Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was the first author whom I noticed primarily for his short fiction and throughout his career I found him consistently better at that length than with novels. He had a marvelous sense of humor, some of it quite dark, and several of his stories including "The Gun Without a Bang" and "A Wind Is Rising" are undeniable genre classics. Sheckley's first short story appeared in 1951 and was followed by a flood of consistently good work. He was widely anthologized and published several collections during the 1960s. A handful of the stories were adapted for television and his first novel, Immortality Inc was the basis for the movie Freejack, although the similarities are slight.
Immortality Inc. first appeared in book form in an abridged version as Immortality Delivered in 1958. It was then serialized at full length as Time Killers and later retitled for the 1992 movie tie in as Freejack. The protagonist dies in an automobile accident only to wake up in a new body in the distant future. Blaine discovers that he has been scooped out of time as part of a major advertising campaign, which is so frenetically arranged that no one tells him much of anything about the world into which he has been brought. Then the campaign is cancelled by the company present and Blaine finds himself on the street with no money and no idea at all of how the world of 2110 works. His adventures are often quite funny - an element absent from the film version. For example, all the laundries are run by Martians because Mars was colonized by the Chinese, who adopted the extinct Martian language. Blaine is promptly taken prisoner by criminals who wipe brains so that bodies can be used by transferring other personalities into it. While being held he discovers that there has been absolute proof of an afterlife, although not the one portrayed by any religion. It is now possible, almost routine, to communicate with people who have died. Unfortunately, it turns out that only about one person in a million makes it into the hereafter. Scientists discover a way to increase the odds favorably, but the process is so expensive that only the rich can afford it.
The positive existence of an afterlife causes interesting legal questions. Suicide of the body is now legal because the mind and personality survive. Some people choose to commit suicide by engaging in deadly and quasi-legal hunts to the death, a job which Blaine is forced to take when he cannot find any other method of defending himself. He is also troubled by a message from the afterlife that an insane ghost is after him, as well as an encounter with a zombie - a body usurped by a disembodied personality - which also appears menacing. Various problems ensue and Blaine becomes a fugitive who escapes by means of swapping minds repeatedly with other people, a device Sheckley would use again in the future. Eventually he discovers the truth about himself, that he deliberately killed someone in the accident that started the whole adventure, so he gives his new body to the ghost of the murdered man and goes off into the afterlife. It's an odd novel with an even odder conclusion.
The Status Civilization (1960) was originally serialized under the title Omega. The protagonist awakes aboard a transport ship with no memories of his past. He is one of many prisoners being transported to the planet Omega, which is a penal colony for Earth. He is told that his name is Will Barrent and that he was found guilty of murder. The culture of Omega is designed to be a satirical mirror image of life on Earth. Social advancement comes only through the act of murder. The laws are kept secret so that people will unknowingly violate them and be subject to punishment. Mundane professions like running a grocery or making clothing are considered rather unsavory jobs as opposed to being an assassin, a poisoner, a thief, or some other variety of criminal. There is a very rigid caste system which dictates what clothing and jewelry one wears and everyone is required to be deferential to higher classes. The only established religion is Satanism which strongly resembles Christianity with some of the names swapped around. All drugs are required by law to be addictive. Psychiatrists treat people who have an aversion to killing others, one of whom Barrent consults when he has an induced dream that seems to confirm that he is in fact a murderer. But different people have different memories of a very different Earth and it isn't clear if the dream reflects reality or some kind of induced delusion. Judicial procedures are conducted in secret at the Kangaroo Court. The law recognizes enforced privileges, that is, certain activities are required under penalty of death. On the other hand, the law is designed to reward those who break the law, so long as they can get away with it.
