientific term, "event horizon." I came across it in Gateway, a science fiction book by Frederick Pohl. I then went to my little brother Tycho, a physicist, and got all the accurate details from him.)
Those are the facts. But, scientists who wonder what happens to all the matter pulled into black holes speculate that they may be tunnels to other universes where all the matter goes. I learned all this when I was halfway through the first draft of Singularity. And, I took it one step further, saying that if time slows down on one side of a black hole, then maybe it speeds up on the other in order to preserve the conservation of momentum. That could be the reason why time speeds up in the playhouse. It's also true that "singularity" is the scientific term for the core of a black hole. I shouted out loud when I realized this. Now I had the perfect title with an ironic double meaning: Singularity meaning black hole, and Singularity referring to twins who are not twins at the end of the book.
Though science fiction writers have to stretch scientific laws, we also must respect their limitations as much as possible. Once the rules for a particular story are established, they must be stuck to rigorously. Thus, in Singularity, though alien objects are pulled into our universe by the black hole, nothing can travel by that route from our universe into the other one. Everyone knows black holes only work in one direction; if they are tunnels, they must be one-way tunnels.
And, here I cannot resist mentioning my favorite example of an author respecting limitations. It's not science fiction, it's an uncategorizable novel called His Monkey Wife (John Collier) about a man who inadvertently gets married to a chimpanzee. The chimpanzee, Emily, is the hero of the story. She is brilliantly intelligent, is passionately in love with her school teacher husband, and by the end of the book has achieved wealth and status as a Spanish dancer, the toast of the London stage, riding in Hispano-Suizas and dining at the Ritz. However, one thing Emily can't do is talk—everyone knows chimpanzees can't talk. Limitations like this do more than provide credibility. Working within them also makes for all sorts of interesting plot twists, peculiar ideas the author might never have thought of if he had ignored the limitations and just did anything he wanted. Emily's inability to speak causes many complications until she learns to type at the end of the book and then can explain herself.
The lure of science fiction is that it is imaginative literature in which teenagers can believe. It allows them to explore exciting, often dreamlike situations in which they might conceivably find themselves. And, the tremendous advantage that science fiction literature has over the visual media is that it is not limited to special effects. The story takes place in the reader's mind; it is an active, rather than passive, experience.
For this reason, I always end my books on a note of ambiguity. I try to provide a satisfying conclusion, but at the same time I don't tell absolutely everything. When readers ask me what happens when the parents come home, or whether or not the earth is going to blow up the next day, I tell them I don't know. I remind them that stories do not end neatly in real life; they go on and on through the years. My hope is that after finishing the book the readers will be stimulated, even compelled, to use their own imaginations to continue the story. I have spent many pleasant hours in traffic jams and supermarket lines doing exactly the same thing myself.
Books by William Sleator
Among the Dolls. Dutton, 1986.
Blackbriar. Avon, 1975. Scholastic, 1982.
The Boy Who Reversed Himself. Dutton, 1986.
The Duplicate. Dutton, 1988.
Fingers. Macmillan, 1983. Bantam, 1988.
The Green Futures of Tycho. Dutton, 1981.
House of Stairs. Dutton, 1974. Scholastic, 1981.
Interstellar Pig. Dutton, 1984. Bantam, 1986.
Into the Dream. Dutton, 1979. Scholastic, 1984.
Once, Said Darlene. Dutton, 1979.
Run. Avon, 1975. Scholastic, 1981.
Singularity. Dutton, 1985.
James E. Davis and Hazel K. Davis (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Davis, James E., and Hazel K. Davis. "In and Out of Science Fiction." In Presenting William Sleator, pp. 70-87. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
[In the following essay, Davis and Davis examine three of Sleator's science fiction novels for young adult readers—Fingers, Interstellar Pig, and Singularity.]
[William] Sleator departed from science fiction in Fingers (1983), although it contains some strange happenings that are not entirely explained. The book tells the story of Humphrey, a former child-prodigy pianist who loses the attention of the public when he reaches puberty. The rest of the family includes his mother, Bridget; his father, Luc; and his half-brother, Sam, who is the narrator. Then there is Lazlo, the mysterious old man who becomes family later.
Because audiences no longer accept Humphrey's playing, Bridget has difficulty getting bookings for him. The virtuosity that was amazing from a child is merely second-rate from an adult. The resulting financial loss has to be remedied. Bridget comes up with what she thinks is a perfect scheme to win audiences back for Humphrey: the spirit of the Hungarian classical composer Lazlo Magyar will visit Humphrey while he is asleep and give him new compositions. Sam is forced to compose these "genuine" musical scores secretly; Bridget and Luc drug Humphrey while Sam slips the music he has composed into his hands; and Humphrey, on awakening, is told that the ghost of Magyar is sending him the music. Humphrey believes he has somehow written the music he is holding when he wakes up. He is able to play these "genuine" compositions with a flair and emotion he has never before shown, and because he plays the new music so well the family is able to resume traveling around Europe for concerts.
Sam is bothered by the joke he is playing on Humphrey, and by other weird happenings. An old man follows them around from concert to concert. No one pays much attention to him except Sam, who is extremely upset by his presence. The old man makes sure Sam finds and reads a biography of Magyar. In it Sam discovers the fact that the composer's body was buried without his head or hands. Humphrey, who never reads, to Sam's amazement begins to talk about a pair of shriveled human hands wrapped in rags. Then a pair of doll's hands wrapped in rags mysteriously appears on Humphrey's bed. Something unusual is obviously going on.
It turns out that the old man is Magyar's only child and bears his name. He has original pieces of music identical to the ones Sam has composed. Sam confesses the deception to Humphrey. Bridget and Luc follow the boys to the old man's apartment, where Bridget burns what she believes are the original scores, hoping their scheme will not be found out. The boys run away with old Lazlo and are living with him at the end of the novel. It is more than a little unmotivated that these two teens would go off with this unusual, seedy old man without fear or even second thoughts. But the whole plot contains a farcical element.
Sam's ability to compose works identical note for note with those written by Lazlo Magyar years before can be explained only by some kind of ghostly influence. Humphrey's unusual ability to play the compositions effortlessly must also come from the late Magyar. The two brothers complement each other in that together they have the most important parts and talents of the dead Hungarian composer. Remember that Lazlo Magyar was buried without his hands and head. Could they be influencing the two boys? The mystery is not resolved by the end of the novel; rather, it is further heightened by the disclosure that since their arrival on Magyar's island, the boys have begun speaking Hungarian in their sleep, although they have never been able to speak that language before. What might happen next? The reader is left to imagine the further adventures of Sam and Humphrey led on by the ghost of Lazlo Magyar.
Humphrey is a caricature of the preoccupied musician, unaware of what goes on around him. He is a prisoner of his music. He has little personality either in general or in his playing style. He originally admires Sam because he is older and protects him; however, Bridget corrupts Humphrey, and later he does not behave well toward Sam. Humphrey is unaware not only of Bridget's plot but of Sam's affection for him, and he is oblivious to the fact that his father and mother care more for him as a commodity than for him as a son. Not until Humphrey realizes Bridget and Luc's scheme does he make amends to Sam.
Sam is undergoing a kind of identity crisis. He is troubled, introverted, and in some ways brilliant. Because tutors have been hired for Sam, he is better educated than Humphrey. He has begun to question who he is and how he fits into things. Although he regrets having no father around, he is proud of the African genes his father did pass on to him and pleased he bears no resemblance to Humphrey or Luc. Sam is under the thumb of the family, but he wants to assert himself.
At first Sam thinks of Humphrey as a thing: "the only safe and sane way to deal with this object is to feel nothing about it at all." Part of this feeling is motivated by jealousy; his hands are not as large as Humphrey's, a situation that keeps him from being a great piano player. Yet Sam still has enough concern for his half-brother to ask Bridget to let Humphrey stop performing so that he can begin to live a normal life. He shows real affection when Humphrey runs away. Sam is the one who takes the lead in defying Bridget, although he is usually reserved. He is also the one who gets himself and Humphrey to the security of the old man's protection, away from the tyranny of Bridget and into—or so we are led to believe—a stable home with a father substitute.
Both Bridget and Luc are exploitive and greedy. Bridget possesses skill as a blackmailer and uses it often. She coddles Humphrey but denies Sam any mothering whatsoever. Luc is controlled by her and forces Humphrey to practice long hours. He never thinks for himself and seldom acts rationally. Even though he has a musical background, Luc lacks the talent to be a professional. He is a spineless person who follows in the direction he is pointed. He is useless as a father but quite useful as a scapegoat.
Setting is handled so as to remind us that Sam and Humphrey are always "going, going, and still going" to the next city to play without thanks. They are teenagers unable to do teenage things. Fingers opens in the mid-fifties of this century in Venice, in a dreary hotel that has seen better days. The atmosphere is bleak. Because the group is always on the road, the setting changes in different scenes, but the hotels are much alike. The theaters in which Humphrey plays have the same seedy quality. Sleator is especially apt with these descriptive passages because of all the years he spent traveling with the ballet company; he is able to describe not only the physical setting but also the general ambience of being on the road. The family spends most of its time indoors, whether in Venice, Milan, Geneva, or Cleveland. Sleator chooses not to describe these areas in great detail; instead, he saves his major descriptions for more intriguing places, such as Magyar's apartment: "The style of the decor remained consistent: more junk blackened by the grime of decades, more tattered piles of books and papers, more peeling wallpaper and rags and crumbling plaster. Only here there was an old upright piano instead of a bed, its black enameled finish blistered and cracked … falling apart volumes of music, except for the space occupied by a large cylindrical glass jar, sealed with a cork. The pale objects floating inside were obscured by a thick coat of dust on the glass."
The boys are happy on the island, where the house provides an escape from the otherwise-all-encompassing task of music. This sheltered place for relief from the hectic pace of show business was something never provided by Bridget and Luc. In this home Sam and Humphrey blossom as students in their respective interests: Sam works on his composing, and Humphrey is free to practice his piano playing without being exploited. The house emits a feeling of reassurance and relieves the bleakness of the boys' former lives, in contrast to the supernaturalism of the pesthouse in Blackbriar or the surrealism of the ghastly House of Stairs.
Sleator uses broad strokes to satirize such things as the Russian music critic's name—Nitpikskaya. The virtuoso, Prendelberg, and Tina, the publicity-seeking blond actress, are slapstick stereotypes. The fickleness of the concert audience is also parodied.
Reality and illusion are intriguingly intertwined. For example, Bridget uses real drugs to trick Humphrey into thinking he is being contacted by Magyar's ghost. The hands in the stained cloth also appear to be real, although they turn out to be from a doll. That all is not fully answered in the end should not bother us too much—many happenings in young people's lives must seem equally baffling to them.
