Robert Sheckley

Take one prolific SF author, transpose to another continent and interview with three from three different countries. Herewith the interview from the 1st International Week of Science & SF in Timisoara 1999. Consider it a preliminary for Bob as the US Guest at the 2004 Eurocon (Bulgaria) and 2005 Eurocon-Worldcon (Scotland).


George Mandics: You bring a fresh perspective to science fiction because you are one of the first who parodied those before you in science fiction. This is something very interesting and remeniscent of satirist from Lucian and Swift. Was this parodying an early goal?

Robert Sheckley: In science fiction I was greatly influenced at the start by the classics: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne. I began to read with people like Robert Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt. I especially liked Henry Kutner writing especially under the name Lewis Padget with C. O. Moore. There were many of them and I took them quite seriously. I did not at all laugh at them. But when I came to write them, there was no way I could write like that. There was no way I could write with the seriousness and the erudition of a Heinlein or an H.G. Wells. So I wrote what I hoped would be science fiction, I was not at all sure if what I wrote would be acceptable even. But I don't say that I consciously wrote with humour. Humour is a part of you that comes out. Plus of course a lot of other influences. I was forever reading outside of the field as well as in it.

George Mandics: What main stream writers have influenced you? Maybe Bernard Shaw?

Robert Sheckley: There were so many of them. For example, Aldous Huxley had a great influence on me. He was very sly and yet very accurate also. But I read a great deal of Mark Twain. Many of the American writers, Melville, even. He is not very humorous. I was reading foreign authors as well. I was very fond of Victor Hugo and I don't know if he influenced me except he gave me directions I could not go in. There was an American short story writer named O. Henry. As a very young man, I thought his stories were exquisite.

Jonathan Cowie: Much of your work has been in short story form. I would say you have probably written a dozen novels. I always feel that short story writing is very difficult to do. You have done far more short stories than novels. How do you manage to cope with the short story form?

Robert Sheckley: The short story form was my first love. My goal was to become a published short story writer instead of a published novelist. If I could do that, I thought I would be complete. I think you are talking about concision. I probably got a lot of that from poetry.

George Mandics: There is much poetry in your short stories. When I began to write poetry, one of your short stories impressed me very deeply. It was The Store of the Words. It is really a great image of the post atomic war societies but in a short form that is very human and in some way very poetic. A great idea.

Robert Sheckley: I have always felt that that especially with stories like that I had great luck in that the idea would suddenly come to me fully born. I do think that short story writing is often a matter of luck. But especially in that story. It says a great deal of what I wanted to say, conveys a lot of the emotions I have about the world and the human state and what is important.

Dorin Davideanu: I think you love your characters.

Robert Sheckley: Love them? Well, I think I always maintain a certain ironic distance from them also. But this was necessary because my characters were me also.

Jonathan Cowie: In addition to your short stories and novels, you have had two or three collaborations. How do you find the mechanics of writing with another author? Is it the same each time or is it different? Do you do one chapter and then another or do you work on it together?

Robert Sheckley: As far as the mechanics go, working with other people on received ideas was for me a very interesting technical problem. I can't say that any of my collaborations engaged my heart, but they engaged the craftsman in me. As far as the actual mechanics go, they varied a great deal. The story I did with Harry Harrison had its birth as one little paragraph perhaps fifty words long. I had no contact at all with Harry at the time. I received this from one of Harry's publishers. Since I didn't really know anything about the situation, I took that opening paragraph as the entire problem and with no more data possible. So I just wrote very rapidly what came in my mind. It was my version of an impressionistic painting.

George Mandics: Associations flow...