Barrent kills a higher class citizen during his first day, mostly by luck but partly by the intervention of a mysterious woman, and thus rises in the social hierarchy and inherits the dead man's poison antidote business. The woman who helped him disappears, however, and no one will even admit that she existed. In due course, Barrent is arrested for non-addiction because he refuses to take drugs regularly. After conferring with a psychic mutant, Barrent discovers that he did not in fact commit a murder on Earth. His constant flaunting of local customs then puts him further at odds with the government who choose him as one of the quarries in an annual death hunt, which rarely allows survivors. He survives the hunt and the subsequent gladiatorial games, which means that he is beyond the law and subject to the Dark One, supposedly a manifestation of Satan. That turns out to be a ploy of a secret group who wants to smuggle someone back to Earth to foment a revolution, and Barrent is their best candidate. The story deteriorates for the final few chapters. Barrent gets aboard the transport and discovers that there is no crew, although the food dispensers work just fine. He also learns that the guards are not allowed to return to Earth until retirement after twenty years. Upon arriving he discovers that people on Earth no longer understand the technology they use, that they are conditioned from childhood to conform with post-hypnotic suggestions and by other means. Finally he sends a message back to Omega to trigger a rebellion and the hijacking of a starship, and confronts the fact that his own inner turmoil led him to confess for a murder he didn't commit. The satirical elements are very well done. The science and some of the plotting are less successful.
Sheckley's third novel was Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962, serialized in shorter form as The Journey of Joenes). The novel is cast in the form of various legends and accounts of the life of Joenes, who lived in the long ago 21st Century and whose journey became legendary. The documents are flawed by invention and loss of detail, as for example the confusion between a board of trustees at a power company and the Knights of the Round Table. Joenes was raised on a small Tahitian island and didn't leave until after his parents had died and his job went away. Upon arriving in California, Joenes promptly meets Lum, a hippie type, and after partaking of drugs makes the mistake of challenging a police officer and getting himself arrested. The ensuing adventures include an encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and lampoons of churches, education, government, the legal system, business, and many other areas of modern human life. I particularly enjoyed the policy of persecuting people who are paranoid so that they're right and therefore sane. Joenes becomes a college professor, visits a Utopian community, enters government service, survives a world war, and returns to the South Seas. The satire is farcical and toward the end a bit repetitive, but Sheckley wisely kept the novel rather short.
The Tenth Victim (1965) is a bit of an oddity. Sheckley's short story, "The Seventh Victim" was made into a movie – not a very good one – and this is a tie in complete with stills. But the novel is not based on the screenplay, has different characters and situations as well as a completely different tone. The premise is that in the decadent future, it is legal to volunteer for the Hunt, competitions in which players alternate between being hunter and victim in a deadly game of assassination. The novel, like the movie, focuses on one of these conflicts, between a woman seeking her final kill before retirement and a man seeking to survive his own fourth match. Sheckley treats it all with dark humor – such as plans to stage things so that the kill is made by a woman disguised as a nun in the middle of St Peter's in Rome. Ultimately the two fall in love and thwart the rules of their game.
Mindswap (1966) is another satire. The protagonist decides to visit Mars by swapping minds with a Martian. Unfortunately, the being he contracts with is a criminal who has agreed to swap bodies with a dozen people and since at least one of them has an earlier contract, he must find a new body to inhabit or recover his original back on Earth within six hours. Unfortunately, the only detective he can find on Mars has an unbroken record of never solving a case. He swaps into a temporary body on another planet where the two intelligent races hunt each other and claim not to know that they are preying on intelligent beings. Then he ends up in the body of another alien creature who has been marked for assassination. All he has to do is stay alive for two weeks until the threat expires. To complicate matters further, his brain has faced so much strangeness that it begins to interpret anything new in familiar terms, so that he can no longer trust what his senses tell him. This leads to a kind of Graustarkian adventure story with a touch of romance, except that everyone involved has claws. There are a number of very funny passages but the story is a bit too long and anecdotal to be one of Sheckley's better novels.
Sheckley's next novel was Dimension of Miracles (1968), another broad satire. Tom Carmody is startled one day when a bizarre man materializes in his home claiming that Carmody has won the galactic sweepstakes. He unwisely believes that there is no obligation on his part other than to travel to the galactic center to claim his prize, but when he arrives, he is immediately taken prisoner, which turns out to be a bureaucratic error. After receiving his prize, Carmody discovers that he was chosen by error and that another Carmody should have won, but after a deliciously inane argument about the nature and purpose of error, he decides to keep it anyway. At that point he knows nothing about the nature of the prize, a small box, but the prize speaks to him and has its own agenda. None of this makes any sense, of course, and as in the Doctor Who series, everyone seems to speak English fluently. Since no one knows how to return him to Earth, they send Carmody to a planet populated by a single entity which created races from its own flesh to build a civilization similar to that of Earth, while worshipping itself. Sheckley frequently pokes fun at organized religion and in this case religious philosophers. Being god is "a job for a simple minded egomaniac."
