Robert Sheckley, who died a few years ago in 2005, was an author of (mostly) science fiction, very prolific with short stories, very snarky and tongue-in-cheek. In my experience short story collections tend to be hit and miss with most authors, and Sheckley wasn't an exception; but if the author's good, it's worth the misses for the hits, and a collection of Sheckley stories always had something thought-provoking, surprising, and amusing. Sheckley wasn't a sci-fi author who was in it for the science (as opposed to the hard sci-fi types like Larry Niven or Isaac Asimov); his focus was on the human and social angle, and he treated scientific issues with all the technical rigour of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Technology is there to provide interesting props, as in “Bad Medicine,” where a man treats himself with a psychotherapy device designed for Martians. Dystopias are a frequent theme, and numerous short stories and novels feature death sports, often televised – anticipating “Battle Royale,” “The Hunger Games,” and the rise of reality TV by some decades (“The Never-Ending Western Movie” is a good example).
One of the most memorable of his works, and a good showcase of the Sheckley attitude to things – barbed, cynical, full of twists and turns – is the short story “The Same to You Doubled” (found in this collection). This is actually a spin on an old Jewish story: in the original, a man finds favour with God, an angel is sent to give him three wishes, and whatever he wishes for, his neighbour gets double. The first two wishes go towards ensuring prosperity, but the sight of his neighbour getting twice as rich eats away at him – so he wishes to lose an eye. The Sheckley version involves a man getting three wishes from an agent of the Devil (Hell, it turns out, occasionally gives out bonuses to potential customers), with one drawback: for each wish, his worst enemy gets double (and there's another catch when he learns who his worst enemy is). Sheckley inverts the conclusion as well: instead of the man turning Divine bounty to evil, Sheckley's protagonist, driven to despair by the Devil's gift, finally finds refuge in prayer – although the sense of peace this grants him isn't quite the conclusion...
In terms of full-length novels, Sheckley didn't tend to do such a good job. He did some respectable straight-faced thriller/espionage novels (I only read one of them, and can't remember what it was called now), and some action novels with sci-fi elements and a good dose of humour, particularly the novels involving people hunting each other for sport (which have “Hunter” and/or “Victim” in the title); but when his sci-fi novels try for the wit and energy of his short stories, they often fail to cohere, or peter out at the end. There are one or two exceptions, though: “Immortality, Inc.” is a lot of fun, and describes a world in which procedures to ensure the survival of the soul after death have become available... if you're very rich (Amazon link); and my favourite of all his works, “Journey Beyond Tomorrow”, a.k.a. “Joenes' Journey” (Amazon link), manages to retain the virtues of his short stories by being structured as a set of short tales from an oral tradition.
“Journey Beyond Tomorrow” is the story of an innocent and naïve fellow called Joenes, and the adventures befalling him as he tours an anteäpocalyptic America – as related by the oral storytellers of a postapocalyptic Polynesia. It's highly satirical, although a little dated in that regard (published in 1962), and a lot of the satire went over my head when I first read it – probably still does – as I didn't recognise the targets (in particular the story of the three truck drivers left me bemused – the “religious” truck driver didn't adhere to anything I recognised as religion.) But the story is fast-paced and as full of outrageous and absurd goings-on as any of Chesterton's picaresques, which makes it highly readable even when the satire is dated or obscure. This is helped by the cheerful garbling of American culture by the storytellers of Polynesia: after Joenes falls foul of a ludicrously exaggerated McCarthy-style hearing, he is saved from being sacrificed on the Electric Chair at Delphi only by his mixed Spartan/Athenian ancestry and the symbolic importance of Hellenic unity in American politics. (Sheckley was fond of the occasional bit of ancient-Greekishness in his stories.)
I feel the need to post an excerpt or two. When Joenes visits a lunatic asylum, he meets a doctor with a rather unorthodox approach to psychiatry:
"I merely have what some call a questioning mind... when I see a grown man crouched with shut eyes in a foetal position, I do not instantly apply massive radioactive shock therapy. I am more likely to ask myself, 'What would happen if I constructed a huge artificial womb and put this man inside?' That is an example from an actual case."
"What happened?" Joenes asked.
"The guy suffocated," Lum said with a laugh.
"I have never pretended to be an engineer," the doctor said stiffly. "Trial and error are necessary. Besides, I count that case a success."
"Why?" Joenes asked.
"Because just before the patient died, he uncurled.”
He then goes on to describe the most fascinating of his cases, which inoculated my younger self against certain ideas prevalent today by performing a brutal reductio ad absurdum of thoughtless knee-jerk scientism. (Thoughtful intelligent scientism is another matter but I only became aware that this existed in the last few years; though admittedly I wasn't paying much attention.) Also of note are the Soviet party official ripped from the pages of Dostoyevsky, the trigger-happy policeman, and one of Sheckley's favourite themes: friction betwixt man and machine.
Voig, studying the five alternatives before him, was aware of the problems of modern warfare, and sadly recognized how dependent he was on information upon which to base a sound decision. He also knew that most of his information came to him from extremely expensive machines that sometimes could not tell the difference between a goose and a rocket; machines that required regiments of highly trained men to minister to them, repair them, improve them, and to soothe them in every way... The creations were no better than the creators, and indeed resembled them in many of the worst ways. Like men, the machines were frequently subject to something resembling emotional instability. Some became overzealous, others had recurring hallucinations, functional and psychosomatic breakdowns, or even complete catatonic withdrawals... the more suggestible machines were nothing more than extensions of their operators' personalities.
General Voig knew, of course, that no machine possessed a real consciousness, and therefore no machine really suffered from the diseases of consciousness. But they seemed to, and that was just as bad as the real thing.
Now, Sheckley, while very entertaining, is seldom what you'd call “edifying”. But the last story I'd like to mention, “The Mnemosyne”, (from the same collection as “Same to You Doubled”) is an exception, and unwontedly serious (by Sheckley's standards). It's set in a calm, orderly society which has achieved tranquility at the expense of art:
Right-thinking men agreed that most literature was superfluous at best, subversive at worst... Did we need to retain a thousand divergent opinions, and then to explain why they were false? Under such a bombardment of influences, how could anyone be expected to respond in an appropriate and approved manner?... Therefore, history was to be rewritten, and literature was to be regularized, pruned, tamed, made orderly or abolished entirely.
Of course, not everybody is on board with this program. The idea is simple, and has probably been done before, and for all I know better; but Sheckley does a good job of getting across his vision of art as causing doubt and pain and disruption, but still a necessary part of being human.
All of these are several decades old; I grew up reading copies my parents had found round second-hand bookstores, and continued to read him by acquiring my own second-hand copies. It was only a few years after his death I found that he'd actually kept going into the 21st century, putting out new stories all the while. The only latter-day Sheckley I've read was a short story entitled “Agamemnon's Run”, about lucky lottery winners somewhat lethally reënacting Greek mythology for the edification of mysterious aliens, which was pretty good but not sufficient for judging how, or whether, his work had evolved over the years.
A few of his works, mostly short stories, are available at Project Gutenberg, and the rest seem to be mostly available on Amazon. Robert Sheckley, 1928-2005, R.I.P.
--Godescalc is the pseudonym of James Asher, who works as an English teacher and theoretical chemist in Bratislava, Slovakia. He also dabbles in songwriting and art, the results of which can be seen at his blog, Inadaptation.