Critical opinion on this book has been divided. The reviewer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books liked it, saying, "For most of the dramatic and often funny story, the strangeness is explained, but there are occult elements (precognition) for one and there's some broad lampooning (the Russian music expert is named Alexandra Nitpikskaya) of types in the world of classical music. This has a lively pace, sharp characterization, good style, and often-acid humor."1 Anita Wilson in the School Library Journal also praised it for the most part: "Sam is a well-rounded and sympathetic narrator who is convincing in both his lifelong jealousy of Humphrey and in his growing realization that he nonetheless cares for his brother and wants to protect him from exploitation. The characterization of Bridget is sometimes too exaggerated to be credible, but the book is highly suspenseful, with effective touches of horror, and should please young adult mystery fans."2 William McBride in the Voice of Youth Advocates was not pleased, but how could he be when he was looking for another House of Stairs ? Fingers, he says "is disappointing, partly because it is clearly not equal to House of Stairs. Then, too, the characters remain two-dimensional. The book may appeal to upper elementary or early junior high students, but it is not Sleator's best work."3
And most devastating to Sleator, Ann Durell, as we have seen, did not like it at all. Sleator says, "It made her feel unhappy because there is so much meanness in the book. And a lot of people who have talked to me about that book have said the same thing—that this book has a general feeling of bitterness and hostility that is a little bit unpleasant. The other problem is that the parents are the bad guys." But Sleator claims Fingers was intended as a farce: "I love that book. It has style. It was supposed to be funny. It is an exaggeration. Ann didn't get it."
Durell has rejected four other manuscripts of his—two sequels to Into the Dream, a book about an English ballet school, and a book about a werewolf in the 1930s. Sleator says, "I think Ann was right to reject those manuscripts, and they have remained on my shelf. Fingers was the one book rejected by Ann that I continued to believe in—partly because my mother thought it was so good. I am very thankful that Jean Karl at Atheneum wanted to publish it." Sleator likes the writing style, which he says he has never been able to repeat but hopes someday again to come up with lines like "peevish medieval plumbing, more often than not too dispirited to flush with adequate conviction."
Probably another reason Sleator likes this book is that it is the only one in which he writes about music and about what it is like to compose music. Fingers is also the first book Sleator wrote in the first person, a point of view he liked so much that every book he's written since uses it. He says the great challenge of the first person is to be indirect—to let the reader know things the first-person narrator does not know. He says he's still working on that.
Although Sleator draws on a house he once lived in as the setting for Interstellar Pig (1984), with this book he is back to science fiction. He began writing it while staying one summer in a cinderblock cottage next door to a captain's house. He was trying to write a nautical yarn, and the effort turned into a science fiction story. Sleator says, "Maybe I am being influenced by some subliminal power from the stars. Try as I might, I can't seem to keep outer space, time travel, and aliens out of my work."4
The story is told by 16-year-old Barney, who is spending two weeks with his parents at a New England beach resort called Indian Neck. Barney sunburns easily; evidently does not like to swim; is bored, lonely, indecisive, and shy; and likes to read science fiction. He is living in the house belonging to a captain whose brother was crazy and was kept locked in a room (Barney's bedroom, as it turns out) for 20 years. Strange grooves are scratched in the wall and window facings.
Three unusual individuals move into the cinder-block cottage next door. Right away Barney notices that his parents do not see the three in the same way he does, or even agree between themselves on what they look like. The mother thinks the woman is too old to wear a bikini and the men look like models. The father thinks the woman is gorgeous and the men puny. Barney thinks they all look great and are just a little older than he. They move with an animal grace that makes Barney think he is watching three lions. They appear to be foreigners by the way they speak English.
The first time Barney visits their house, he sees Zena, Joe, and Manny playing Interstellar Pig, a board game involving exotic alien creatures who are searching the universe for an object called The Piggy. Intrigued, Barney wants to learn how to play the game.
From the first, the three take a great interest in Barney, which pleases his teenage need to put one over on his parents—these exotic people like him best. They manage to get into his house and comb through it the way archaeologists would. Since they have searched his house, Barney feels it is only fair to search their house while they are out. As he has in several other novels, Sleator comments on the part chance plays in the course of life. Barney says, "And now I wonder: How differently would things have ended if I hadn't found what I did that day?"
In Zena's room he finds portions of the sea captain's diary (the same one who owned Barney's house), telling about the murder of a man picked up at sea. The captain's brother was the murderer, and, to punish him, he was keelhauled, that is, dragged from one end to the other under the boat. For a moment when the captain first glimpsed the victim he saw a green reptilian creature with a sluglike thing in its mouth—but only for a moment. The captain took his by-now-brain-damaged brother home and locked him in a room until he died twenty years later. The brother had with him a trinket he had taken off the dead man's body and had clung to even while being keelhauled. That object is what the neighbors are searching for.
Zena teaches Barney to play Interstellar Pig while sitting in the blazing sun (deliberately to burn him, the reader finds out later). Barney innocently thinks, "My body was so white, compared to hers, that we could have been members of different species." Zena easily defeats Barney and gives him the rule book to take home to read on his own. The words on the page seem to crawl, until his eyes adjust and he can read what is written.
Barney soon figures out that the marks on the wall and window casing all point to one spot on a nearby island. He decides the trinket must be hidden there, and he is determined to get it first. The three neighbors are also planning a trip to the island by surfboarding. Joe, who Zena says is best at "aquatic" activities, is none too happy to take Barney with him but finally agrees. Barney had noticed earlier that the three have a purplish cast to their skin. Since he has to lie flat on the surfboard with his face at Joe's feet, he especially notices that Joe's toenails have purplish stains under them. Once the group reach the island Barney is able to find The Piggy, hidden in a trunk exactly where the lines scratched on his window had shown it would be. He is able to keep the others from finding out he has it, at least until he is safely back home.
Sleator gives enough hints so that the reader is able to figure out long before Barney does that these three are really alien creatures. Each of the three try to bribe Barney with incentives, such as extreme intelligence and life everlasting, in exchange for The Piggy. He refuses all offers and later thinks of a clever hiding place, the hollowed-out inside of a high school yearbook.
The aliens contrive to get Barney's parents away for the day and evening, leaving Barney to fight them off alone. As in several other Sleator novels, an adolescent manages to save the world even though it does not know it needs to be saved.
Zena suggests they play a game of Interstellar Pig, this time for real stakes. Barney realizes he is playing for keeps, if what Zena has told him is correct: that if he doesn't win, the earth will be destroyed. The Piggy also tells him that if he possesses it when the game is over, it, The Piggy, will hiccup and destroy the world.
At the beginning of the game Barney chooses several weapons, including a "Disguise Selector" and an immunity pill. Barney takes the immunity pill hoping it will be of some use. Not only are the three aliens after The Piggy, but so are other aliens who have thus far been only character cards. In the first game he played with Zena, Barney had been a lichen from the planet Mbridlengile. The lichen live in "colonies of hundreds or thousands of individual cells…. Each cell is capable of absorbing chemical data from its immediate surface and transmitting it to the rest of the colony…. The individual cells are incapable of passing on false information; they cannot ‘lie’ to one another…. They are capable of eating through almost any obstacle to their progress." As Barney waits for the attacks from Moyna (Manny), Zulma (Zena), and Jrlb (Joe), the lichen ooze under the kitchen door.
Once the lichen are in the house, to keep them in Barney cuts his finger and drips blood across the doorways and window sills, hoping the immunity pill he took earlier was still in his bloodstream. Knowing that the lichen eat almost anything, and wanting to keep them as a possible weapon to use against the others, Barney throws them a package of bologna still in its plastic. They love it. Not only is Barney worried about losing The Piggy and his own life, but he suddenly realizes his parents may come home and could be eaten by the lichen or killed by any one of the other three aliens.
Using the "Disguise Selector," Barney turns himself into a lichen to avoid being tortured by Moyna, Zulma, and Jrlb. Thanks to the immunity pill, Barney is ignored by the other lichen as they ooze over the floor devouring everything, including lots of tiny bugs: "It was like subsisting on endless trays of hors d'oeuvres."
Barney, the pseudolichen, discovers that The Piggy is just some sort of recording device whose aim is to get around the universe to find out about as many species as possible. The game was invented for that very purpose, and this is still the first game. Barney, deciding it would be less dangerous for the lichen to win The Piggy, is able to tell them where it is hidden and leads them to it. The fact that his immunity to them has probably worn off worries Barney. As the lichen are leaving the house, they try to get around Barney, who is trying to break away from them. Barney says, "I did the lichen equivalent of elbowing and kicking as they swarmed past me, cursing me, furious and uncomprehending." Using the "Disguise Selector," he turns himself back into Barney; unfortunately, however, the lichen, as they squeeze under the kitchen door with their prize, The Piggy, chew a hole in the top of each of Barney's big toenails. This makes the reader cringe along with Barney but also chuckle at the absurdity of it all.
As they blast away in their ships, the three aliens decide Barney is more stupid than they thought, because he did not kill them when he had a chance.
They zoom away in pursuit of the lichen, who are on their way back to their planet with The Piggy. The game goes on. The messed-up house is Barney's only proof all these events were not a dream. His life will now return to normal—or will it? He has had several exciting days in the company of three highly unusual people who have almost treated him as an equal and who have involved him in life-and-death situations. He has been attracted to an exciting female, an experience that may result in a new interest in the females of his own species. Barney has become more aware and will face the future as a more confident young man.
Barney's parents seem oblivious of his activities. They have brought him to the beach for a vacation, knowing he is allergic to the sun. During the day they are on the beach and at night they watch TV. When his middle-aged, out-of-shape parents disagree on what the three neighbors look like, Barney thinks they are behaving childishly as they try to rationalize their way out of being compared unfavorably with the new arrivals. Barney is also surprised that they are so interested in finding out about neighbors who have no obvious social position. On the beach Barney sees his mother as a "greased corpse" among the others and escapes back to the "safe darkness of the house." When Joe is about to introduce Barney's parents to one of the most influential families in New England, his mother gushes so that Barney thinks she sounds like a 14-year-old. The parents are not much concerned about leaving their son to be entertained by the neighbors; instead they caution him not to make a pest of himself.
When Barney is faced with the knowledge that the three are aliens and he is in the real game of Interstellar Pig, he has no adult to turn to for help or advice. Rather, he is the responsible one who must try to save the earth, save himself, and protect his parents from the aliens. He alone is able to see the aliens for what they are, perhaps because he is a teenager. At least Manny thinks so. He says, "Maybe they're harder to put things over on than—." After Barney gets rid of the aliens, he whistles calmly as he goes about sweeping up all the dead lichen mixed with sand, matter-of-factly thinking, "It was always that way at the beach—no way to keep sand out." It is now safe for his parents to return home to their dinner and their TV.