The planetary intelligence tells Carmody that since the laws of predation require it, a creature exists which is attempting to hunt him down and kill him. From there he visits a planet builder, and the sequence that follows clearly anticipates Douglas Adams' Slartibartfast. While waiting for the builder to construct a machine that will take him back home, he is nearly caught by the predecessor, which transforms itself into the semblance of a ship from Earth as well as its crew. Sheckley satirizes the medical profession and organized religion throughout this sequence. Carmody then returns to Earth, except that he is displaced as time as well as being on an alternate version of his homeworld. After a brief interlude with talking dinosaurs, he is transported to another alternate Earth where he discusses the nature of art with a sentient but not very bright city which overprotects its citizens. Then he is transported to a world where everyone talks in advertising slogans. Ultimately he returns to Earth, but realizes that Earth is no better than any of the odd and dangerous places he has already visited. The humor is dark, the satire cutting, and the concept of the personal predator is fascinating.
Options (1975) is another spoof. Tom Mishkin's spaceship malfunctions so he sets down on an uninhabited (supposedly) world where a parts depot has been stashed. The computer in charge advises him that the necessary part is at another location which he will have to reach by surface travel, but since the planet is dangerous, he is accompanied by a robot programmed to help protect humans from anything dangerous. Unfortunately the robot was programmed for the wrong planet. Equally unfortunately, Mishkin has ingested a drug which makes him hallucinate. They proceed to meet a number of creatures, many of them intelligent, all of whom for some reason speak English, and talk, run, or fight their way out of trouble. None of the encounters are particularly memorable and all are quite short. And the whole thing might just be the daydream of a bored but imaginative child. Very minor.
Crompton Divided (1978) is another forgettable spoof. Alastair Crompton became schizophrenic as a child so his personality was split into three components, two of which are housed in artificial bodies and sent off to other planets. Crompton begins to feel incomplete and decides to go on a quest to reintegrate himself despite the advice of doctors. He is essentially without much emotion, his first splinter is libertine, and his third an amoral killer. Naturally he has a number of diverse adventures along the way, discovers that one of his alternates does not want to reintegrate and that the other has himself been split into two. There are some obvious jokes along the way, most of them farcical, and a couple of mildly interesting aliens, but like most of his other novels, this one is episodic, repetitive, and often silly.
Dramocles (1983) is also a spoof. Dramocles is king of the planet Glorm, which lives in peace with its neighbor worlds until he receives a cryptic message from his younger self insisting that he must fulfill his destiny. This seems to consist of conquering his peaceful neighbors through treachery, much to the horror of their respective rulers and members of his own family. There is a cute section where some of the minor characters are aware that they are characters in a story and attempt to increase their importance to the plot, but most of the rest is just whimsical nonsense. This might have been a cute short story but as a novel it begins to fray early on and never pulls itself back together despite a few genuinely funny moments.
Victim Prime (1987) was the first of two sequels to The Tenth Victim. There are some inconsistencies with the first book. North America and perhaps the world has suffered an economic and environmental collapse. Communities are largely isolated from the outside world. The Hunt is legal only on one island in the Caribbean where volunteers can participate in deadly duels which, we are told by the satiric introduction, have proven to be a relatively civilized alternative to war. Harold is a simple but ruthless man from up state New York who decides to travel to that island and make his fortune by killing a stranger. The story starts off fairly seriously with Harold's adventures but soon shows signs of Sheckley's penchant for broadly farcical satire. Despite the central plot, the novel is very episodic, a reflection of the author's obvious greater ease with short stories. Our hero eventually gets into the Hunt, is grandly successful, and the story just sort of peters out after that. Hunter/Victim (1987), the third book about the Hunt, might have been Sheckley's first entirely serious novel, but after a few chapters he couldn't resist some satire. It takes place early in the development of the Hunt, while it's still illegal. The protagonist becomes embittered after terrorists kill his wife, so he is a welcome recruit for an organization which secretly hunts down criminals whom the law has been unable to touch. There's a good deal about the underground, but most of it becomes farcical. There is a good deal of action but it's impossible to take any of it seriously.
