Tag Archives: Robert Sheckley

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

Satirical sci-fi, Sheckley-style

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.

Sheckley gains high status with me

Here’s another “first book I’ve read by this author” situation; and wouldn’t you know it, it turned me into an instant Robert Sheckley fan. Gotta love it when that happens.

The Status Civilization (1960) is yet another utopian/dystopian story, taking on the issues of conformity and societal pressure to subordinate the individual to the group. The novel is somewhat on the quirky side, reading like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. In fact, with a little condensing it would have been perfect for that show. I can almost hear the back cover blurb in the voice of Serling: “This is future Earth — one vast and stratified society that brutally ejects all who fail to conform. And you’ve just entered… ” — you know the rest. There are some farcical elements here, which I normally don’t care for, but Sheckley succeeds brilliantly in presenting some substantial and thoughtful social commentary, and does it with style.

Will Barrent wakes up on a starship with no memory of who he is, or anything else for that matter. He soon learns he’s one of a cargo-load of criminals being dumped on the prison planet Omega (last letter of the Greek alphabet… “end of the line”… nice symbolism). After being told his name and his crime (murder), he is thrust into the chaos of trying to adjust to Omegan society. For on this prison planet there are no cells and no guards (except the guardships in orbit). The criminals are left to govern themselves, and have formed a bizarre society that is at once savage and unpredictable, but also orderly and lawful in its own way. The Omegans revel in their criminality, and have formalized that attitude in their legal and civil structure. One gains status by killing others, but this must be done according to certain complicated rules. And breaking the rules gets you into trouble with the Omegan justice system, consisting of departments such as the Kangaroo Court, the Star Chamber, and such. But even if one is found guilty, the sentence can be avoided if one is creative or brazen enough to find the loopholes, which Barrent seems to be good at.

While explaining the legal system of Omega, Sheckley takes the opportunity for some barbed commentary which could apply just as well to our own world:

Without the law, there could be no privileges for those who made the law; therefore the law was absolutely necessary.

Life has a superficial appearance of normality on Omega, but underneath that everything is utterly backwards. People have their own homes and businesses (common among these are weapon shops, drug emporiums, poison and antidote sellers, assassin’s guilds, and the like). They go to church (although they worship pure Evil). They visit psychologists (to help with problems like not wanting to kill). It’s a very strange world with a strange outlook. The philosophical “problem of Good” cracked me up.

All that may sound entertaining (and it is), but things get more serious when Barrent finds reason to believe he is innocent of the crime he’s here for. Even more, he finds others in the same situation. From what they can piece together from their almost-wiped memories, it seems a good portion of the prisoners on Omega were sent there not for real crimes, but for the offense of nonconformity on Earth — for criticizing the government, for expressing unpopular opinions, for failing to follow the crowd like good sheep. So, a daring plan is formed: when the next prison ship arrives, Barrent sneaks aboard for a ride back to Earth to find out what really happened, and why he was really imprisoned.

Once he gets there, he finds a society on Earth that is every bit as bizarre as that on Omega. This future society has taken conformity to a disgusting and insidious extreme. Disgusting, because the urge to conform is so thorough as to turn people into robots. Insidious, because this society has grown soft and weak, losing touch with its technology, leaving everything automated by machines which continue to enforce the desire for conformity through psychological manipulation of humanity. In this regard the book has parallels with Gunn’s The Joy Makers, published in the same year and one of my favorites; indeed, the two novels seem to me somewhat similar stylistically. (Also, both novels have a similar scene in which the protagonist arrives on Earth and walks across an eerily deserted landing field.)

Barrent finds a history book which attempts to justify the drive to conformity:

The need was dictated by the continued explosive increase in population, and the many problems of unification across national and ethnic lines. Differences in opinion could be deadly […]

That sounds very familiar. In fact, it’s the same reasoning behind the conformist society in Silverberg’s The World Inside, which I recently reviewed.

Barrent finds the information he’s looking for about his past, and in the process encounters one of the best plot twists I’ve ever seen. He then comes to the ironic conclusion that Omega is now a better examplar of individuality and freedom than Earth is, and only a merger of the two societies will save humanity and lead it forward. I like that. Nicely done, Mr. Sheckley!