Sheckley, Robert

Tagged: Author

(1928-2005) US author, born and educated in New York, where he set some of his fiction, publishing his first story, "Final Examination", for Imagination in May 1952. Sheckley's career falls into three periods: the 1950s, the 1960s, and afterwards. In the first period he produced short fiction prolifically for several years in various magazines, though his supple, witty, talkative, well crafted work was especially suited to Galaxy Science Fiction, where much of it appeared. This work remains, almost certainly, his best known. A number of these stories are known to have first appeared under pseudonyms: "The Leech" (December 1952 Galaxy) as by Phillips Barbee, "Forever" (February 1959 Galaxy) as by Ned Lang, and nine further Galaxy stories plus "Feeding Time" (March 1953 Fantasy Magazine) as by Finn O'Donnevan. In the 1960s he wrote several novels which combined "zany" plots, metaphysical speculation and comic Satire. In the 1970s and 1980s, he only sporadically wrote original works, but some of them (see below) are strong. The stories assembled as The Collected Short Stories of Robert Sheckley, beginning with The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley: Book One (coll 1991), though incomplete, gives a good view of his entire career to that point. But that career continued; see below.

Sheckley's first collection, Untouched by Human Hands (coll 1954; with differing contents 1955), is one of the finest debut volumes ever published in the field, and contains several tales which have remained famous, including "The Monsters" (March 1953 F&SF), the title story (December 1953 Galaxy as "One Man's Poison"), and the superb "Specialist" (May 1953 Galaxy) which, with an energy and adroitness typical of his early work, posits a Galaxy inhabited by a variety of cooperating races who can merge their specialized functions to become, literally, Spaceships. The story describes the search for a new Pusher, a being capable of shoving the ship to Faster-than-Light velocities – unsurprisingly in the 1950s context, Homo sapiens turns out to be a Pusher species. Also in the collection is "Seventh Victim" (April 1953 Galaxy), much later filmed as La Decima Vittima (1965; vt The Tenth Victim), in turn novelized by Sheckley as The Tenth Victim (1966); see below for its feeble continuation as the Victim sequence. Further successful collections followed swiftly: Citizen in Space (coll 1955), Pilgrimage to Earth (coll 1957), Notions: Unlimited (coll 1960), Store of Infinity (coll 1960) and Shards of Space (coll 1962). Later compilations include The Robert Sheckley Omnibus (coll 1973) edited and introduced by Robert Conquest and Is THAT What People Do?: The Selected Short Stories (coll 1984). Sheckley's stories are unfailingly elegant and literate; their mordant humour and sudden plot reversals separate them from the mass of magazine sf stories of the time, for the wit and surprises usually function to make serious points about calamitous aspects of life in the later twentieth century. At the same time, Sheckley clearly found it worthwhile during these early years to express the corrosive pessimism of his wit within the storytelling conventions of sf, to dress his nihilism in sheep's clothing.

Sheckley did not generally run to short-story series, but the comic AAA Ace sequence begun in his early years was popular with fans. The AAA Ace Interplanetary (or Planet) Decontamination Service comprises two hapless spacegoing entrepreneurs whose schemes tend to go awry thanks to bizarre Aliens, dubious (usually alien) Technology and general lack of forethought. AAA Ace stories are "Milk Run" (September 1954 Galaxy), "Ghost V" (October 1954 Galaxy), "The Laxian Key" (November 1954 Galaxy), "Squirrel Cage" (January 1955 Galaxy), "The Lifeboat Mutiny" (April 1955 Galaxy), "The Necessary Thing" (June 1955 Galaxy) and the late addition "Sarkanger" (January/February 1986 Stardate)

His second period began with Immortality Delivered (October 1958-February 1959 Galaxy as "Time Killer"; 1958; exp vt Immortality, Inc. 1959), filmed in 1992 as Freejack, and continued with his best novels, The Status Civilization (August-September 1960 Amazing as "Omega"; 1960), Journey Beyond Tomorrow (October-November 1962 F&SF as "The Journey of Joenes"; 1962; vt Journey of Joenes 1978) and Mindswap (1966). In these books the typical Candide-like Sheckley protagonist began, at times unduly, to dominate. In short stories, the occasionally venal naivete of this character did not much impair the rhythm of the tale; but in the novels his lethargy tended to be translated into plots deficient in narrative thrust. The typical Sheckley full-length story is episodic, befitting the protagonist's lack of drive, and structured as a kind of guided tour of the particular sf milieu that Sheckley wished to expose to satirical view; dumped into this disconcerting circuit, his typical protagonist must scramble about – sometimes comically – in order to survive and to gain some orientation. The protagonist of the first novel, after dying in a car crash, awakens 150 years hence in a whirligig America where most forms of psychic phenomena, including life after death and communication with the dead, have been verified. The Status Civilization is genuinely successful, embodying its satirical despairs in a shaped narrative set on a Prison planet, where social hierarchies have been turned topsy-turvy (a classic device of Satire) and conformity means being always wicked. In Journey Beyond Tomorrow the Sheckley protagonist is an innocent who suffers a variety of alarming adventures after leaving his quiet Near-Future Pacific Island and arriving in a war-obsessed America, which is in the process of blowing up a moon of Jupiter while testing a superior bomb; World War Three soon ensues. The novel takes the form of a series of remembrances enshrined as myths which, a millennium later, attempt to explain the Ruined Earth surrounding the protagonist's island home. In Mindswap the protagonist switches minds with a Martian – since temporary Identity Exchange here offers the cheapest form of space-tourism – and is subjected to upsets and reality displacements galore. After the Fall (anth 1980), which assembles mostly Post-Holocaust tales, can be seen as a pendant to these novels; but their publication, all the same, marked the end of Sheckley's easy years.