Harry Harrison wrote several sequels to his Bill, the Galactic Hero, each in collaboration with another writer. Sheckley was co-author of Bill, the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Bottled Brains (1990). Unfortunately, this demonstrates none of the virtues of either writer. It's a rather silly farce whose occasional attempts at satire are inane rather than biting. It opens with Bill having a new foot grown from a bud, except that it turns out to be a reptile's foot rather than a human one. Eventually he gets assigned to investigate a mystery planet, which is looking for fresh bottles into which to install disembodied brains. Naturally Bill seems like an ideal recipient. None of the books in this series are more than mildly interesting and Sheckley's contribution, whatever it might have been, did not make this one an exception. Minotaur Maze (1990) is a short fantasy novel, and another spoof. This novella mixes SF and fantasy tropes with reckless abandon and is roughly parallel to the legend of Theseus. It mixes anachronisms with futuristic concepts and exists only for its jokes, with only the faintest trace of a plot.
Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming (1991) is a collaboration with Roger Zelazny. It has a strong and more coherent plot, which I' m inclined to attribute to Zelazny. Azzie is a demon who is temporarily reassigned to Earth where he gets into trouble involving a precocious young girl who traps him and a demonic poker game, which tempts him. He is inspired to press his idea for an entry into a contest between Good and Evil in which he will create a new Prince Charming and his Princess, give them free will, but act behind the scenes to produce a less pleasing outcome. He gets the go ahead from the top demons to proceed, although there are certain practical matters like a shortage of castles to hamper his progress. Naturally his plans go awry and good triumphs in the end, sort of, after a series of humorous encounters. Other than a couple of sidetrips that felt like filler, this was a well organized and generally quite funny romp much less prone to slapstick than Sheckley's earlier novels. Zelazny and Sheckley teamed up again with If At Faust You Don't Succeed (1993). It's a sequel, set a thousand years later, when good and evil have another contest. This time they are betting upon the decisions Johann Faust will make in five scenarios from different eras in time. The plan hatched by Mephistopheles goes awry early on when he propositions a burglar rather than Faust, mistaking one for the other. The burglar decides he might be able to make a fortune by playing along. Faust discovers what is going on and chases them through this world and others, determined to take his rightful place. But is this just a gigantic error or has the Archangel Michael maneuvered his opponent into a fatal error?
The Laertian Gamble (1995) is a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tie-in. A woman from a little known world comes to the station intending to gamble and she hires Bashir to be her agent since her telepathic ability disqualifies her. Bashir begins to win steadily, essentially bankrupting Quark in short order. A warship from her planet arrives to enforce its own gambling rules, which are that no party can stop gambling until completely bankrupt, and since their own law also states that any resident is part owner of his or her residence, then Quark must gamble away the entire Deep Space Nine space station even if Federation law contradicts it. The commander is prepared to destroy the station if it resists. Meanwhile there's an odd energy anomaly on the station and unpredictable disasters begin to occur inside the Federation. I'm actually a bit surprised that the editors allowed Sheckley to get away with this as it is obviously a spoof. There's no explanation for why Sisko doesn't call for help, or how the Laertians could get away with overriding the laws of other civilizations in the past, or why Bashir wouldn't smell a rat when he wins every bet, or many other plot holes. The plot grows steadily more absurd until the day is saved, by a deus ex machina, another alien with extraordinary powers. Minor, even for a Trek novel.
The third and final collaboration with Roger Zelazny was A Farce to Be Reckoned With (1995). Azzie the demon is back with a new plan. Morality plays have become all the rage in Europe so he decides to organize a rival one based on immorality. The forces of good, naturally, decide to derail his plans. Their efforts at sabotage include introducing anachronistic characters from other eras and general mayhem, and things go from bad - literally - to completely random. Azzie's final plan comes to just as ignoble an end as his previous efforts. The tone is the same as with the first two books in the series, although perhaps slightly darker, but the jokes are occasionally repetitious and this is without doubt the weakest in the trilogy, though still better than the majority of humorous fantasy.