Robert Sheckley: It was somewhat different with Roger Zelazny. He and I only met once to talk about a possible collaborative project. We agreed on an idea, which was his, and we also agreed very rapidly. He and I got along very well and seemed to understand each other. I am very sad about his loss. What we did then was to heat it all of the plotting on this book. For a month or more he would send me plot outlines and I would ask him questions to clarify things for me. You say this. What does it mean? And when it came time to write, when I felt I understood the story situation, I wrote the entire book. I did a polish on it also and gave it over to Roger and he handled any other problems that came up. He cleared up any discrepancies. If the publisher had any objections, that was his problem, not mine. And this worked well. I wouldn't like to do a chapter, then receive a chapter, and then write another. I think I would find that very slow. I did that only once, when I wrote a long story with Harlan Ellison. We went back and forth. But I was in his house then and we did the story in an intense way.

Jonathan Cowie: A writer's life can be a fairly lonely one in one sense and in terms of the actual business of writing is a solitary affair. How do you relate to other science fiction authors? Do you enjoy meeting them? Do you enjoy conventions? Do you like socialising outside of such functions?

Robert Sheckley: Well, my answer to that would have to be a little complex. I enjoyed all that very much especially in the early days, in my first ten years or so in the field. I pretty much stayed away from organised events though. I was never a fan; I never got into any organisational aspect. I think that was out of fear, as much as anything else. I didn't know how my work came and I was afraid of the perhaps wrong influences. I knew I was doing something right because it was selling so I didn't want to interfere with it.

Jonathan Cowie: In 1978, for instance, you were Guest of Honour at Skycon, the UK National Science Fiction Convention [Eastercon]. How did you find that?

Robert Sheckley: I found that really a marvellous thing. It exists for me now as a bewildering series of things which I can't pin down. But I remember the emotion that I had, which was one of great gratitude. The British audience was very important to me. I have always looked away from American to non-American audiences and so this was important.

Jonathan Cowie: You have been published in many countries and I like to mention it to you now that your book is just coming out today in Romania. Mindswap is being launched today. Which other countries have you published in?

Robert Sheckley: I'm just having a book out now in Italy. I have been publishing a lot in France, Germany, Scandinavia, Holland, Spain. I have been told that I have been pirated in Arabic. I have been published in Japanese also, South America, although they are a little backward in their science fiction. I suppose in most European countries, most recently Russian and Polish.

George Mandics: For me you are an author of great seriousness because you are an ethical author. I think you have put the basic problems of the ethics. I remember one of your short stories of the post-atomic cycle. It is like another Adam and Eve and the question of the eternal sin. It is like going out of Paradise. Do you think that every society must come from a murder? Is society connected to this ethical gesture?

Robert Sheckley: No, I don't. When I work, I like to take many possible views. Ethical and questions of philosophy interest me a great deal. I like to think that I have no single view nor any single situation that I think things arrive from. I try to give examples of what I think are interesting questions for me.

Dorin Davideanu: I checked six volumes of La Grande Antologie de la Science Fiction and you are present in each volume with one or two stories. The French anthology covers quite a number of themes and you are present with a story for every theme.

Robert Sheckley: I am very pleased and perhaps a little surprised also because I don't think one knows the extent of one's own work or the acceptance of it. I think it can be quite impossible to think well of yourself, so I prefer not to think about that too much. But I am very pleased, obviously.

Jonathan Cowie: They say that science fiction is a genre of tomorrow. Perhaps the cliche is that it is the genre 'that boldly goes where no one has been before to explore strange new worlds and meet strange civilisations'. What do you feel about the way science fiction itself is going? You started writing in the 50's. Now that we are looking in the next millennium, what is your view?

Robert Sheckley: I think it is important to understand that any view I take is very limited by own limitations. I have never been a critic of science fiction as a whole. My eyes have always been fixed very much on the page that I am on now and I think something else must be remembered. It's not only science fiction that drives the story, it's also the dynamics of the actual story which I can't say, because it's a series of feelings that I'm getting something right, something is required here, so that there is almost an impersonal structure that guides the story for me and a prediction also. These views are meant more as emotional comments on how I feel at a particular time than actual predictions of how things will go.

Jonathan Cowie: How does the Bob Robert Sheckley of the present - this moment in time - read the pulse of science fiction?

