R.I.P. William Sleator
William Sleator, author of dozens of wildly popular science fiction and horror novels for young adults, died Aug. 3 at his home in Bua Chet, Thailand. He was 66. According to the New York Times, the cause of death was unknown, though Sleator’s brother, Daniel, said his brother had problems with alcoholism and had been having seizures for several years. He was born in 1945 in Maryland.
Over the course of his career, Sleator published nearly three dozen works, including young adult novels, picture books for children, and a handful of non-fiction works. As discussed by blogger and novelist Adam Cadre, Sleator’s works returned over and over again to a handful of tropes, themes, and ideas. Sleator was particularly fond of ideas of time travel and changes made to the past rippling forward through time. But he also returned again and again to relationships between siblings (possibly inspired by his own close relationship with his sister, Vicky, as recounted in his memoir Oddballs) and was one of the first young adult novelists to prominently feature characters that were hinted to be gay.
Sleator’s most famous work was probably his third novel, House Of Stairs. The first of many works of dystopic science fiction Sleator would write, the book reflects his interest in operant conditioning, featuring five teenagers who are taken from their homes in a future filled with scarcity and deposited in a strange facility that seems to consist solely of stairs. They are carefully trained using small bits of meat—rare in this future world—that push them to gradually become more and more sadistic toward each other. The book contained many of the ideas and characters Sleator would return to again and again, including one of his favorite recurring character types, a cruel, overweight woman who had been spoiled and took out her misery on others.
Sleator’s other most famous work was 1984’s Interstellar Pig, a genuinely thrilling coming-of-age story crossed with light space opera, revolving around the titular game, which starts out seeming like just another summer pastime and ends up becoming horrifyingly real. Enjoyably paced and filled with intriguing characters and solid world-building, Interstellar Pig also keeps raising the stakes for what its young hero must do to first win the game and then save the planet.
Sleator’s other popular works included The Green Futures Of Tycho, a time-travel morality tale about a boy who discovers that the longer he holds onto a time machine, the worse of a person he becomes in the future; Blackbriar, a nicely spooky haunted house tale; The Duplicate, a fairly basic evil twin yarn; The Boy Who Reversed Himself, a teenage romance crossed with a cautionary time travel story; and The Last Universe, an often very sad story of two siblings, one dying, trying to find a universe where they will both be able to live. He also wrote several books (mostly ghost stories and horror tales) set in Thailand, which became his second home where he spent most of his time, particularly after the death of his longtime partner, Paul Peter Rhode, in 1999. Partner Siang Chitsa-Ard died in 2008.
Sleator’s prose was rarely anything other than functional, but he had a unique talent for spinning various science fiction concepts together into a larger tale that offered plenty of fodder for insecure younger readers, first embarking into the world of genre fiction. Take, for instance, what might be his best novel, Singularity. Telling the story of a pair of twins who discover a strange shed that manipulates time and space on an old family farm, Singularity makes its big, action centerpiece a segment where one of the brothers locks himself in the shed overnight, a time that will seem to him like a year, and proceeds to embark on a course of self-improvement designed to set himself apart from his twin, whom he’s incredibly jealous of. There’s nothing more to it than one brother using a weird science fiction anomaly to best another brother and get the girl, but those were emotions Sleator’s readers could easily relate to.
Despite his knack for high-concept premises that would seem easy to sell to Hollywood, Sleator’s work has almost never been adapted for the screen. (Sleator worked references to a fictional film version of Interstellar Pig into later novels, and it’s rather amazing that book—with its clear hook and action-movie throughline—hasn’t ever been adapted.) At the same time, his most popular books have remained consistently in print since initial publication, and House Of Stairs, in particular, continues to be something of a young adult science-fiction classic. Sleator’s legacy rests almost entirely on his books, but he leaves behind a venerable body of work, one that should resonate with alienated teens for some time to come. His final novel, The Phantom Limb, is scheduled for publication in October.