Sheckley's next two novels were both tie-ins, Alien Harvest (1994) and A Call to Arms (1995). The first is based on the Dark Horse comics extrapolation of the Aliens movies. Earth is recovering from an infestation that almost destroyed the planet. A scientist with terminal cancer teams up with a professional thief in an effort to salvage a shipload of royal jelly taken from aliens which the latter believes is wrecked on an uncharted world. Unfortunately, there is another ship there, commanded by a ruthless killer who wants the cargo for himself. Predictable consequences follow, enlivened by the fact that the scientist has built a mechanical alien with artificial intelligence. The second book is set in the Babylon 5 universe. The Shadow War is over but the Drakh still have visions of interstellar consequence and they are secretly planning an attack on Earth itself. Several people have prophetic dreams warning them of what is coming and John Sheridan has to go into action again. Both are serious throughout, which is not Sheckley's usual style, but they are also both quite minor.
Sheckley's last fantasy novel was Godshome (1999), which is one of his better efforts. It's a humorous fantasy in which a man facing financial ruin discovers a spell that takes him to the rest home of the gods, where he recruits the forgotten god Leafie to help him out. Naturally there are consequences. Leafie moves into our hero's house, and invites in a handful of friends, disreputable gods whose powers on Earth have been curtailed for centuries. This coterie of gods wants to create a new pantheon and a new religion, and they have plans for the human race as well. Pandemonium ensues until they are finally outsmarted and the status quo returns to normal. This would have been a very funny novelette, but it runs on rather too long, a common failing in Sheckley novels, and the jokes lose their punch the second and third time around.
Sheckley also wrote several novels in other genres as well. Perhaps the best known of these are the five Stephen Dain adventures, which took advantage of the fad for espionage that followed a rise in popularity of the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. The first of these was Calibre .50 (1961). It opens with the hijacking of a shipment of what is suppose to be crated agricultural equipment. The company appoints an internal investigator named Thornton, through whose eyes we see most of the action. He gets a tip about where the stolen merchandise is being held in a warehouse and walks into an apparent trap, only to be rescued by Dain, for whom he fortunately left a note. In short order, Thornton discovers that he is a person of interest in the case as well, since someone tried to kill the person who tipped him off - an undercover agent - and he had some peripheral but totally innocent involvement with gunrunners in the past. Dain clearly believes him innocent, but is keeping an eye on him anyway. The undercover agent, a woman from the country to which the stolen goods - actually weapons - are intended to be shipped distrusts him. There are also rival arms dealers, one of whom thinks that Thornton is behind the theft, and threatens him if he doesn't turn over the cargo. The action takes them to an island in the Caribbean for an exciting finish. It's a very effective thriller and one wonders if Sheckley's penchant for satire might have made him miss his calling.
The second Stephen Dain novel was Dead Run (1961) and it is also excellent. The theft by Russian agents of secret NATO documents in England goes awry when a small time thief impulsively grabs the briefcase containing them and runs off. Agents from both sides try to track him down in a search that goes from England to France to Austria. Dain is more or less in charge of the US effort, although he has some minor trouble with an impatient local intelligence chief, and he is also trying to protect an American tourist who was the only witness able to identify the thief. We don't see a lot of Dain this time either. In fact, a good deal of the story is told from the point of view of the thief, who is presented as a sympathetic character down on his luck and desperate to find a way out of the trap his life has turned into. But selling secrets turns out to be a lot more difficult and dangerous than he expected. Oddly, Dain is the least developed of the characters in this short but surprisingly complex adventure story. There's also an exciting climax with a sports car battling a tank that would be great on a movie screen.