The three aliens have distinct personalities. Zena is strong-willed and dominant. She seems to be the boss, forcing the other two to cooperate until The Piggy can be located. She has a spectacular figure, long black hair, a husky voice, lavender eyes, and a deep tan. She can be smiling and cajoling in one situation, be "massive, brusque, in control" in another, and have a "rapid, high-pitched, silly giggle, like a teenager's" in still another. She is really Zulma, an arachnoid nymph from Vavoosh who has a fat, spiderlike body with eight jointed legs, and a humanlike, female head with huge, faceted eyes. She is the most intelligent of the aliens and gets very angry when she does not win the board game of Interstellar Pig. She is ruthless and regrets not killing Barney when she had a chance.
Joe is tall and strong, has a brown mustache, likes to swim—especially at night—and only grudgingly accepts Barney into the group. He is the one who lures Barney's parents away with the promise of boating with the Powells, one of the socially elite families on this part of the coast. In actuality he is Jrlb, a water-breathing "gill man" from Thrilb who looks like a swordfish with rudimentary arms and legs. He has a lower intelligence than Zena. In the final game he ties up Barney and tortures him by cutting him with the three-foot-long sword on his head, until Zulma appears. Jrlb manages to step into a patch of lichen who eat a piece out of his foot before he escapes into hyperspace.
Manny, the third alien neighbor, has some female characteristics. He has a blond beard, is more slender than Joe but wiry, giggles, is squeamish about Joe's bashing baby octopuses, reads fantasy and science fiction, bleaches his beard, thinks Barney's book sounds "enchanting," admires Barney's kitchen, likes to cook, competes with Zena to get the best tan, is in a snit because his dinner may be overcooked, and won't open a bottle of champagne because corks make him nervous. He is the alien female Moyna, "one of the octopus gas bag creatures from Flaeioub." Moyna comes the closest to getting The Piggy. Barney does his best to protect her from the lichen, even though he has to turn himself into a lichen to escape being killed by her. Moyna throws cutlery to try to kill him, and almost manages it. The lichen do puncture Moyna's portable breathing bag, and she nearly suffocates from lack of hydrogen. To keep her from dying after the lichen leave, Barney carries her outside, which he says was "like carrying entrails." Reviving, she cuts his arm as she speeds off to her spaceship. In the epilogue she says she wished they had killed Barney and his parents and is disdainful of Barney because he saved her life.
Although most of the story does take place in the two houses near a beach in New England, the setting-within-the-setting is the game itself, Interstellar Pig. When the characters are playing, they are in space and seem to be actually on the various planets they land on. The equipment cards the players draw show a neural whip, oxygen-breathing equipment, the "Disguise Selector," an immunity pill, an automatic translating headset—but the most fantastic card of all is hyperspace, which enables its possessor to travel anywhere in the universe in a second. The Portable Access to the Fifth-dimensional Matrix is what allows Jrlb to appear and disappear so easily when attacked. On the board this access is represented by black funnels called hyperspace tunnels. The final game is played in the captain's house, which becomes the game board.
The players reveal their real selves—"a hairy spiderlady; a fish-man with a long, razor-sharp horn growing out of his head; and a flying octopus with claws." This mix of the alien with the ordinary, one of the characteristics of Sleator's science fiction style, is most effective in the last half of the book.
All are defeated by a 16-year-old boy who makes use of his own ingenuity and a few of the alien weapons available to him. Even though he has the power to destroy the three aliens, he chooses not to, because he likes them and there is no reason to destroy them. He alone realizes that it is just a game and not to be taken seriously. He doubts the world will be destroyed or that The Piggy is telling the truth about its hiccup. But he is doubtful enough that he plays to win, and because of this doubt he is willing to let the lichen win The Piggy and take it off with them, never to return to planet Earth.
Even though Moyna, the "octopus gas bag," has an arsenal of alien weapons, she still resorts to throwing a broken cola bottle, a cast-iron frying pan, and a bread knife, before she uses her alien weapon, too late. This cartoonlike sequence is full of humor and no one is hurt by it. Later Barney has to clean up this mess in the kitchen because he thinks he would have a hard time explaining why the kitchen equipment is sticking into the walls.
Many reviewers of later works by Sleator compare them with Interstellar Pig, which most agree is one of his finest novels. As one reviewer puts it, "compelling on the first reading—but stellar on the second."5 The Booklist reviewer says, "Sleator draws the reader in with intimations of danger and horror, but the climactic battle is more slapstick than horrific, and the victor's prize could scarcely be more ironic. Problematic as straight science fiction but great fun as a spoof on human-alien contact."6 The book did not get that way easily, according to Ann Durell, who says that when the book came to her,
there was very little in it that could be used. I think this book Interstellar Pig demonstrates the editorial dynamic between Bill and me at its most mysterious. I didn't write extensive detailed editorial notes. I couldn't, because I wasn't saying "change this" or "change that" but rather, "this story (in some ways nonstory, as I recall!) doesn't work."
This book took several rewrites, and even then the book still lacked a device to propel and rationalize the plot. At that point in my life, I was spending a lot of time playing board games with my 11-year-old stepson, so—"How about making it a game?" I suggested. And that was the McGuffin!
Sleator mentions Interstellar Pig in two of his later novels. Omar and Laura play the Interstellar Pig game on the computer in The Boy Who Could Reverse Himself. And David and Angela are watching the movie Interstellar Pig at the end of The Duplicate.
Sleator is again back to science fiction in Singularity (1985). The idea had been floating around in his head for several years. He says the book almost wrote itself, "partly because it's about time, an extremely peculiar phenomenon and therefore one of my favorite subjects. There was a kind of inevitability about it." He had "been wanting to write about a room or building that had the properties of the playhouse in this story—a place where the flow of time is distorted." But, he says, "I didn't know where it would be, or what kinds of characters would stumble on this place." When he began writing the book he wasn't thinking about gravity or black holes; he was simply writing about 16-year-old twin brothers who are house-sitting at an isolated farmhouse in Illinois. The book is dedicated to Sleator's sister, Vicky S. Wald, who some people thought was the author's twin. He says in the dedication, "We are just as important to each other as any twins I ever heard of."
As the story begins, the twins' mother's Uncle Ambrose has just died, leaving the house to her. Since their parents are going to a convention in San Francisco for two weeks, the twins offer to leave their home on the East Coast to go to Illinois to check on the house. Uncle Ambrose was the eccentric black sheep of the family, a man who had a glass eye and would take it out and show it when people asked. He "looked sixty when he was forty," an interesting bit of foreshadowing. Barry is eager to go and convinces his twin, Harry, that it would be fun to have just the two of them around for a while. Recently the twins have grown apart, and in the hope they can be close again, Harry agrees to go. Fred, their cocker-spaniel mutt, will go too because their mom believes he will act as a watchdog.
At the farm the boys discover just how eccentric Uncle Ambrose was. One of the rooms in the house is filled with mounted skeletons of strange animals, such as a cat with six legs and a snake with a bird's head. Most unusual, though, is a building that seems to be a playhouse, 12 feet long and 6 feet wide, with no windows and only one locked metal door, like that on a bomb shelter. The structure is supplied with survival rations, multivitamin capsules, water, and lots of books.
At the farm they meet Lucy Coolidge, who tells them of her grandfather's difficulties with Uncle Ambrose and of the prize animals that strayed onto his land and just disappeared. On the property was a big flat rock, called Skeleton Rock by the Indians because there were always animal skeletons around it. After a good milk cow aged 20 years in a few minutes near the rock, Uncle Ambrose built the playhouse over it, and no other animals were lost.
The three discover the playhouse is full of spiderwebs and the bodies of dead bugs. As they go inside they notice there is a rabbit in the yard, and Fred is going toward it. When they come out several minutes later both the rabbit and Fred are in the same position. Later Barry gets locked inside the playhouse for what to him is all day and night but to Harry on the outside is only seconds. When Fred is accidentally shut inside for a short while, only his skeleton is left when the boys get the door open. Time thus goes faster in the playhouse.
Sleator uses the scientific theory of black holes as the basis for his explanation of the speeding up of time. Black holes are collapsed stars with tremendous mass and relatively little volume: "Because of gravitational tidal forces there is a radius around a black hole known as the event horizon, in which time almost completely stops" ("SP"). Sleator thought it only logical that if time slowed down on one side of a black hole, then it must speed up on the opposite side "to preserve the conservation of momentum." And singularity is the scientific term for the core of a black hole. The singularity is the one-way tunnel through which alien objects (such as the six-legged cat) might be pulled. When Sleator learned about the term he knew he "had the perfect title with an ironic double meaning: ‘Singularity’ meaning the black hole, and ‘Singularity’ referring to twins who are not twins at the end of the book" ("SF"). Sleator takes us beyond an acceptance of the theoretical construct of the black hole; he allows his characters to see—in the reflections on the water in the playhouse sink—what is coming down the tunnel.
Although the twins are identical, Harry feels inferior to Barry and wishes he were not linked to him. Barry is directive and often mean to Harry; Harry is meek and doesn't retaliate—until, that is, Harry decides to sneak out while Barry is asleep and spend the night in the playhouse, so that he will be older than his brother and able to lord it over him. For Harry the night will be one year long. During that year he exercises, reads, listens to music, meditates, and watches some strange object—a huge mouth—come closer and closer in the sink, the opening of the singularity.
When he comes out the next morning, Harry is a year older and three inches taller. Unexpectedly, Barry is sad because he feels his brother is now dead. Harry's realization that his twin did not hate him is the turning point in their relationship.
Just after Harry leaves the playhouse, the thing that has been approaching for a year arrives with an explosion. Harry somehow knows he has to let it out of the playhouse: "Out reared the head, swinging back and forth—though it wasn't really a head, only a pair of metallic jaws about the size of a small stepladder. Laser-like red points gleamed from the ends of the black conical teeth. Behind the hinge, the jaws were attached to a snakelike body of interlocking cylinders the color of steel, about a foot in diameter where they joined the head. Whiplike, convulsive, the thing uncoiled from the door, the jaws pointed skyward, darting and circling."
The creature, which Harry later decides is a robot, bites its tail and continues doing so until it devours itself and there is nothing left. The granite slab the playhouse is built on has cracked, and through the open door the young people see birds and hear noises, unlike before. Now time is the same inside the playhouse as outside.
Harry believes the robot has been sent to close the singularity, to keep something dangerous to our world from coming through the one-way tunnel. As in many of his science fiction novels, Sleator implies there is intelligent life in space—in this case, one or more benevolent beings who are thinking of the welfare of the earth. Would other beings out there really be that benevolent? Would they really be so far advanced that they would understand time warps and space configurations to see and make use of them?
Sleator chose to set this novel in the Midwest after a visit to see his parents, who live on the Illinois prairie. Sleator says, "I've always been appalled by the way easterners think there is nothing in the middle of the country. And on this particular occasion, after being in Europe, I was struck by how strange and exotic the prairie really is, so I got the idea of putting easterners out there." He drove around small towns, taking notes and making crude sketches. He says, "It all just fell into place."