Dimension of Miracles (1968) – in which the protagonist wins in error a prize whose presentation has side-effects that shunt him back and forth across a Galaxy whose reality (complicated by Timeslips and Parallel Worlds) is intermittently hilarious yet disconcertingly arbitrary – may be thought to signal the slow onset of the third Sheckley period. This was marked by novels either uneasy, like Dimension of Miracles, or absent-minded, like Dramocles: An Intergalactic Soap Opera (1983). Sheckley also continued his Victim sequence, begun in 1966 with The Tenth Victim, in two uninspired sequels, Victim Prime (1987) and Hunter/Victim (1988). The best novel of the period was probably Options (1975), a tale whose sf apparatus could be taken as a delusional frame, or understood as a series of dramatic projections – generated by the protagonist – of the various forms his life could be read as taking, rather after the fashion of Barry N Malzberg, whose treatment of sf themes as metaphors for all-too-human problems Sheckley's late work most resembles. But The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton (December 1958 Galaxy as "Join Now" as by Finn O'Donnevan; vt "The Humors" in Store of Infinity, coll 1960; exp 1978; vt Crompton Divided 1978) – about the attempts of a paranoid schizophrenic to reassemble his mind, which has been split off into three widely separated receptacles of Identity – is also strong.

The quality of Sheckley's short fiction was less variable, though his increasing tendency to write almost Absurdist stories (see Fabulation) was not perhaps to the taste of the sf market in general – a sense reflected in the fact that many of them were first published in slick magazines such as Playboy rather than in sf magazines, though "A Suppliant in Space" (November 1973 Galaxy) won the Jupiter Award for the Best Short Story of 1973. The People Trap (coll 1968) contains a mixture of old and new stories, but most of the fiction in Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? (coll 1971; vt The Same to You Doubled 1974) is typical of his late work – spasmodic, hilarious, despairing. Further examples can be found in The Robot who Looked like Me (coll 1978) and The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley (coll 1979). It may be that Sheckley's inability to make serious use of the simpler, more adventurous forms the genre can take, which he regularly and affectionately parodied when young, had a paralysing effect on the mature writer, who as he came to "transcend" genre protocols sometimes sounded like a tongue-tied Kurt Vonnegut Jr. If this is so, it was a considerable loss to the sf field that one of its sharpest wits could no longer pay it serious attention. Sheckley openly talked about the chronic effects of writer's block that he had suffered, though he contrived to shape the pain into mordant black comedy in his 1978 Eastercon speech "On Working Method" (September/October 1978 Vector #89).

In around 1990, all the same, Sheckley began to publish short fiction prolifically again, releasing at least fifty new stories before his death; some of this new work appears in Uncanny Tales (coll 2003). In 2001 – though he was clearly not retired, as the award tendentiously infers – he was honoured by SFWA as Author Emeritus (see SFWA Grand Master Award). He was due to be Guest of Honour at the 2005 Worldcon, but was unable to attend owing to ill health; he died four months later. [JC]

see also: Advertising; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Buck Rogers XXVC; Cities; Comic Inferno; Crime and Punishment; Dinosaurs; Discovery; Economics; Eschatology; First Contact; Force Field; Games and Sports; Gods and Demons; History of SF; Humour; Identity Transfer; Leisure; Media Landscape; Omni; Pariah Elite; Overpopulation; Paranoia; Precognition; Reincarnation; Robots; Sex; Shapeshifters; Stasis Field; Supernatural Creatures; Taboos; Zombies.

Robert Sheckley

born New York: 16 July 1928

died Poughkeepsie, New York: 9 December 2005

works

series

Victim

  • The Tenth Victim (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965) [novelizing the film The Tenth Victim (see La Decima Vittima): early version first appeared April 1953 Galaxy as "The Seventh Victim": Victim: pb/]
  • Victim Primesfgateway.com (London: Methuen, 1987) [Victim: hb/Peter Elson]
  • Hunter/Victimsfgateway.com (New York: New American Library/Signet Books, 1988) [Victim: pb/]

Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming

The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley

Hob Draconian

Star Trek

individual titles (fantastic)

individual titles (nonfantastic)

  • Dead Run (New York: Bantam Books, 1960) [pb/]
  • Calibre .50 (New York: Bantam Books, 1961) [pb/]
  • The Man in the Water (Chicago, Illinois: Regency Books, 1961) [small portion published under same title in Sea Adventures, May 1959: pb/Mel Pekarsky]
  • Live Gold (New York: Bantam Books, 1962) [pb/]
  • White Deathsfgateway.com (New York: Bantam Books, 1963) [pb/]
  • The Game of X (New York: Delacorte Press, 1965) [hb/Crowley]
  • Time Limit (New York: Bantam Books, 1967) [pb/]

collections and stories

works as editor

nonfiction

  • Futuropolis (New York: A & W Visual Library, 1978) [nonfiction: graph: hb/]

about the author

links

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