I’ve said several times on this blog that I’m not the biggest fan of short stories, but I do read some every now and then. This time around it was Robert Sheckley’s 1968 collection The People Trap, an assortment of “pitfalls, snares, devices, delusions, sniggles, and contrivances.” And that sums it up pretty well. These stories are full of humor, outright comedy in fact, but always with an undertone of seriousness as Mr. Satire himself picks on the faults and foibles of we silly humans.
And let there be no doubt that humanity is the object of these jabs and gibes, no matter if a story overtly involves aliens or not. For even the aliens are mirrors reflecting ourselves. In one story an alien race is described thus:
The inhabitants of the city were bipedal monocephaloids. They had the appropriate number of fingers, noses, eyes, ears, and mouths. Their skin was a flesh-colored beige, their lips were a faded red, their hair was black, brown, or red.
Yeah…. there’s something tantalizingly familiar about those aliens, don’t you think?
Most of these stories are set in a future in which Earth is a mover and shaker, and humanity is expanding, out there exploring other worlds to see what they can take for themselves. Aliens are treated much as indigenous peoples the world over were treated in the age of European colonization centuries ago, viewed as obstacles to progress and primitive natives to be exploited. As one explorer puts it:
Remember Jackson’s Law: all intelligent life forms share the divine faculty of gullibility; which means that the triple tongued Thung of Orangus V can be conned out of his skin just as Joe Doakes of St. Paul.
Some of the stories were just a little too cute for my taste. However, I knew what I was getting into with Sheckley, so I can’t say I was disappointed. Many of the stories were merely “ok,” a few were very good, but there were no really bad ones. So overall, I’d call that a fairy successful short story collection. I won’t go into great detail, but some of my favorites were:
“The People Trap.” A deliciously funny look at overpopulation. In the “Jungle Cities” of a densely crowded future Earth, people are subjected to aerosol tranquilizers, anti-shock injections, and Muzak to help them deal with the stress of the crowds. And the most popular form of entertainment is a dangerous race through the city, with the competitors desperately seeking the prize of a small parcel of land.
“Shall We Have A Little Talk?” Agents from Earth routinely visit new worlds and start buying up land, in order to provide a foothold for eventual takeover of the planet. But one agent finds his plans foiled when he can’t even communicate with the natives, who have a unique defense mechanism: accelerated language change. Their language changes so fast, no outsider can learn it!
“Fishing Season.” As people start disappearing mysteriously in the neighborhood, one man begins to suspect the truth after talking to his father-in-law, a man single-mindedly devoted to fishing. When it appears the old man’s fishing philosophy resembles the mysterious events going on, it starts to appear there is some higher power fishing for people.
“Dreamworld.” A man has a recurring nightmare, and tells his psychologist he thinks the nightmare is becoming real, while the real world is becoming a dream. All the while, he seems to be having all kinds of weird hallucinations: things randomly changing shape, time speeding up or slowing down, etc. In the end, our perspective suddenly shifts when the man wakes up one day and his nightmare world has become real — and his nightmare world is our “real” world! And his hallucinations were no such thing, but part of his original “real” world!
There’s also a series of three stories about two partners who run a small company and are always looking for an easy way to get rich, and finding themselves facing unexpected consequences instead.
This is one of the better story collections I’ve read. Check it out if you like your science fiction served up with a big side order of satire.