Robert Sheckley has been selected as a Worldcon Guest of Honor, and it’s about time. One of the less useful concepts sf has inherited from the mainstream is "too funny to be great," and Sheckley has often been underrated because of it (as has John T. Sladek). For instance, Sheckley was nominated once each for the Hugo and the Nebula, and did not win either time.
Still, his work has been appreciated, not only by a continuing cult of readers (in which I am proud to number myself) but also by fellow professionals, who recognize the genius and the technical skill that go into those apparently smooth and straightforward tales. Brian Aldiss praised Sheckley in his history of the field, Mike Resnick has repeatedly proclaimed Dimension of Miracles one of the greatest sf novels of all, and Robert Silverberg included a Sheckley story in Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder (recently reprinted as Science Fiction 101), his guide to science fiction writing through careful examination of the ways the best writers get their results. In 1991 Pulphouse Press put together a five-volume collection of Sheckley’s short fiction.
Sheckley’s floruit runs from 1952, when his first stories appeared, through 1968 and the publication of Dimension of Miracles. He is a prime representative of the sf of the Fifties, specifically the trenchant social satire that Kingsley Amis praised in New Maps of Hell as what science fiction was best at. As always, the sf of that era was at least as much about its own time as about the future, so it was full of suburbs, organization men, gray flannel suits, status seekers, and hidden persuaders, but Sheckley and his colleagues also affronted the sensibilities of their readers by imagining future worlds full of open displays of greed and power-madness, overemphasis on military might and secrecy, and omnipresent, ever more trashy mass media. (The study of DNA was fairly new in the Fifties, so I don’t believe anyone at the time actually thought up a network television show on which families were publicly tested to determine the legitimacy of the offspring, but that’s very much the sort of tasteless fantasy these writers might have projected onto the far-off twenty-first century.)
Sheckley was one of the best at it. Whenever someone asked, "Who wrote that great story about...?" the answer was most likely to be Sheckley (followed by William Tenn and Fredric Brown). Perhaps we can get some idea of the distinctive Sheckley touch by looking at just two stories from that time:
"Bad Medicine" takes on a popular Fifties concern, psychoanalysis, here made available from the Home Therapy Appliances Store. Alas, our protagonist is mistakenly given a Martian psychiatry machine, which continually probes him for traumata that do not exist on our planet. The therapy continues until he decides that he really does remember his goricae, and the story proceeds from there.
The protagonist of "Protection" is reassured that he is safe, unless of course he dares to lesnerize, but no one will tell him what that constitutes. Here is a theme that resonates in the sf community, rich as it is in socially challenged types who never know when they’ll be punished for violating unspoken rules everyone else is aware of. I myself often fear that I am about to lesnerize, or have already done so. (Another sf treatment of this theme appears in Greg Egan’s Distress, whose narrator finds himself in the Kafkaesque position of being kicked out of a Relationship for two crimes, the second of which is ignorance of the first.)
Sheckley’s first novel was published in 1958 by Avalon, one of the short-lived sf book publishers of the Fifties, under the title of Immortality Delivered, but has since been known as Immortality Inc. , the name under which it appears in the present volume. It begins with a bang--"Afterwards, Thomas Blaine thought about the manner of his dying and wished it had been more interesting..." and continues in what was to become the usual manner of Sheckley novels: An innocent is thrust into a world (or worlds) he never made, filled with bewildering New Things but peopled by all-too-familiar sorts of fools, knaves, and government functionaries. The characters are all Explainers, to borrow the title of a contemporaneous cartoon collection by Jules Feiffer, a person of similar sensibility: In any crisis Explainers can be found arguing, justifying, and philosophizing, even or especially when their actions make the least sense. The tale is episodic but satisfyingly resolved, an approach that will recur in later volumes, and the wit keeps coming.
Immortality Inc. was followed by The Status Civilization (1960), grimmer than its predecessor but still funny, then Journey beyond Tomorrow (1962), whose Candide figure is a Polynesian named Joenes. He is set loose in a future American military complex whose name, the Octagon, indicates that it has at least 1.6 times as much of the traits we have come to love the Pentagon for.