Sleator says that when he decided to write about twins, he contacted as many twins as he could to learn how they felt about each other. All reported they had no problems; everything was perfect. Those same people wrote him after reading Singularity to say that that was just what being a twin was like. Certainly sibling rivalry will no longer be quite so devastating to Harry.
The character of Harry progresses from a shy, insecure, dependent boy to a very confident older brother who will no longer allow his "twin" to make fun of him or order him around. He continues his exercise program in the real world and after his long confinement will not soon take such things for granted as sunlight, grass, and the songs of birds.
Barry is also a well-rounded character, one who pushes his brother a bit too far. Lucy has been attracted to Barry and has chosen to side with him against Harry. She is as interested as the boys are in the mystery of the playhouse. Her reaction to the "new" older, muscular, taller Harry indicates Barry has just lost his attraction for her. The parents, as they usually are in Sleator's novels, are incidental. Their function is to give the boys a reason for going to the house and to provide the first indications that Uncle Ambrose and his property may be out of the ordinary.
Although some questions are answered and problems resolved by the end of the book, other, important ones are left unanswered. For instance, what will be the reaction of the parents when they return? What will they think, and how will they accept no longer having twins? Readers have been shown the parents only briefly, at the story's beginning, and so they have only Harry's word that "if Barry can adjust to me, then [our parents] should be able to." It is a typical Sleator ending and appropriate to the novel.
Most of the reviews of this book were positive. Some felt it was weak in characterization, but most thought it a suspenseful story told by a master storyteller. David Gale in the School Library Journal said, "Sleator is remarkably able to explain the scientific complexities of his plot without impeding the narrative flow, and the story remains gripping through its stunning climax."7
Ann Durell says about this story: "Singularity was an easy one for me. I thought and still think it was some of Bill's finest writing, especially in the way he evokes the Midwest setting. The book required very little editing; in fact, I turned it over to another editor, as I was desperately pressed with administrative problems at that time."
Sleator himself says about the writing of this novel: "Even in the middle of the book, new bizarre ideas would pop up that suddenly became integral to the plot. I wish all books progressed so straightforwardly. And certainly my editor at Dutton, Julie Amper, was a tremendous help in the writing of this book."
1. Review of Fingers, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December 1983, 78.
2. Anita Wilson, review of Fingers, School Library Journal, October 1983, 173.
3. William McBride, review of Fingers, Voice of Youth Advocates, April 1984, 35.
4. Interstellar Pig (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), dust jacket.
5. Trev Jones, review of Interstellar Pig, School Library Journal, September 1984, 134.
6. Sally Estes, review of Interstellar Pig, Booklist, 1 June 1984, 1392.
7. David Gale, review of Singularity, School Library Journal, August 1985, 82.
HOUSE OF STAIRS (1974)
Michael M. Jones (review date January 2005)
SOURCE: Jones, Michael M. Review of House of Stairs, by William Sleator. Chronicle 27, no. 1 (January 2005): 35.
When five sixteen-year-old orphans are placed in a bizarre room unlike any other, they discover the true depravities of the mind and soul. Unable to get comfortable in this vast room of unending, unceasing staircases, hungry and ill at ease, the five teenagers are forced to work together to satisfy the unpredictable demands of a soulless red machine. Only by working together to puzzle out its desires and obey them can they be fed, and even then, the food is never enough. For Peter, Lola, Blossom, Abigail and Oliver, this truly is Hell. Unable to trust one another, unwilling to even like each other, they still rely on a certain unity. But as time wears on, the unity breaks down and factions emerge, one bent on obeying the machine, the other on disobeying it. And then the ultimate, horrifying purpose of the red machine and the endless staircases, and the reason for their entrapment is made clear.
Coming from the same mind that brought us Interstellar Pig, inspired by an M. C. Escher painting, House of Stairs is a disturbing social commentary mixed with a terrifying psychological experiment. This may be one of Sleator's bleakest books yet, especially since it's rooted in reality and could very well be carried out today, in some hidden place. One could very well spend thousands of words analyzing this book, with regards to the role of teenagers in society and their alienation from the outside world and each other, or how aversion therapy works, or how positive/negative conditioning is applied, or how the government sees us all as tools, and every one of those directions would be valid in some way. But, boiled down to its essentials, what we have here is a darkly fascinating story about five teens who undergo a terrible experience in a dystopian setting. House of Stairs is a thought-provoking tale that stays with you long after it's over. Originally published in 1974, it's as relevant today as it was thirty years ago, and it's good to see it back in print for a new generation's consideration.
INTERSTELLAR PIG (1984)
John T. Gillespie and Corinne J. Naden (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Gillespie, John T., and Corinne J. Naden. "Interstellar Pig." In Juniorplots 3: A Book Talk Guide for Use with Readers 12-16, pp. 198-201. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1987.
[In the following essay, Gillespie and Naden offer a critical overview of Sleator's science fiction adventure Interstellar Pig, calling the book "a good read for students in grades seven through ten."]
William Sleator is noted for exploring original and daring themes in his science fiction/horror stories. In House of Stairs (condensed in More Juniorplots, Bowker 1977, pp. 43-46), he examines the levels to which human behavior can be changed to ensure survival; in The Green Futures of Tycho (Dutton, 1981), through time travel a young boy experiences several possible versions of his own future life; and in Singularity (Dutton, 1985, pap., Bantam), twin brothers enter a different universe. The author has said, "I can't seem to keep outer space, time travel and aliens out of my work." In this ultimate novel about aliens from space [Interstellar Pig ], at the end the author piles climax upon climax—each more horrifying than the last—so that the astute reader might detect a tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject. At any level of appreciation, however, this is a good read for students in grades seven through ten.
Ted Martin, the caretaker, tells the narrator, sixteen-year-old Barney, and his mother and father that the house they are presently renting in Indian Neck on Cape Cod is believed by some to be haunted. Over a hundred years before, a sea captain named Latham had imprisoned his crazed younger brother for twenty years in the front bedroom as punishment for the seemingly irrational murder of an unknown survivor they had fished out of the water on one of their voyages. Barney is using the front bedroom, which has a wonderful view of an island in the bay, and he has noticed strange claw marks on the walls, obviously made by the madman during his confinement.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival next door of three extremely attractive college-age young people—two boys and a girl—who, though they vehemently demanded to rent the house Barney and family are in, have settled for the neighboring cottage when their first choice was unavailable.
That evening, Barney, at their request, takes them some kindling for their fireplace and meets all three: Zena, Joe, and Manny. They are an unusual trio: charming in their flashy, flamboyant speech, flattering in their interest in Barney and his summer home, but mysteriously reticent about revealing anything about their own pasts. They show Barney a board game they enjoy playing, a futuristic science fiction adventure called Interstellar Pig.
The next day while Barney's parents are away, the three ask to tour the house. Barney is mystified by the thoroughness of their examination and their abnormal fascination with the markings on his bedroom walls. After lunch Barney accepts their invitation for a return visit and, finding no one home, does his own exploring. In Zena's room he finds a photocopy of Captain Latham's diary describing the murder. When he hears footsteps on the patio Barney hides the papers in his pocket and rushes downstairs to be greeted by the supposedly unsuspecting threesome. While the two men go to pick up windsurfers, Zena gives Barney an introduction to Interstellar Pig. They play outdoors after Zena assures Barney that the special sun cream she gives him will thoroughly protect his super-sensitive skin from sunburn. The game is a very complex one in which, through choosing or being dealt various cards, each player becomes a different creature from outer space, vulnerable to certain misfortunes but equipped with weapons and disguises to avoid others as they travel from one hostile planet to another. The object is to gain and keep possession of The Piggy, a card depicting an ugly creature with one eye, before the timer signals the end of the game when all are destroyed except the owner of The Piggy. In the trial game Barney is a carnivorous lichen from planet Mbridlengile, and Zena is Zulma, an arachnoid nymph from Vavoosh.
Later at home, Barney reads the section of the captain's diary describing how the survivor had been placed in the cabin with his younger brother. That night, the captain had discovered his brother clutching a small trinket and babbling deliriously about the devil over the dead man's body. The captain looks at the corpse and momentarily sees an ugly, misshapen creature certainly not of this world. An instant later, it once more assumes a human form. Barney is shaken by this account and begins to examine carefully the scratch marks on the wall. He discovers a pattern of lines that converge on the window pane in line with a large boulder at the tip of the neighboring island.
The next day, even though Barney is in agony because of a terrible sunburn, he asks to accompany his three friends who are going to visit the island by windsurfers, and is reluctantly given permission. On the island he manages to elude the others for a few moments. Under the boulder he finds a rotting lean-to and under its floorboards is a trunk containing a small box, which he hides in his pocket just before the others arrive.
Back on the mainland, his neighbors challenge Barney to another game of Interstellar Pig. Zena once again draws Zulma (only a coincidence?), Manny becomes Moyna, a female octopus-like creature from Flacioub, Joe is Jrlb, a grill-man from Thrilb, and Barney draws Luap, a sapient reptile whose description uncomfortably fits that of the vision Captain Latham had seen years before. Barney becomes totally absorbed in the moves as though he is actually living this galactic adventure. At the end of the game (Moyna possesses The Piggy and wins), Barney returns home, opens the box, and finds a repellent, carved figure—the real Piggy—obviously the object of his neighbors' search. By cutting parts of pages out of an old school yearbook and placing the carving inside, he finds a perfect hiding place for The Piggy.
The next night, because of the violence of an unpredicted storm, Barney's parents are detained on a visit and the boy accepts a dinner invitation from his neighbors. Each of his hosts contrives to spend a few moments alone with Barney in order to bribe him with a supernatural gift—eternal life, an intelligence booster, hyperspace travel—to possess The Piggy. Barney knows he is in the hands of aliens, each of whom will stop at nothing to gain the security of owning The Piggy. After dinner, the three suggest one final game at Barney's house. Powerless to oppose them, he reluctantly agrees. There in the shadowy light of candles—both the electrical and telephone lines are down—they draw cards. The neighbors pull the same identity cards as before and Barney realizes these are actually their true identities. Likewise, his identity card reads: "Barney, Homo sapiens of the planet Earth." It is suddenly no longer a game but a life or death struggle for possession of the magical talisman. Armed with only the few defenses dealt him at the start of the game, he is miraculously able to escape the attacks of the three monsters. At one time he uses his only change-of-identity card to become part of the man-eating lichen who have also arrived to claim The Piggy. The lichen prevails and escapes into space with the figurine, fol- lowed closely by the three other aliens. During the ordeal Barney has communicated with The Piggy in light of its responses, and believes that its possession of magical powers is really a cosmic hoax. But as they travel in space, his three former companions maintain that at the end of the game, Barney and the planet Earth are doomed because of the loss of The Piggy. We will have to wait and see who is right.
This book reminds one of a surreal Nibelung Saga with The Piggy taking the place of the Rhine Gold. It is, nevertheless, a solid, thrilling science fiction adventure whose ending is farcical enough to verge on a parody of the genre. Barney is a most likable, courageous hero.