Live Gold (1962) was the next in the series. This time Dain is after a slave trader who recruits people from remote villages in North Africa for trips to Mecca, then arranges for them to be declared illegal aliens in Saudi Arabia and remanded to his custody. Since slavery was legal at the time Sheckley set this, the deluded pilgrims are then sold to the highest bidder. Once again we see little directly of Dain because we only know that he is one of the seven European men accompanying the latest batch across North Africa. The slaver, along with a Greek informer, are sure that one of them is Dain in disguise, but they are frustrated in their efforts to unmask him. We the readers know no better. When they finally strike and murder one of the men, it is not Dain at all but a South African detective following one of the remaining six, who stole diamonds and is attempting to escape retribution. There is also a rival slave trader whose enmity complicates matters further. We don't find out which one is Dain until the book is nearly done, and at least part of the climax is offstage as well. A bit more sedate than the first two and not quite as gripping, but still a very fine thriller.
Next up was White Death (1963). This time Dain teams up with an Iranian with convoluted motives to track down what appears to be a drug distribution operation working out of somewhere on the Iranian/Afghan border. They join forces with a raiding party from one tribe and are able to destroy a heroine processing plant high in the mountains, but not before the latest shipment is carried off by another tribe. Dain wants to stop the shipment and determine the new delivery route, so they set out in pursuit, but after a pitched battle and other delays, they learn that they are too late to prevent the transfer to a group of Arab couriers. The chase continues over a dangerous desert and another gun battle takes place before the Arabs appear to have escaped once again. Although this one is also pretty good, it is marred by a weak ending, with Dain rescued after he falls into a trap. Even the rescue is rather artlessly contrived.
The last Stephen Dain adventure was Time Limit (1967). This time he's doing some investigative work for a rebel group trying to decide on the timing for an attempted break with the Iraqi government. What should have been a quick, routine reconnaissance goes awry when he is betrayed, arrested, rescued, pursued, and realizes that he doesn't know who can be trusted and who cannot. Most of the novel is an extended chase across a desert, which ultimately ends with Dain and his companions either dead or captured. Inexplicably his captors release him finally and in time for him to deliver his message that the rebellion has been anticipated and will provide the Iraqis with an excuse to slaughter the rebels. He also figures out that the leaders of that group never meant for him to succeed, that they always knew things would go badly, but that this was the only way for them to hang onto their leadership positions. There are some other surprises, most of them similarly depressing. Another good Dain story, but unfortunately the last.
The Man in the Water (1961) is another suspense novel, but bears no other resemblance to the Dain series. Dennison is a sailor stranded on St. Thomas island, hoping for a crew opening on some passing vessel. His past and present include moments of rage and violence. Although he thinks of himself as a good man down on his luck, he is actually a malcontent on the verge of a major breakdown. Much of the story consists of flashbacks to Dennison's earlier adventures in Asia and the South Pacific, none of which make us like him any better. Eventually he finds a birth with Captain James, the two of them to travel up to New York City where Dennison hopes to borrow money from his sister. James is an experienced roughneck himself but the two men seem to be compatible. Tensions rise between the two men, particularly when Dennison finds out that James has a large amount of cash with him. He fantasizes about losing the captain overboard, or perhaps even pushing him off the boat. Eventually he acts but James is able to cling to the boat, moving to another spot whenever Dennison comes after him with a boathook. The second half of the book consists of their duel, and Dennison's ultimate defeat and death. The action comes too late, however, and since we don't like either man, the outcome is not emotionally satisfying.
The Game of X (1966) is another spy novel, but it's a gentle spoof rather than a serious story. William Nye agrees to pose as a courier in a trap designed to capture a foreign agent in France. The process succeeds and the agent is led to believe that Nye is actually the mysterious Agent X. This should have been the end of it, but later the spy offers to defect on condition that Agent X handle things, so Nye finds himself posing once again. This time, however, the other side has more competent agents, although they also are taken in by the illusion that he is a superspy. Nye is twice captured by the enemy and twice escapes, still without disabusing them of the notion that he is competent at his job. Complication piles upon complication and Nye considers running for his life, but never quite takes that step. In fact, he rises to the occasion and after saving the day, his handlers aren't so certain that he isn't in fact a spy who managed to fool even them. As good as the Dain novels, if not entirely plausible.