At this point, Sheckley got his shot at the Big Crossover Book. The well-known paperback publisher Dell had expanded into trade paperbacks (Delta) and hardcovers (Delacorte). In 1964 they published a trade paperback that bore the arrogant proclamation, “If you like Voltaire, you’ll love Kurt Vonnegut jr.!" The book was Cat’s Cradle, and despite their presumption they had accurately described my response. I was not alone of course, and when Dell noticed Vonnegut’s new success, they wondered where they could find another satirical genius widely mistaken for nothing but a science fiction writer. Sheckley was the obvious choice.
Sheckley’s first effort for Dell was The Game of X (1965), a spy spoof, but this was early in the James Bond era, and everyone was doing spy spoofs. Sheckley’s William Nye did not, as they say in football, get separation from the Man from UNCLE, the Man from ORGY, Boysie Oakes, Harry Palmer, et al.
Mindswap (1966) was published in hardcover as a "satire," with none of the verbal or pictorial identifying marks of an sf book. Indeed it was the sort of thing that is now called slipstream, of the variety that offers sf aficionados some of the pleasures they associate with the genre, but can also amuse some who are convinced that they don’t like science fiction.
Mindswap’s central gimmick was the transfer of minds from one body to another, often across interstellar distances. There is no hardware (never a Sheckley strong point), and the philosophical implications of such mind/body dualism are the only issue debated. The book is as episodic as its predecessors, but the futurism is soft-pedaled and the references--ranging from Don Quixote to Juan Valdez, then a well-known figure in TV commercials--are deliberately familiar to the contemporary middlebrow reader. It’s as funny as the earlier books, but it’s metafictive as well: The participants occasionally break the fourth wall, and the protagonist, Marvin Flynn, keeps slipping into "metaphoric deformation," wherein he makes sense of his fantastic situation by translating it into other genres, such as the hardboiled mystery, the Western, or the romance. All in all, it was the best thing Sheckley had done.
Alas, commercial lightning did not strike again; Mindswap did not cross over. Sent back to the minor leagues (paperback originals) in 1968, Sheckley replied with an even better book than Mindswap: Dimension of Miracles.
It is another tale of an innocent finding out how things work, this time theological, as well as psychological and sociological. Carmody (he is given no other name), a contemporary Earthling, is informed him that he has won the Intergalactic Sweepstakes and will be taken to Galactic Central to collect his Prize. Needless to say, this is an invitation to disaster. A rival claimant (who, unlike Carmody, actually entered the Intergalactic Sweepstakes) pursues him, and he must flee back home. Now all he has to do is figure out Where, When, and Which home is.
As in the previous books, the dialogue crackles, the situations are bizarre, and in its universe nothing works, or at least not the first time. Here, however, the stakes are raised, perhaps to the very Top. Carmody encounters world builders, and finds them all too similar to mortals. For instance, Carmody meets Melichrone, whose world and all upon it contain a single flaw: He is lame, and therefore so are all his creations, and neither he nor they know it. Could this be a metaphor for literary creators? One thinks of the way all of Tom Wolfe’s characters are fascinated by status markers and minutiae, or perhaps of a hugely successful movie series in which every detail of the backgrounds and special effects is a labor of love proclaiming state-of-the-art skill, but the characters who sometimes obstruct our view of the scenery are not comparably well formed.
The book also suggests that our planet might be a horrible example of what happens when the manufacturer cuts corners, perhaps a cautionary tale throughout the Galaxy. (That always seemed likely to me, and as I grow older, I become more convinced that our bodies are a major element in the indictment. I can easily imagine a slide of me being projected in front of a class somewhere while a professor warns, "You may think trash protoplasm is a good way to keep costs down, but look what you get." But of course I grossly flatter myself when I suggest that I might be the Horrible Example: I don’t even menstruate.)
But wait! There’s more. Mindswap brought confrontation with the overly familiar tropes of other genres; in Dimension of Miracles Our Hero encounters the Wise Old Scientist and his beautiful daughter. (They are of course a trap--"in fact round-topped and featureless cylinders, artfully but superficially disguised as human. They had no parts with which to function".) There are also a Jewish Mother city, a penultimate trip to a terrifying world, and a conclusion that brings at least as much enlightenment as victory.
Then what? As Mike Resnick remarks in the Introduction to the NESFA collection, Sheckley had reached a point in the 200-page sf novel never attained before and after, and there was no immediate answer to where one goes from there.