STRANGE ATTRACTORS (1990)
James E. Davis and Alison Smalley (essay date February 1993)
SOURCE: Davis, James E., and Alison Smalley. "Attracting Middle-School Readers with William Sleator's Strange Attractors." English Journal 82, no. 2 (February 1993): 76-7.
[In the following essay, Davis and Smalley explore how the recurring themes of maturation, chaos, and reality versus fantasy in Sleator's Strange Attractors make the novel particularly attractive to adolescent readers.]
Yes, our middle-school classrooms are packed with generally reluctant readers as well as a fair number of not-so-reluctant readers who are very reluctant about reading science fiction. William Sleator is an author whose works can be of use to both of these groups. Although Sleator's novels are science fiction, each has elements of realism that keep the stories from becoming too far-fetched. Sleator writes about ordinary characters and situations, but the scientific elements turn both character and situation to the extraordinary.
Strange Attractors (1990, Dutton) is a work likely to be particularly attractive (pun intended) to the readers mentioned above and others. The book addresses, among other things, love, hate, good and evil, appearance and reality, and conflict within the self. Yet, deeper issues of morality, sexuality, and corruption also face the protagonist. These issues may attract readers, but Sleator's style is what captures their interest.
In Sleator's fictive world, adventures of time travel result in chaos. When one goes back in time, the timeline is disturbed, and the traveler bifurcates. This bifurcation then creates chaos in a once orderly system. In a letter to us (Dec. 1989), Sleator says of the origin of this book,
I laughed when my brothers told me that there was an actual science of chaos—the idea seemed absurd. Then I looked into it, and became fascinated, and obsessed. I read books, I went to chaos conferences, I unsuccessfully tried to teach myself calculus to understand chaos better (regretting very much that I had dropped out of calculus as a high school senior). I had piles of material, pages and pages of notes. Eager to write, I hastily brainstormed the book, and turned out a 240 page draft.
The story begins in a town in America that could be anywhere. Sleator's "generic" location serves as a device that creates an aura for the scientific adventures. The date is June 24, 1989, significant because it is the day that the protagonist, Max, loses a day from his memory. The events soon take Max and the pairs of Eves and Sylvans to the year 33,019 BC and 1910 Bangkok. Later in the story, Max and the real Eve and Sylvan are phased forward to the time of Chaos, and the bifurcated Eve and Sylvan are sent back to 33,019 BC and 4.5 billion BC, respectively. These ever-changing time and place settings function as an illustrative example of the novel's theme, chaos.
Strange Attractors features only five main characters. Yet, these characters are contemporary and realistic for the young-adult reader. The story is told from Max's point of view.
Max is portrayed as a typical American teenager who has recently graduated from high school. His interest in science leads into his adventure when he is invited to Mercury Labs for a tour that is only offered to honor-science students. Yet, Max does not remember the visit, nor does he remember meeting the real Eve and the noted scientist, Sylvan. Max's unusual curiosity and spirit of adventure overpower his realistic side, and soon, he becomes inextricably involved. In the end, however, Max's natural goodness and knowledge of what is right prevail.
The real Eve and Sylvan are normal people also, but they are scared. With his scientific know-how, Sylvan develops a device that permits time travel. He shares all of his findings and inventions with Eve. Together, they test their phaser and discover that it works, but in the process they disturb a timeline and create bi- furcations of themselves. Now, the bifurcations not only want control over the phasers, but they also wish to terminate the lives of the real couple.
Eve and Sylvan, the bifurcations, are scientifically known as "strange attractors." Because they are fragmented people, they lack compassion. Yet, they have a quality surrounding them that makes Max want to be on their side. Part of this quality has to do with their appearances. They are very attractive people who easily hide their corrupt side. Max finds it hard to resist Eve's physical allure. He wants to be with her, even though he has reservations about her. This attraction brings the plot to its theme of chaos. Max is forced to battle both external and internal forces of good and evil to reach a state of equilibrium. This battle also forces him to travel through a maturation process. Sleator has taken an ordinary growth experience and has turned it into an adventure full of horror and instability. This, too, illustrates the theme of the unpredictability of life for young adults. Still, there is hope in these themes, for Max makes the right decisions and emerges as a successful young adult.
While Strange Attractors is an exciting adventure story full of horror, it is not a simple novel. Sleator uses a wide variety of techniques to make this work interesting: first, he incorporates the first person point of view. Readers feel the adventure is happening to them as it happens to Max. Second, Sleator uses ordinary characters, setting, and situations as a foundation for his plot. The simplicity is deceptive, as is the story line. In addition, the use of slang and idioms; the descriptions of clothes, cars, homes; and the characterization of other temporal objects are contemporary. The here-and-now style along with the scientific elements appeal to a wide variety of young-adult readers.
To stimulate class discussion or writing, the following items have proved useful to us. Each question is followed by a typical student response.
Max knows that the bifurcated Eve and Sylvan are wrong. Why then can't he stay away from their influence?
Jamie, an over-enthusiastic eighth grader, suggested that Max cannot stay away from the bifurcated Eve and Sylvan because a part of him wants to go against what is right.
Mom's always telling me what is right. She doesn't trust me enough to find out on my own. So, sometimes I go against her on purpose. Maybe, Max is doing the same. After all, all he has ever been is a brain. Maybe, he's finally got himself a life!
Why is it important that Max does not stay with the attractive Eve?
One student said that Max shouldn't stay with the "good looking" Eve because she is not real. "Look you can't have a real relationship when one of them isn't human! Besides, Max started out as a good kid; so if he is going to end up good, he'll go with the real Eve."
Max realizes the ramifications of backward time travel; yet, at the end, Max is building another phaser. Why can he not let it alone?
"That's easy," said one rather shy girl. "The name of the book talks about attraction. Max's attraction to the phaser is more like an addiction. He can't stop, whether or not he even wants to."
The attractive Eve deceived Max, killed her father, and tried to kill the real Eve and Sylvan. Why does Max want to travel back in time to see her again after the adventure is over?
"I think he is playing Terminator with ‘I'll be back,’" said Chad. "He may be going back to kill her and put everything at an end. But, he (Sleator) might be leaving it open for Strange Attractors II!"
Elizabeth S. Watson (review date September-October 1993)
SOURCE: Watson, Elizabeth S. Review of Oddballs, by William Sleator. Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 5 (September-October 1993): 605.
Reminiscences from Sleator's childhood in a lively and unconventional family form the basis for an appealing and accessible collection of short stories [in Oddballs ]. Fresh, funny, and slightly scatological, these quasi-autobiographical glimpses will grab and hold attention. Far from a simple romp, the collection illuminates a group of highly intelligent, motivated youngsters who exhibit intense creativity and strong characters. The author himself emerges as inventive, curious, thoughtful, innately kind, and a talented writer, even then. When referring to the "popular" clique, he writes, "Somehow they did not seem to understand that we, as oddballs and deliberate nonconformists, were far superior to them in every way." The stories can and will be enjoyed simply for their storytelling content, but beyond that they will make a wonderful discussion tool.
Journal of Reading (review date December 1993)
SOURCE: Review of Oddballs, by William Sleator. Journal of Reading 37, no. 4 (December 1993): 338.
We must confess at the start that we are enormous fans of Sleator and have been since we read his chilling account of brainwashing in House of Stairs (Dutton, 1974). [Oddballs ] is a collection of stories, ostensibly about Sleator's childhood. Any fan of Sleator's will not be surprised to learn that his childhood was, shall we say, a bit unconventional. He and his sister and brothers were close but not always friendly. Sleator talks about some of the dastardly deeds of his sibs in these stories. Partly fact and partly fiction, the stories are hilarious. The title story begins "I lied." Sleator then discusses an author's license to use incidents from his childhood and make them "neat" to serve the purposes of the story. He insists, however, that all of the stories in the collection except one are real. The reader is certainly free to believe otherwise.
Miriam Martinez and Marcia F. Nash (review date September 1994)
SOURCE: Martinez, Miriam, and Marcia F. Nash. Review of Oddballs, by William Sleator. Language Arts 71, no. 5 (September 1994): 373-74.
Drawing on memories from childhood and adolescence, William Sleator has created hilarious characterizations of the oddballs in his family [in Oddballs ]. The oldest sibling is Bill who entertains his friends with elaborately staged seances. Vicky, the only girl in the family, delights in traveling with her friends on public buses for the sole purpose of pulling hoaxes on their fellow passengers, their favorite being one in which two of the girls pretend to vilify the third for speaking with a Cockney accent. The sibling rivalry of Danny and Tycho, the youngest in the family, reaches a climax when Danny and his best friend hypnotize Tycho; as a result, each time Tycho hears the word "window," he immediately flings to the ground the object he finds nearest at hand. Through the use of carefully paced vignettes, Sleator brings to life a host of memorable characters that include the members of his own family as well as many of their close friends.
OTHERS SEE US (1993)
Maeve Visser Knoth (review date January-February 1994)
SOURCE: Knoth, Maeve Visser. Review of Others See Us, by William Sleator. Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 1 (January-February 1994): 75.
Jared can't wait to get to his grandmother's camp to spend the summer with his relatives—he has been dreaming about his beautiful cousin Annelise all year [in Others See Us ]. But everything changes when he accidentally falls into a toxic waste dump and, subsequently, discovers that he has the power to read minds. Jared becomes embroiled in a battle of wills with his grandmother, Annelise, and his many extended family members. His grandmother shares his power to read minds and has been using her skills to withdraw money from ATM machines and to blackmail her neighbors. And Jared learns that Annelise is not the innocent, sweet girl her relatives believe her to be, but an evil, plotting young woman who is responsible for one "accidental" death and happily manipulates those around her. After Jared's grandmother leads Annelise into the dump, the three relatives struggle to control each other's minds, and Jared works to protect the family from Annelise. As the story ends, Annelise's true character has been exposed, her reputation damaged beyond repair, but Jared's grandmother retains her powers, and the reader is convinced that she will continue to use them for ill. Sleator ties up his story but leaves unanswered, unsettling questions about the nature of seductive power. Jared is a strong, thoughtful character, concerned about his own reputation—he does not want anyone to know about his fantasies about Annelise—but more concerned that no one get hurt. The story is most intriguing when the three mind-readers are struggling to protect their own thoughts while exploring the minds of those around them. A fascinating story compelling for the exemplary storytelling and the seductive nature of the fantasy—what would one discover if one could read minds?
Language Arts (review date November 1994)
SOURCE: Review of Others See Us, by William Sleator. Language Arts 71, no. 7 (November 1994): 537.