Sheckley was writing a conventional detective series at the time of his death. The three published titles were Draconian New York (1996), The Alternative Detective (1993), and Soma Blues (1998). Hob Draconian is an ex-hippie working - occasionally - as a private investigator living in Spain. When he discovers that he needs a large sum of money to pay off his mortgage quickly or face the loss of his home there, he goes to New York looking for a quick, profitable job, as well as finalizing his divorce from the troublesome Mylar. He takes a job escorting a model to France, gets involved with a drug smuggling ring, has various adventures, and survives to come back in the second book. The second title, first in the series, has an even more desperate and harassed Draconian investigating missing surfboards, the disappearance of an old friend, and another bunch of drug dealers. The third and least interesting also involves drugs, plus a hit and run accident that might have been murder. All three are competent and readable but none of them have the excitement of the Stephen Dain novels or the humor of his better SF.
Sheckley's first short story collection was Untouched by Human Hands (1954). As with the novels, most of these have humorous elements, but it is more controlled and less inclined to slapstick. In "The Monsters" humans land on a planet whose sluglike residents routinely kill one another and who decide that humans aren't moral beings because they don't. "Cost of Living" is a mild satire about consumerism. "The Altar" is a cute fantasy about a man who gets curious about a supposed local cult and eventually finds himself cast as their sacrifice. "Shape" has shapechanging aliens invading Earth and discovering that they're happier assuming the forms of various Earth animals, a freedom which is denied them within their own culture. It's one of the best in the collection. "The Impacted Man" is also very good. A man finds himself caught in a strange time warp that is sensitive to his elevation above the ground. "Untouched by Human Hands" is a problem story about two stranded spacemen trying to find something to eat in an alien warehouse, but the humor is forced and silly. "The King's Wishes" is a minor fantasy about a kind of genie who is stealing from a contemporary appliance store to provide luxuries for a king of doomed Atlantis. In "Warm" a man begins to perceive reality as a single, formless series of patterns rather than a physical location. "The Demons" is another minor fantasy about a human conjured by a demon. "Specialist" concerns a starship composed of specialized aliens who need to replace one member of their crew with an Earthman. There's no real point to the ending. "The Seventh Victim" was the basis of the movie and later novel, The Tenth Victim. The short is better than either of the longer forms. The last two, "Ritual" and "Beside Still Waters" are very minor, one about aliens welcoming human visitors with an elaborate ritual and the other about an old man and his robot companion aging and dying on a converted planetoid. Although lightweight overall, it was a nice selection of Sheckley's short fiction.
Citizen in Space (1955) is a very similar collection. It opens with "The Mountain Without a Name". Rapacious humans are about to ruthlessly exploit a new world when a series of accidents interferes disastrously, at the end of which we discover that all human occupied planets are undergoing similar crises because the universe has gotten tired of our thoughtlessness. "The Accountant" is about a child who refuses to be a wizard because he wants to be an accountant. "Hunting Problem" is cute. A shapechanging alien child stalks three human explorers in order to get a pelt, and ends up with one of their jumpsuits. "A Thief in Time" is a cute but nonsensical story about a man chased through time because of crimes he hasn't yet committed. "The Luckiest Man in the World" is a vignette about a man rhapsodizing about the marvels of technology, gradually revealing that he's the last man left alive after an apocalypse. "Hands Off" is a pretty good bit about human criminals trying to steal an alien starship and running into technical problems. You have to be careful what you wish for in "Something for Nothing." A machine from the future gives a present day man everything he wants, but then presents the bill. In "A Ticket for Tranai" a naive Earthman moves to a planet rumored to be Utopian, only to discover that robbery is legal - hence no crime, married women are kept in suspended animation most of the time, and other things that discourage him from staying. In "The Battle" humans use robots to battle the forces of Satan and when they win, God elevates them to Heaven instead of the human race. A peaceful human colony out of contact with the rest of humanity forgets how to commit violence or crime in the implausible "Skulking Permit." The title story is a very minor satire on Cold war mentalities. "Ask a Foolish Question" is about the ultimate computer which has answers to every question, but cannot be useful because no one knows how to ask the right questions. Not quite as good as the first collection but a close second.