Robert Sheckley: Science fiction is very healthy in its form. I'm not so interested any more in how a great deal of science fiction goes. It goes into things like Star Wars and Star Trek which all go excellent in their own way. They are not what I'm really interested in, although if these things had been possible when I was fourteen I would have thought that a new day had awakened.

Dorin Davideanu: Have you been attracted to create anything new in the new wave or in cyber punk directed?

Robert Sheckley: No, I don't think so. There is a great deal of cyberpunk that I admire, especially the work of William Gibson which I think is excellent. Somehow he speaks from his own heart and cyber punk is what comes out. When I speak from my heart cyber punk doesn't come out.

George Mandics: A great question about ethics. At this moment, it is admitted that Galileo didn't have 'a scene' and he was freed from the anathema. Faith or science? What is the reality? The whole problem of reconstruction of the faith systems is very interesting for a science fiction writer.

Robert Sheckley: Yes. It is very interesting and I don't think there is any final answer. Perhaps underneath everything there are these basic dichotomies between faith and science. But science perhaps is very difficult without faith. Also there is no simple way of saying now we have science, we don't need faith anymore. In fact, we seem to need it more than ever. That is why I am interested in these questions. I am searching for a kind of faith also.

Dorin Davideanu: Do you have preference for antiheroes, for the simple and the weak, the losers?

Robert Sheckley: The anti-hero? C'est moi. I was never able to write seriously about heroes because I was very aware that I was not one and that in my background there was not this heroic thing. So I was never caught up in Celtic or Arthurian fantasies. When I imagined stories of that sort I saw me in them not as a hero but as a peddler maybe selling little notions, thing you can use to make your armour shine better. So that necessarily was my outlook.

Jonathan Cowie: Robert Sheckley, thank you.


Robert Sheckley is the renowned US author of a score of novels from 1958, at least two of which have been turned into films (The 10th Victim and Freejack) and a number of his many his short stories have been collected into over a dozen volumes. He has also done TV series novelizations such as of Babylon V and provided numerous introductions to books and graphic novels such as Aliens vs Predators: War. His collaborations, as mentioned in the interview, include with Harry Harrison Bill The Galactic Hero On The Planet of Bottled Brains (1990). He was the Non-European Guest of the 1st International Week of SF (1999) at which this interview took place and during which the first Romanian edition of his 1966 novel Mindswap [Transfer Mental] was launched. This visit to Romania inspired the short story The Refuge Elsewhere which was subsequently published in Fantasy & Science Fiction (May, 2003, vol 104 no. 5). However it is not known whether Sheckley initially drafted this during the event but he did have the opportunity as he retreated from the Sun to his hotel room for a couple of hours each day. What is known is that copies of this edition were kindly donated by F & SF to participants of the 2nd International Week (2003), a gesture that was greatly appreciated.

Dorin Davideanu is Romanian and the editor of Paradox, the H. G. Wells Society (Timisoara) magazine. He works in Timisoara.

Mandics Gyorgy is a Hungarian mathematician and teacher turned journalist as well as a writer of Forteana and SF whose works have been published in both Hungary and Romania. He has worked in Jimbolia, Timisoara and Budapest and occasionally in more than one at the same time. His science and SF library (of mainly Hungarian, Romanian, English and French works) is almost legendary and strains his flat, garage and parental home. 'George' as he is known to some of us, was a guest of the Anglo-Romanian S & SF Exchange for a two-week visit to the UK in 2000 during which he was invited to the Royal Society, BBC World Service (the Hungarian Unit from which there was a broadcast), the Natural History Museum as well as the NW Kent SF Society (Phoenicians) and the Eastercon.

Jonathan Cowie is an environmental scientist who has worked in a variety of forms of science communication including, for one and a half decades at Great Britain's Institute of Biology, science publishing and communication for British bioscientists liaising with Government and Parliamentarians. He has also encouraged SF as a vehicle for promoting an enthusiasm in science and is an editor of Concatenation.


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