Fiction Reviews

Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley

(1979/1980) Robert Sheckley, Sphere, £1.00 / Aus$3.50, pbk, xii + 209pp, ISBN 0-772-17769-3


Yes, this book is old and (as of 2015) never been re-issued in a new edition (though second-hand copies still abound), but nonetheless is just a delight with beautifully crafted, simple with just a bit of a twist and frequently salted with a dash of wry humour, personal and charming SF stories.  Now, if you have never come across Robert Sheckley – and some younger genre readers may well have not – then you are genuinely in for a real treat. Indeed, for new and contemporary readers the best way into Sheckley is arguably through his short stories. Trust me, especially if you are into what might be termed 'traditional SF' or more accurately 'Golden Age SF', these stories largely come from the decade (1950s) immediately after the Golden Age and so have a strong Golden influence. Read just one of his anthologies and you are likely to be hooked!

The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley (1980) by the US author came out just a couple of years after he was Guest of Honour at the British national SF convention (the British Eastercon): a point worth making to demonstrate that the man had considerable cred on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, Robert Sheckley was due to be GoH at the 2005 Worldcon but sadly passed away prior to the event. Three of his stories have been nominated for a major SF/F Award: Hugo Nebula and World Fantasy. Sadly the film adaptations of his stories into La Decima Vittima [The 10th Victim] based on 'Seventh Victim' (see below), and Freejack based on the novel Immortality, Inc.were not faithful and so the stories can only really be said to have inspired the respective films. Le Prix du Danger (French, 1983) is arguably more true to Sheckley's short 'The Prize of Peril' (see below).

Sheckley's stories are firmly grounded in traditional SFnal tropes: alien worlds, space colonization, near futures, media spectacle, robotics, coputers and so forth. In the main they follow one protagonist who is having to make do with the hand (situation) with which he is dealt, and we get to sympathise with this person's trials. This singular-person protagonist enables us to identify with the stories' circumstances even though the circumstances themselves are exotic, grand or way out. As such Sheckley's tales kind of have the charm found in Clifford D. Simak's rurally-set novels; though, make no mistake, Sheckley is not afraid of cities. Often, it is the charm of the small person innocently trying to make sense of it all against a big, wide world universe. They are also smartly written and often there is a recursion in each stories' conclusion to something near its beginning.

And so we come to the collection The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley that was published in N. America in 1979 and in Britain in 1980. It begins with a three-page introduction that briefly hints at his approach to writing: he gets an idea, writes it and moves on, never looking back. It also notes that at the time (the late 1970s) SF readership was young. Today as Worldcon and Eastercon fandoms are greying some might think (indeed some mistakenly do) that fandom as a whole is greying. This is, of course, absolute tosh! There are many fan groups and specialist conventions that boast a lot of young fans, and student SF societies continue to thrive, their being rejuvenated each year with freshers, even if the more book-orientated Worldcon and British Eastercon are (currently) ageing. Today there are SF readers of all ages. I think Bob would have approved: he certainly revelled in fans of all ages at the first International Week of Science & Science Fiction. Hopefully now, following this review, you might be inspired to seek out and wallow in Sheckley's short stories. In The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley we get:-

'Seventh Victim' a near future sees murder legalised for those who want to indulge. The premise is that this provides a release for those with latent aggressive tendancies. But there is a price to pay for those who participate…  This 1953 story's neat idea does betray a typical mid-20th century western attitude to women.

'Specialist' A spaceship hits a photon storm and loses one of its crew. There is no choice but to find a planet to recruit a replacement…  As the story continues we realise that perspectives change who is whom… Note, that this was written before Star trek popularised the term 'photon storm'.

'Skulking Permit' A world sporting a small human colony, that has been out of touch with other colonies for a couple of centuries, is suddenly re-discovered and an inspector is on the way. The colonists need to make things as they are on Earth. That means they need a church, a school house and.. a jail. Someone has to be the colony's official criminal… Will Tom be up to the job?

'Shall We Have A Little Talk?' Jackson has been scouting worlds for intelligent communities with which relations can be established for Earth's growing empire. Earth has been doing this for a while, and indeed Jackson has several first contacts already under his belt. Assuming the aliens don't try to kill him (which would give Earth a legitimate reason to invade) he needs to negotiate and that means talking. No problem; Jackson's done this before. Except this time things don't quite go according to plan…

'The People Trap' The 21st century was a crowded place, but each year there is a race in which the winners each get an acre of land. Steve Baxter (I don't think this is a nod to the author Stephen Baxter as this was written in 1968) decides to enter. It is a race that will take him on a nightmare journey to New York…

'Ghost V' A small planet decontamination outfit gets its first job. The problem is that the planet they are sent to decontaminate is said to be haunted. How do you protect yourself against a ghost…?

'A Wind is Rising' A two-person outpost on a windswept planet have to contend with higher than usual winds. No problem you might think…

'Grey Flannel Armour' Being a busy executive does not leave much time for romance. Fortunately there is a company that provides a service that can help…  (This story almost predicts the mobile phone app.)

'Pilgrimage to Earth' Alfred comes from a far flung colony world. he has always dreamed of going to Earth and so one day cashes everything in and makes the trip. There he finds everything including a company that can provide 'true love'…  (This is a completely different treatment of the previous story's premise.)

'The Prize of Peril' Jim is being chased by a gang out to kill him. But if he can just survive long enough he will get a big cash prize from the TV company filming it all. With different members of the public helping him on one hand and the gang on the other, it makes for a dramatic time… This story has vague echoes of 'Seventh Victim' in that murder is again legal. However it is different in that the gratification primarily goes to the television audience (not the potential murderer) and the 1958 story's focus is on the chase being a live television sport: shades of Stephen King's novel The Running Man (1982)… This story virtually anticipate 'reality TV' that came to the fore in the late 1990s.

'The Store of the Worlds' Mr Wayne seeks a different experience. Fortunately the old man's store can give him temporary access to one of a myriad of alternate worlds…  Of science and SF note, this 1959 story was written just a couple of years after Hugh Everett III's seminal paper. It is another example of how SF authors keep an eye on popular science so as to feed their stories manufacture.

'Fool's Mate' The two huge space armadas had been circling each other for months. Despite the state of war between their respective planets, not a shot had been fired. But maintaining such a large fleet in the depths of space was costing the Earth a fortune. A representative of the President is sent to investigate what is going on and finds a demoralised navy…

And so there you have it. Yes, the tropes you will have come across before. Yes, there are just a few things that slightly date one or two of the stories (after all they come from over half a century ago). But the wit, the simple novelty of each story's premise, still shines brightly.

As I write this review on the 10th anniversary of Sheckley's demise let's not forget the man's wonderful yarns. Do seek his collections of shorts out and enjoy some of the best exemplars from the period immediately following what is known as Golden Age science fiction. Have fun.

Jonathan Cowie

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