Each summer Jared's extended family gathers at the family compound, and all year Jared has dreamed of this year's reunion with Annelise, his beautiful cousin who is idolized by everyone [in Others See Us ]. But this summer promises to be like no other. While riding his bike, Jared falls into a swamp filled with toxic waste and then learns that his grandmother has had a similar accident. Soon after the accident Jared begins to hear voices in his mind, voices that he eventually realizes are the thoughts of those around him. Jared, like his grandmother, has become a mind reader. What he discovers as he peers into the minds of those around him is often surprising and shocking, but the greatest shock comes when he looks into Annelise's mind and discovers what Grandma has already learned: Annelise is evil and calculating and lets no one stand in her way. Thus begins a gripping battle of minds that threatens to destroy a family. Sleator's imaginative story scenario, complex characterizations, and rapid-fire plot propel the reader into the story world.
DANGEROUS WISHES (1995)
Ann A. Flowers (review date March-April 1996)
SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of Dangerous Wishes, by William Sleator. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 2 (March-April 1996): 200-01.
In a sequel to The Spirit House (Dutton), the story of the bad luck that has surrounded the Kamen family ever since a Thai exchange student visited them several years ago is continued [in Dangerous Wishes ]. The Kamens and their son Dom have come to Thailand for a lengthy visit. Misfortune befalls them as soon as they land: they are not met at the airport, they have difficulty finding their rental house, their new maid seems fearful, and the chandelier falls on the mother, injuring her. Lek, a young street vendor who speaks English, helps them. Soon Dom tells Lek the story of the lost jade carving that seems to be at the root of their problems. Dom thinks that if it is returned to a shrine in Bangkok, the curse will be lifted. Lek himself has a lucky object, a gift from a dead friend, which seems to grant his wishes—for shoes, clothing, and a vendor's cart—but only at the expense of someone else's misfortune. Lek and Dom find a common bond and form a tenuous friendship. Together they go to Lek's country village to search for the jade figurine and sort out their problems with lucky and unlucky objects. The spirit world is very much alive in Thai beliefs, and Dom and Lek find themselves pursued by a malevolent spirit; they barely escape with their lives but manage to restore the recovered figurine to the shrine. As with many of Sleator's novels, the book ends on a disquieting note: will Dom and Lek escape further bad luck? The Thai setting is firmly constructed, the shaky friendship between representatives of two quite different cultures is believable, and the rapidly escalating chase sequence is riveting. Vintage Sleator.
THE NIGHT THE HEADS CAME (1996)
Lyle Blake Smythers (review date April 1996)
SOURCE: Smythers, Lyle Blake. Review of The Night the Heads Came, by William Sleator. School Library Journal 42, no. 4 (April 1996): 158.
Gr. 6-10—One night Leo and his artist friend Tim are abducted by aliens [in The Nights the Heads Came ]. The kidnapping follows the standard scenario described by those who claim to have undergone such an experience (the car engine dies, they are taken up into a hovering spacecraft, and subjected to strange medical procedures), but these aliens are different. The physical work in their society is done by tall, thin creatures with tiny heads, operating under the order of squashy bodiless heads with multiple protruding eyes. After the medical procedures, during which they speak of their enemies, the Others, they keep Tim but return Leo to Earth with his memory erased. After a tense encounter with both sets of parents, Leo has a hypnosis session with the strange Dr. Viridian, who, for purposes of his own, obscures Leo's real memory of the event and supplants it with a false one. Two days later Tim returns, appearing to have aged two years, and with vivid three-dimensional drawings he did of destroyed civilizations and alien worlds. Now a cat and mouse game ensues, as the boys question the motives of the Heads, suspect that Dr. Viridian is one of the Others, and wonder what to do with Tim's drawings. It is not until the very end of the book that the boys (and readers) find out what is going on and who is good and who is bad. Although perhaps not as original as some of Sleator's earlier work, this fast-paced science fiction romp is very entertaining and will keep readers turning the pages.
THE BEASTIES (1997)
Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 15 September 1997)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of The Beasties, by William Sleator. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 38 (15 September 1997): 77-8.
With all the moral complexity of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, Sleator's (The Spirit House ) latest novel [The Beasties ] revolves around a community of small, pasty creatures that live underground and harvest the humans who inhabit the surface. The Beasties have been deprived of their forest home and of various crucial body parts by commercial loggers. They replace their losses with human limbs, which they amputate from the human host, using crude surgical techniques. When teenage Doug, the narrator, and his little sister Colette move to a deserted house in the country, the Beasties coerce the pair into helping them maim a logger. As the rather stereotypical pair of children (Doug is an athlete, Colette is a bookworm) begins to sympathize with the Beasties' plight, they are forced into ethically challenging positions throughout the book (e.g., Doug even donates one of his eyes to the creatures' new leader, who is blind). The moral dilemmas here are exceptionally well developed (although the question of Colette's possible brainwashing is never fully resolved), and the Beasties' unusual speech lends a quaint poignancy to their otherwise disgusting character: "You thinking you can just pry out where we live and snooping around and then go bye-bye … I'm so sorry, my strong, healthy young anatomies, but it doesn't working that way." This gleefully icky horror show may well leave readers with some soul-searching questions about nature's changing environment that resonate long after the cover is closed. Ages 10-up.
Molly S. Kinney (review date December 1997)
SOURCE: Kinney, Molly S. Review of The Beasties, by William Sleator. School Library Journal 43, no. 12 (December 1997): 131.
Gr. 4-5—Doug and his precocious younger sister move to a deep forest when their botanist father has the opportunity to study a rare fungus. Before they leave, Doug's friend warns him to stay away from the shadowy woods or the "beasties" will get him. It's not long before the siblings are lured into an underground passage and meet up with the creatures. At this point, the hairs on readers' arms will start to rise and the plot takes the bizarre twist so familiar in Sleator's titles. Doug, presented with several dilemmas, is forced to make uncomfortable decisions without really understanding his choices. Using his trademark techniques, Sleator sets the scene within everyday situations, introduces unusual plot elements with vivid description, develops the story line by leading readers though a labyrinth, and builds to an explosive ending with a message. The Beasties follows this format and includes sibling rivalry, forest conservation, respect for those who are less valued or understood, choices and decisions, friendship, and a healthy dose of the creepy. This is a quick read, with lots of suspense, but its real effectiveness lies in the way it introduces and explores issues of human choice and compassion, and the lingering questions after the reading is complete. The Beasties invites discussion as it delves into issues for which there are no easy answers. Sure to be popular with the author's many fans and a good choice to introduce his work to others.
THE BOXES (1998)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 11 May 1998)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of The Boxes, by William Sleator. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 19 (11 May 1998): 68.
Like Pandora, 15-year-old orphan Annie has been given a box she is forbidden to open, opens it nonetheless and unleashes something horrible [in The Boxes ]. But Sleator adds a twist: Annie has a second box. Moreover the telepathic crab-like beasts that came out of the first box may appear to be the evils of the world but turn out to be the protagonist's only hope for self-actualization. As in The Beasties, Sleator creates a community of strangely empathic monsters and a teenager who, when pressed into their service, discovers the mission isn't noxious but fulfilling. The creepy-crawlies worship a god/plant/clock that lives in the second box. They build a subterranean palace, order Annie about and enact enigmatic rites, saying things like: "The Lord will be very happy about the swing ritual, and the two more who are sacrificed to the Lord's goodness" (in reference to two creatures who are swung in a suspended boat and fall to their deaths). Unfortunately, a stereotypical crew of evil land developers and a less than compelling wizard figure (Annie's nearly absentee Uncle Marco) keep the tale on a superficial level. And readers may be disappointed in the ending, which sends Annie off on a cliffhanger of an adventure and never explains the process between creatures and clock, or Uncle Marco's role in it. Perhaps Sleator has a sequel in store; in the meantime, this is his signature high-style ick and suspense, but without sufficient payoff. Ages 10-up.
Roger Sutton (review date May-June 1998)
SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Review of The Boxes, by William Sleator. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 3 (May-June 1998): 349.
When Uncle Marco entrusts Annie with the safekeeping of two heavy boxes [in The Boxes ], with the admonition not to open them, what do you think happens? Plenty. It's a great beginning, and the contents of the boxes are satisfyingly spooky and wondrous: one box contains little creatures who pay fealty to the clock-monster-thing in the other box, and their rites, it turns out, do strange things to Time. Meanwhile, sinister strangers are trailing Annie and her friend Henry, and offering big bucks to Aunt Ruth (with whom Annie lives, and whose one-dimensional malice is never explained) for her house. Or are they after the boxes? Sleator is the master of the juvenile creepy-crawly, and his inventiveness is at full power here, with strong storytelling right up to, but not quite including, the end. While the book closes with several smaller crises resolved, the big ones at the heart—who are these creatures? and what is Uncle Marco's secret?—are left open, as Annie and Henry depart with Uncle Marco for further adventures in a different dimension, perhaps. Let's hope there's a sequel—soon—because the book as it stands isn't finished.
Susan L. Rogers (review date June 1998)
SOURCE: Rogers, Susan L. Review of The Boxes, by William Sleator. School Library Journal 44, no. 6 (June 1998): 152-53.
Gr. 5-8—Orphan Anne Levi tolerates her distant Aunt Ruth, with whom she lives, but adores her mysterious Uncle Marco, who flits in and out of their lives at irregular intervals [in The Boxes ]. When he gives Anne two unusual boxes with strict instructions not to open them, curiosity gets the better of her. Opening the first one, she releases an unusual crablike creature that grows and reproduces rapidly; the life form and its offspring construct a fantastic palace in the basement and communicate with Anne telepathically. Dismayed by what she has done, Anne opens the second box, which she had hidden in her closet, revealing a clocklike object that has the ability to slow down time at the basement creatures' request, but only when Anne agrees to carry messages between the creatures and the clock. Unfortunately, the owners of a suspicious development company are intrigued by the time slow-downs and increase their ominous efforts to control Anne, her home, and the strange devices within it. Through her adventures, Anne grows into a self-confident teenager who is able to stand up to her overbearing aunt and trust her own instincts. Reminiscent of the complexity of Sleator's early science fiction, The Boxes introduces intriguing characters and unique situations but it leaves many loose ends and unanswered questions. Readers never find out just who or what Uncle Marco is, where he and Anne go when they enter the palace at the end, or where the boxes came from in the first place. The Boxes may be popular with Sleator's fans, but be prepared for requests for a sequel.
Michael Cart (review date 1-15 June 1998)
SOURCE: Cart, Michael. Review of The Boxes, by William Sleator. Booklist 94, nos. 19-20 (1-15 June 1998): 1769.
Gr. 5-7—"And don't try to open them," Annie's mysterious Uncle Marco warns before he departs for destinations unknown [in The Boxes ]. "Them" are the two singularly odd boxes that he has left in Annie's safekeeping, because "you're the only one I can trust." Rest assured, readers can trust Annie, too: to be overcome by curiosity and, like a latter-day Pandora, to open both! In the first, she finds something "small and dark and crablike" that demonstrates the capacity for reproducing itself in astonishing numbers. In the second, she finds something less fecund but certainly more sinister. To add to her dismay, Annie is quickly drawn into an oddly symbiotic relationship with her discoveries. The story gets an A for suspense but disappoints with the comic-book characterization of the various human villains. Unfortunately, too, the story can't quite support the weight of a wonderfully imaginative and thought-provoking central concept that involves the nature of time and—well—religion. The oddly abrupt ending, however, suggests a sequel, which could offer a welcome opportunity for more expansive thematic development.