There was one possibility. To understand Sheckley’s career, we have to realize that in the last sixty years or so, the sf community’s idea of what size a work should be has grown like a giant chicken heart. In the Forties the genre, having been confined to magazines, was mostly short stories, with longer works usually starting out in serial form. Science fiction books (as an identifiable category) began appearing in the late Forties, but it would take a while to establish the concept of setting out to write a book, as opposed to compiling one from smaller works. Then there were Ace Doubles, mostly of novella or short novel length. The Sixties brought more full-length novels, followed by trilogies, leading to the breakthrough realization that a trilogy need not be confined to three volumes. Now of course it has grown to multivolume series, sharecrops, and the Star Trek® and Star Wars® franchises. Perhaps we can see 1968 as a transition point, with two exemplars: Dimension of Miracles as the best of the short novels, and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar demonstrating the advantages of greater length.
But Sheckley, having mastered the short story and the short novel, decided enough was enough. He produced a novelization of the hugely popular film The Tenth Victim (based on his short story, “The Seventh Victim”; Hollywood makes everything bigger) and some short stories, including the remarkable "Welcome to the Standard Nightmare," which turns the galactic conquest story on its head and gives the best definition of "superior intelligence" that I am smart enough to understand.
He did not, however, do another novel until 1975; Options was a differently coherent work, comprising 77 chapters. Many of these deal with Tom Mishkin (what sort of Idiot gets a name like that?), a typical Sheckley protagonist, but there are a number of digressions. The novel has many of the usual experimental/postmodernist paraphernalia, from absurdist riffs and lists to a resolute refusal to let the readers slip into the delusion that they are dealing with anything other than a story, told by someone, concluding of course with an absence of conclusion. It’s still Sheckley, so it’s full of amusements, but not quite what many of us would think of as a novel.
Options was followed by two enjoyable and more accessible novels, Crompton Divided (1978) and Dramocles(1983), about which the worst I can say is that they are not Dimension of Miracles, or even Mindswap. He then tried to get into the series biz, setting books in the world of The Tenth Victim, but that gave out after two.
In the Age of the Series, Sheckley was less of an influence than I would have liked, but every so often there was a book that had some of the old Sheckley feeling, such as Venus on the Half-Shell (published in 1975 by Philip José Farmer under the name of Kurt Vonnegut’s invented author Kilgore Trout) and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1980). It is probably typical that Hitchhiker began a series and Venus would have done the same, except that Vonnegut reclaimed his character.
In 1990 Sheckley gave us Minotaur Maze, a novella based on Greek mythology. It has all the wit we expect from Sheckley, and it is significantly more focused than Options, but it ends after fifty pages with a melodramatic auctorial refusal to tie together the many loose ends and finish the story. (Or perhaps the whole thing is concluded, fulfilled, rounded off, and resolved at a remarkably deep level of subtlety, and I have just lesnerized.)
In the Nineties Sheckley toiled in the franchise vineyards, where creative genius is not called for, but professional skill is mandatory and there are opportunities to give a bit more. He appeared in many theme anthologies. One favorite of mine is his contribution to Alternate Presidents, in which President Dukakis finds out who’s really running things, a vision even more horrific than the revelation granted to Richard Nixon in The Public Burning.
He also wrote three detective novels and a tale of contemporary Gods. I must, however, confess a sneaking fondness for The Laertian Gamble—or to give its full, formal title, STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE® #12: The Laertian Gamble. Required to play the hand he was dealt in terms of main characters, Sheckley added a whole planet full of Sheckley People who practice Complexity Theory, a formalized chaos that would have made perfect sense to Carmody or Marvin Flynn. I would like to think it amused a new generation, but I imagine that somewhere out in the great electronic Library of Babel we are all building is an argument that the book is inspired by, if not actually stolen from, Douglas Adams.
The volume at hand gives us the four great tales of the innocents abroad— Immortality Inc., Journey through Tomorrow, Mindswap, and Dimension of Miracles—as well as the flamboyant and enigmatic Minotaur Maze. Books must be finite, and I cannot imagine a better compendium of Sheckley’s longer work at this size. There is an introduction by Mike Resnick stating the case for Sheckley’s importance, and an afterword by Tom Gerencer that suggests some of the ways more recent sf has been influenced by Sheckley. George Flynn and his crew of anal-retentives have sought out and destroyed errors. Like all NESFA books, it is a quality production, at a reasonable price. Buy it.