Monday, July 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley was one of the greatest SF writers of short stories, particularly funny short stories, though he was certainly capable of deeper work (even in the funny stories.) I read through basically all of his story collections a quarter century or so back, a very rewarding effort.His novels were never as good as his short fiction, but they were still reliably enjoyable.  He was born in 1928 and died in 2005, after falling ill while visiting Russia. He was named SFWA Author Emeritus in 2001, and award that was controversial in some quarters, because it was often regarded as a pat on the back for an accomplished long-time writer who "wasn't good enough for Grand Master status". Sheckley, it was felt (and I agree) was potentially a Grand Master, if perhaps not a slam dunk case, so the Emeritus designation seemed almost an insult, though Sheckley by all accounts was quite happy to be so honored.

What follows is what I've written about his short fiction, a few reviews of late stories in Locus, plus a number taken from my "retro-reviews" of 1950s magazines. Alas, none of the stories I mention are among his best, such as, say, the fairly early "Specialist" or the much later "Pas de Trois of the Chef, the Waiter, and the Customer".

Astounding, March 1953

The only short story is Robert Sheckley's "Fool's Mate" (4800 words), in which two equally matched space fleets confront each other. It seems their computers have determined that the alien fleet has a tiny positional advantage which nearly guarantees victory -- but that neither fleet can attack since the act of attacking will ruin their position and guarantee failure. The standoff is psychologically devastating, until a man comes up with an idea -- use one of the gunnery officers who has been driven insane to control attack strategy. You see, the other side's computer will never be able to figure out a madman ... Cute, I suppose, but not terribly believable.

Science Fiction Stories, 1953

Robert Sheckley's "Ask a Foolish Question" (3600 words) concerns representatives of several different races finding a machine built by an ancient race called "The Answerer". The Answerer will answer any question -- but can lesser races ask a sensible enough question and understand the answer?

Space Science Fiction, September 1953

Robert Sheckley's "The Hour of Battle" (2200 words) is another human/alien war story, with a nasty twist. Humans have encountered evil telepathic aliens, who can take over people's minds and make them do anything. They have developed a telepathy detector, and a series of ships guard the Solar System, ready to destroy the aliens at the first sign of telepathic probing. But perhaps they haven't quite thought this through ... though what hope there really could be in such a situation I can't see.

Galaxy, August 1954

The short stories are "Subsistence Level", by Finn O'Donnevan (4500 words); ... "Finn O'Donnevan" is really Robert Sheckley. I'm not sure why he used a pseudonym for "Subsistence Level", which is fairly characteristic of his work of the time, though not one of his best stories. A young couple move to the asteroids to be pioneers, and they must live difficult pioneer lives: 5 hour work days!, plain eight course meals prepared by household robots, etc. Minor but acceptable.

If, September 1954

Robert Sheckley's "The Battle" (2000 words) extrapolates today's trends toward increasing automation of warfare to the Battle of Armageddon. OK, but mostly a punchline story.

Galaxy, October 1954

The short stories include Robert Sheckley's "Ghost V" (5300 words), the first (chronologically) AAA Ace Planet Decontamination Story. This is more straightforward than most Sheckley. The AAA Ace guys must solve the mystery of a planet where two groups of explorers have each died violently, despite no evidence of dangerous creatures on the planet. The solution is OK, but not great.

Galaxy, November 1954

Robert Sheckley's "The Laxian Key" (3500 words) is a AAA Ace story. Arnold's latest get-rich-quick idea is a "Free Producer", which can make endless supplies of something for nothing. Problem is, the something isn't worth much! It's mostly a joke story, with no real resolution, but it's pretty funny.

Galaxy, July 1955

Robert Sheckley's "Deadhead" (3000 words) is about a struggling scientific outpost on Mars, inhabited only by Ph.D.'s who are forced to do all the ordinary work, too. Every so often a stowaway "deadheads" to Mars, trying to escape tiresome Earth. The "deadhead" seems a very useful person, but regulations say he must be sent directly home. But the question is -- how did he get to Mars after all? The answer is a bit cute -- worth 3000 words, I guess, but nothing special.

Locus, September 2003

Weird Tales for July-August features a story by the wonderful Robert Sheckley: "The Tales of Zanthias". Zanthias is a leader of an unusual town of misfits, a town surrounded by monsters such as zombies, calibans, witches, ghosts, all of which he tries to keep away. One morning his wife is missing, and he looks for her -- and finds that he himself has a secret.

Locus, January 2004

Mike Resnick's latest DAW anthology reverses the conceit of an earlier book: this time we have Men Writing Science Fiction as Women. As with the previous book, the results are mixed. ... Also good is Robert Sheckley's "A Tale of the Oroi", a pleasant concoction of fantasy and SF in which a fairy from Ancient Greece encounters a time traveler from the 21st Century, with slyly presented, unexpected, results.

1 comment:

  1. A seriously neglected/underrated writer. Nothing makes my blood boil faster than hearing someone praise Douglas Adams to the skies and then discovering that they've never even heard of Robert Sheckley.