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 6 September 1999)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of Boltzmon!, by William Sleator. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 36 (6 September 1999): 104.
As in his recent Rewind, Sleator's mildly comic time-travel adventure is the story of a boy who prevents his own death by healing family relationships [in Boltzmon! ]. Computer geek Chris is in perpetual conflict with Lulu, his stereotyped 13-year-old blonde cheerleader sister. She spreads rumors about him at school to increase her popularity, causing Chris to lose his few friends. Then a shape-changing entity called the boltzmon appears, a genielike "remnant of a giant black hole." It tells the 11-year-old that the imaginary country he has been creating on his computer actually exists on a parallel earth 40 years in the future. Chris will die very soon in an accident caused by Lulu's conniving behavior unless he goes to this alternate universe and visits some magical Time Temples. Sequences in the primitive and dangerous country contain several exciting escapades (a cannibal kidnapping, a rickety bridge across a chasm), but readers who are sticklers for coherence and logic in their fantasy worlds will be frustrated by the boltzmon's erratic powers and unexplained motivation. "Here to help you?" it cries when Chris asks it for directions to the temples. "Why should I help you? I'm just here to have fun!" This jolly yet moralizing tangle of a tale is best reserved for hardcore Sleator fans. Ages 10-14.
Steven Engelfried (review date November 1999)
SOURCE: Engelfried, Steven. Review of Boltzmon!, by William Sleator. School Library Journal 45, no. 11 (November 1999): 164.
Gr. 5-8—A "boltzmon" is a theoretical subatomic particle that holds all the information in the galaxy. Here [in Boltzmon! ], one of them plays a bizarre role in the sibling rivalry between Chris, 11, and his older sister, Lulu. The boltzmon appears to Chris in the form of a floating eyeball and lets the boy know of its virtually limitless powers. It transports him into an alternate universe where he must complete a dangerous quest in order to prevent his own imminent death back home. Chris also meets an unpleasant adult version of his sister, whose presence is crucial to his journey. By quest's end, the boy has shown toughness and courage that he previously lacked, and he and Lulu resolve their differences. The therapeutic reconciliation of the siblings makes for a rather anticlimactic conclusion, given the bizarre adventures that lead up to it. The boltzmon premise is intriguing, but not totally satisfying. The particle insists that it has no reason to help Chris and acts only on whim, but ends up manipulating events to test and challenge the protagonist just enough to allow him to succeed. Its very human vanity and impatience seem out of place coming from such an unfathomable bit of matter, but these qualities do add humor to the story, especially when the particle appears in human guise. Though not perfect, Sleator's novel has enough imaginative plotting to keep readers turning the pages.
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 12 July 1999)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of Rewind, by William Sleator. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 28 (12 July 1999): 95.
Fans of Sleator's creature features (The Boxes ; The Beasties ) will find [Rewind, ] this tale of redemption less grotesque, but satisfying nonetheless. Eleven-year-old Peter finds out he is adopted, strives to gain glimmers of affection from his stoic, insensitive parents and gets killed by a car when he runs out of their home in a tearful rage. "Peter always acted without thinking," says his mother at his funeral. But life is not over yet; Peter is granted three chances to get it right before he is permanently dead. And in the process he learns to make friends, communicate clearly with his parents about his anxieties and follow his dream of being an artist even though his mother finds it a "waste of time" and his father thinks he should do something more manly. Peter is likable, creative and admirable in his ability to change his behavior. Sleator playfully examines the idea of time travel and of consciously tampering with the future. When a silly conflict arises because Peter thoughtlessly predicts the future (having lived through the same days several times), its resolution is simple and emotionally truthful. Adoptees and time-travel fans alike will find fun and fulfillment in this fantasy of second, third and fourth chances. Ages 10-14.
Roger Sutton (review date July-August 1999)
SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Review of Rewind, by William Sleator. Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 473.
When Peter is mowed down by a car and killed after running into the street following a fight with his parents, he learns, in the "great white light," that he has another chance [in Rewind ]. In fact, he gets three chances to go back and change the events of his life so that the accident never occurs: first, he learns that putting sugar in the gas tank of the car that ran him over is not enough (a taxi runs over him instead); then that not making the puppet show that caused his parents' derision is not enough. It's not until his third try that Peter confronts what's really wrong with his relationship with his parents, and what he must do to earn their respect—and his future. It's too bad that Peter's parents have to be made out to be absolute ogres for the story to work, because it makes you wonder why he even bothers to return. And while the pace is breakneck, the characterization is careless, making you wish that Sleator had hit the rewind button a little more often to make sure his characters were keeping up with the plot. Still, the premise is irresistible, and the suspense crackles.
Ilene Cooper (review date 15 October 1999)
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of Rewind, by William Sleator. Booklist 96, no. 4 (15 October 1999): 446.
Gr. 4-6—Peter is dead, hit by a neighbor's car [in Rewind ]. But a powerful voice tells him he has a chance to erase what has happened if he can alter the events he feels led up to the accident. Twice Peter goes back in time. First, he puts sugar in the tank of his neighbor's car, but he gets hit by the taxi behind it. The second time, he tries to change superficially so he won't be so disappointing to his adoptive parents, but he still becomes upset with them and runs blindly out of the house. It's not until he realizes that he must look into his heart to make real changes that he comes closer to changing his fate. Sleator offers some interesting subplots about the nature of time and facing down a bully, but the story has a major problem—Peter's unlikable parents. So cold are they toward Peter that they tell him he's adopted and that they're having a baby in the same breath; it may seem to kids that Peter hasn't got much to go back to. Still, it's hard to resist a book that begins, "At my funeral, everybody said it was such a shame I had to die that way."
MARCO'S MILLIONS (2001)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton (review date 21 May 2001)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton. Review of Marco's Millions, by William Sleator. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 21 (21 May 2001): 108.
[Marco's Millions, t]his prequel to Sleator's open-ended thriller, The Boxes, answers almost all the questions readers of the first book might have had about the pathetic, crab-like creatures and (heroine Annie's) mysterious, ageless Uncle Marco. Though missing the uniquely creepy horror elements that characterize many of Sleator's novels, the book [Marco's Millions] is riveting for the ethical dilemma it poses: 12-year-old adventurer Marco and his psychic, hyper-sensitive sister, Lilly, find a strange tunnel in their basement. Inside is another world, and a group of odd, blind, religious beings, "shiny, purplish creatures … like insects with six limbs and ridged, carapaced heads," telepathically contact Lilly. They say Lilly is a "medium" who can help them complete a dangerous ritual to appease their malevolent god, "The Unknowable." Should the children help, and at what cost to their own impoverished family? Might the creatures be lying for nefarious ends? More satisfying than its predecessor, and full of strange and startling details, this curious fantasy will spark readers' imaginations and send them right back to The Boxes for a glimpse of Marco's future. Ages 10-14.
Roger Sutton (review date May-June 2001)
SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Review of Marco's Millions, by William Sleator. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 3 (May-June 2001): 337.
This reviewer greatly enjoyed Sleator's The Boxes —up until the last chapters, when it became apparent that a few pages, if not an entire sequel, seemed to be missing. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Sleator has pulled a fast one with Marco's Millions, a prequel to The Boxes that answers the questions left at the end of the first book nonetheless. Marco, uncle to Annie, is offstage for much of The Boxes, but the present volume is his story: how he came by the boxes and how their powers shaped his life as well as the lives of his sisters Lilly and Ruth. Like Philip Pullman's subtle knife, the boxes contain the secret of moving through universes, with the added complication of being able to change the pace of time itself. Sleator achieves some dazzling effects here, such as a scene where Marco confronts the potentially universe—destroying force of a "naked singularity": "You could say it was like a cosmic revolving door. An object entered it from one universe, and then could exit into an infinite number of other universes, all connected by the singularity's gravitational distortion of spacetime." While the book has the far-out ideas and expert pace that Sleator's fans admire, there's an added dimension of poignancy in the character of Marco, both in his intense bond with his sister Lilly and in his restlessness: obsessed with travel even as a young child, intently riding buses and trains, he has, by the time he reappears as an adult in The Boxes, become something of an intergalactic Flying Dutchman.
Elizabeth Bush (review date July-August 2001)
SOURCE: Bush, Elizabeth. Review of Marco's Millions, by William Sleator. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 54, no. 11 (July-August 2001): 423.
Now here's something that doesn't come along everyday—a prequel that far outstrips the original from which it was spun. If Sleator's The Boxes was more than a bit of a muddle, [Marco's Millions ] is as gripping a work of science fiction as most middle-graders could desire. The science is grounded in astrophysical speculation concerning a naked singularity and its ability to generate wormholes in time, while the fiction is a deftly plotted family drama of sibling loyalty. Marco's younger sister Lilly is regarded as a delicate, overly sensitive child who sees things, but in this case the hole in her basement leading into a parallel world is no figment of the imagination. There, insect-like creatures engage in a perilous ritual to appease their deity, and they require Lilly's services as a medium to approach it. Since Lilly hasn't her brother's courage, he enters the mysterious realm and makes the encounter while Lilly psychically guides him from beyond. Sleator introduces all the necessary physics briefly and cogently and then allows the action to reveal the dynamics of the naked singularity as time slows in its proximity and the near—palpable tension inexorably builds. Readers unfamiliar with The Boxes need to start here, and if a third volume is in the making, one hopes it will be as satisfying as this latecomer prequel.
PARASITE PIG (2002)
Betty Carter (review date November-December 2002)
SOURCE: Carter, Betty. Review of Parasite Pig, by William Sleator. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 764.
Almost twenty years ago, when teenagers were playing Pac-Man on their computers and Dungeons and Dragons in their living rooms, Sleator took gaming to new heights by inventing an interactive board game, Interstellar Pig, in his novel of the same name. The players are not symbolic pawns but real-life aliens who move FTL (faster than light) through time and around galaxies, destroying all life forms that thwart their attempts to capture the grand prize, a Piggy that lives within the bodies of the victorious players [in Parasite Pig ]. Barney, an Earth player who sent The Piggy to planet J'koot and saved the free world as we know it in the process, returns in this sequel, continuing the game through a whole new cast of characters, each more fantastic than anything dreamed up in the studios of Industrial Light and Magic. Julian, a vile parasite living inside the intestines of a dinosaur, captures Barney and brings him to J'koot in search of The Piggy. Once there, Barney encounters a crab-like species that dines on the delicate flesh of humans; a special parasite hidden inside his brain, whose mission in life is to feed her host to the crabs so her babies can be born within a crustacean; and Soma, a giant wasp who captures Barney's friend, Katie, and uses her as a pawn to force Barney to hand over The Piggy. Parasite Pig concentrates on the gaming action and provides a bare, but sufficient, outline of play for readers unfamiliar with the rules detailed in Interstellar Pig. Consequently, the aliens are well-developed characters, and the action proceeds at a furious pace, almost FTL. The author's commentaries on human behavior are sly, and he never allows message to overpower the imaginative characters and their quest for The Piggy.
Michael M. Jones (review date May 2004)
SOURCE: Jones, Michael M. Review of Parasite Pig, by William Sleator. Chronicle 26, no. 5 (May 2004): 27-8.
Of all the books I've read, I certainly never expected to see a sequel to Sleator's classic Interstellar Pig, which came out nearly a decade ago. For those not in the know, Interstellar Pig was the story of sixteen-year-old Barney. While vacationing at the beach, he became involved in an odd new board game called Interstellar Pig, in which four players, each controlling a different alien character, jockey for possession of the Piggy, a mysterious artifact of immense power. What Barney didn't realize at first was that the game was real, and the Piggy was worth killing for. He escaped with his life that time, though the beach house was trashed. Which brings us to Parasite Pig. Barney's working in the Widener Library at Harvard to pay off the damages to the beach house, and every so often, he gets together with some new friends to play a familiar game. That's right, when his former alien opponents left Earth, they forgot to take their board game with them. Now Barney's introducing some nice, normal humans to Interstellar Pig. The only problem is, it's still not "just a game."
Now Barney has an intelligent parasite in his brain affecting his actions, and he and his friend Katie have been kidnaped by new players in the real game, and taken to the planet J'koot, where they'll either be killed as pawns, or eaten by the crablike inhabitants. It's just not his day at all. The Piggy is still out there, as are some decidedly homicidal aliens who'll stop at nothing to possess it. Can Barney outwit them all and make it home before he's grounded for life?
Sleator's always been known for his wildly imaginative, bizarre stories, and it's hard to top Interstellar Pig. Thankfully, he doesn't try. Parasite Pig, while drawing on the same characters and themes of the first, expands on the ideas introduced and brings in some all-new twists. By far, the best addition is Kaite, as another human to act as Barney's confidante and foil. While he may be the voice of experience, she's the voice of common sense that he lacks. The new aliens are presented in the same over-the-top manner as the old ones, which suits the story perfectly. By turns humorous and suspenseful, Parasite Pig is great fun, and it's good to see some leftover questions answered at last.
THE BOY WHO COULDN'T DIE (2004)
Publishers Weekly (review date 9 February 2004)
SOURCE: Review of The Boy Who Couldn't Die, by William Sleator. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 6 (9 February 2004): 82.
Sleator (House of Stairs ) journeys to the voodoo-zombie lore of the Caribbean for his latest thriller, [The Boy Who Couldn't Die ], about a boy whose fear of death prompts him to give up his mortal soul. Narrator Ken has just buried his best friend who was killed in a plane crash, and the experience has left him obsessed with death. The child of rich New Yorkers, Ken visits a voodoo priestess who offers to remove his soul and put it somewhere safe, making him invulnerable. He pays the $50 fee, the spell works, and Ken finds that not only can he incite a beating from the school bullies (their punches do no damage to him but practically break their fists), he can sustain a shark attack and come out unscathed. But hideous nightmares soon plague him, dreams in which he kills people he does not know, and he learns that the murders are actually happening, that his wayward soul is being used as an astral assassin by the bokor (a voodoo priest who practices black magic). Initially, Ken is completely unlikable, but he quickly learns his lesson, and by mid-point he has evolved into an interesting, conflicted hero. His dreams offer clues as to his soul's whereabouts, and he goes in search of it. A few gaps in logic (how can he have feelings for Sabine—the one who explains to him about the voodoo practices—if he is soulless?) do not diminish an overall sophisticated horror story told at a brisk, addictive pace. Ages 12-17.
Elizabeth Bush (review date April 2004)
SOURCE: Bush, Elizabeth. Review of The Boy Who Couldn't Die, by William Sleator. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 8 (April 2004): 349-50.
Immortality sounds pretty good to spoiled sixteen-year-old Ken Pritchard, who's just lost his best friend in a plane crash [in The Boy Who Couldn't Die ]. Like so many teen characters, Ken jump-starts a YA novel by leaping before he looks, visiting occultist Cheri Buttercup, who, for fifty dollars, removes his soul and hides it for safekeeping. A couple of trial set-to's with bullies at school and a shark on vacation convince Ken he is indeed impervious to injury, but Sabine Shearing, his luscious scuba instructor on the Caribbean island St. Calao, convinces him of the enormity of the transaction (Buttercup is a bokor, a voodoo priestess specializing in black magic) and urges him to get his soul back at all costs. Buttercup demands $50,000 to undo the job, a sum even the privileged teen cannot muster. A series of horrifying dreams alerts him to the fact the bokor is already using him to commit crimes, but they also offer clues as to the location of his spirit; Ken and Sabine, equipped with little money, less oxygen, and a couple of winter wet-suits undertake the retrieval from an iced-in Adirondacks lake on their own. The plot may have all the preposterous twists and gaping holes of a B movie, but it has much of the raw charm as well. Horror readers already know they can't take this seriously, so they can simply enjoy the rich kid's bumbling management of his dwindling financial resources and his wry conflation of the mundane and the horrific: "I would remind myself that I was sitting next to Sabine, and it was like cold boots being warmed beside a fire. I hoped I could avoid killing her." Who can resist teen zombies in love?
THE LAST UNIVERSE (2005)
Krista Hutley (review date April 2005)
SOURCE: Hutley, Krista. Review of The Last Universe, by William Sleator. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Literature 58, no. 8 (April 2005): 360.
Fourteen-year-old Susan wheels her older brother Gary into the family's wild, sprawling garden every day, even though she hates it, because otherwise she feels guilty about her own health [in The Last Universe ]. Oddly, the garden is changing: paths don't lead where they're supposed to, and strange tropical plants appear. To Susan's dismay, Gary is fascinated with the garden's unpredictability, especially when they find the hedge maze at the heart of the garden that, after their first hesitant steps inside, seems to make Gary better. At the same time, however, other things change with each trip—their parents, their friends, their home—and not always positively. Knowing the garden's history (it was created by a quantum physicist, their great-uncle), Gary pins down the changes they witness to quantum mechanics—the unpredictable behavior of the tiniest level of matter being acted out on a larger scale. In the maze, every action causes bifurcations in the universe, creating infinite parallel worlds, and in some of these worlds, Gary is healthy. Though Susan is afraid that they'll irreversibly change things for the worse, how can she deny the chance to save her brother's life? Sleator's science-fiction story is both gripping and thought-provoking, and the ending (fittingly unpredictable) is masterfully disquieting. Though Gary and the other characters seem to exist merely as means to an end, Susan is realistic as the passive-aggressive sister who both loves and hates her brother for his illness. How such a tricky science like quantum mechanics plays out in the garden remains unclear despite being over-explained in passages of textbookish dialogue; a better solution would have been to let the action reveal the meaningful facets naturally. Still, readers drawn in by the science or the sibling drama will be intrigued by the possibilities of this other secret garden.
Publishers Weekly (review date 2 May 2005)
SOURCE: Review of The Last Universe, by William Sleator. Publishers Weekly 252, no. 18 (2 May 2005): 200.
Sleator (The Boy Who Couldn't Die ) turns one of modern science's most puzzling fields into fodder for suspense, with mixed results, in this novel [The Last Universe ] narrated by 14-year-old Susan. Her brother, 16-year-old Gary, recently became ill and is confined to a wheelchair; he ponders quantum physics and tries to spend as much time outdoors in his family's enormous garden as he can, for which he needs Susan's help. One afternoon, the pair gets diverted while returning from the pond in the garden, and Susan becomes convinced that the garden paths are moving. Gary explains that it is a "quantum garden," one in which the odd and unpredictable rules of quantum physics play out on a large scale ("The basic matter of the world is complete craziness … all of life, all of the universe is governed by this uncertainty, this craziness," says Gary). This idea leads to the probability of multiple universes, including the possibility that in one or more of those universes, Gary is not sick. The story takes a confusing turn when brother and sister spot versions of themselves in the garden ("Just get away from them. If we meet up with ourselves, it will be like matter and anti-matter—we'll wipe ourselves out," Gary explains). Sleator's foreword lays out the principles he explores, and he uses his complex subject to frame some interesting questions. But unlike many of his other novels, the plot trumps the characterization here, and the narrative unfortunately comes off as more frivolous than compelling. Ages 12-16.
HELL PHONE (2006)
Loretta Gaffney (review date November 2006)
SOURCE: Gaffney, Loretta. Review of Hell Phone, by William Sleator. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 60, no. 3 (November 2006): 147.
High-school junior Nick has always been a good, hardworking kid, and all he wants is a cell phone so that he can talk to his girlfriend, Jen [in Hell Phone ]. He doesn't have a lot of money, though, so when he finds a quirky used model without caller ID, he purchases it without batting an eye. However, the phone soon becomes more trouble than it's worth, as Nick receives unwanted calls ranging from the threatening (a man named Fleck) to the disturbing (a woman sobbing for help). When Fleck threatens to hurt Jen, Nick reluctantly agrees to do his bidding, following instructions that result in Fleck's escape from hell, a place with Dantean levels featuring medieval tortures, an impenetrable bureaucracy, and near-constant bad karaoke. Nick is quickly caught up in a scheme where he's no longer sure whom to trust, and an adventure that ultimately lands him in—you guessed it—hell. While the premise of the cell phone from hell is a promising one, and the action-packed story line hoists just enough momentum to propel the reader through implausibility, the narrative is ultimately too convoluted to support what might otherwise have been a rollicking, hellacious romp. Shout-outs to Dante notwithstanding, Sleator's hell hath no internal logic—there's no consistency, for instance, to the rules for arrival or departure. However, those who enjoy Sleator, even when he phones it in, will probably have few complaints, nor will those in search of an action-packed horror story featuring the always intriguing and creepy setting of hell.
Goldberger, Judith. Review of Once, Said Darlene, by William Sleator, illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Booklist 75, no. 18 (15 May 1979): 1445.
Calls Once, Said Darlene a "wholly original tale."
Grayson, Ashley Darlington. "Two by Sleator." Fantasy Review 9, no. 11 (December 1986): 41-2.
Offers critical readings of two works by Sleator, Singularity and Blackbriar, labelling Singularity as the far superior of the two.
Sutherland, Zena. Review of Among the Dolls, by William Sleator, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 29, no. 7 (March 1976): 118.
Notes that the concepts behind Among the Dolls "are presented with enough suspense and sense of horror to be satisfyingly chilling."
Additional coverage of Sleator's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 5, 39; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 16; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 29; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 46, 83, 97; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 3, 68, 118, 161; and Writers for Young Adults.