Sheckley moved from Ballantine to Bantam for his next few collections, starting with Pilgrimage to Earth (1957). The title story is a rather minor piece about a colonist who travels to the homeworld which he believes to be the only place where true love can be found, only to discover that love is an artificial construct. "All the Things You Are" is a first contact story that suggests that humans are going to be offensive no matter how careful they are. "Trap" is an implausible story about an alien who uses a matter transmitter to dispose of his wife. In "The Body" a scientist's mind is transplanted into a dog's body, but there's almost no plot. "Early Model" is a very good story, however, and one of several in which Sheckley suggests that advanced technology isn't always a blessing. In this one, a space explorer is wearing a protective suit which he cannot take off during a field test on an alien world whose residents decide that he is a demon. The suit does indeed protect him from physical attack, but some of the side effects might kill him just as efficiently. "Disposal Service" is a non-fantastic story about a man who turns down a professional murder service only to find that his wife employed them. "Human Man's Burden" is a silly and rather chauvinistic story about a planetoid farmer who gets an unexpected mail order bride. "Fear in the Night" is a mild little suspense story about an angry husband who causes his wife to have bad dreams. "Bad Medicine" involves a psychopath who submits to robotic therapy, but the machine is set for a Martian mind. "Protection" is one of Sheckley's best stories. A human accepts prescient warnings of danger from an invisible alien entity, unaware that this will make him potential prey for other alien entities, particularly if he lesnerizes. Unfortunately, he doesn't know what the word means so he sneezes and dies. "Earth, Air, Fire, and Water" is another story about an advanced spacesuit that doesn't work as well as expected. "Deadhead" is a rather bad story about a man who teleports to Mars. "The Academy" is a satire about conformity and the expanding definition of mental illness. "Milk Run" is an amusing variation of the space voyage where everything goes wrong with the cargo story and "The Lifeboat Mutiny" returns to the theme of technology run amuck, this time a sentient lifeboat that overrides the wishes of its occupants. Despite a few good stories, this was generally inferior to his first two collections.
His next collection was Store of Infinity (1960), a much better selection. The opening story, "The Prize of Peril," is one of his best known. The protagonist participates in a life action reality show in which he is hunted through a city by a team of killers while all the action is monitored by television crews and broadcast life. This anticipated a number of other SF stories with similar themes, including most recently the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. "The Humours" (aka "Join Now") is a novelette which was expanded later into Crompton Divided. "Triplication" is a set of three unrelated vignettes, essentially elaborate jokes. The premise of "The Minimum Man" is that explorers of potential colony worlds should be incompetent to prove that a colony has a chance to succeed. This rather shaky core idea results in an amusing story that doesn't bear close examination of how the actual plot elements work. "If the Red Slayer" is a minor story about soldiers being revived from the dead to fight again. :The Store of the Worlds" is a nice gimmick story about a method of temporarily visiting an alternate world. "The Gun Without a Bang" is a great story about the dangers of advanced technology. A man with a disintegrator gun not only discovers that its silence means that wild animals aren't afraid of it, but also discovers that the indiscriminate destruction endangers himself as well. In "The Deaths of Ben Baxter" time travelers try to change the course of history in three parallel but very different worlds, only to run into problems in each case. The rationale for all of this is pretty hokey but the story is amusing nonetheless. The general quality is much higher than in his previous collections.
Notions: Unlimited (1960) is also a superior selection. "Gray Flannel Armor" is a satire of computerized dating services and the death of romance. "The Leech" is a kind of monster story. A spore from space that can consume and convert any mass or energy into its own body endangers the Earth, is lured into space, but unwisely shattered creating billions of clones of itself. "Watchbird" is another caution against technology. Flying machines that can sense and prevent murder are supposed to eliminate violent crime, but their definition of murder expands to include any taking of another life, even swatting a fly. "A Wind Is Rising" is one of my favorites,. Two men stationed on a windblown planet discover that hurricane forces are just a light breeze there. "Morning After" is about a man who thinks he's having a drug induced hallucination but he has actually been transported to Venus and set down in a jungle. Probably the weakest story in the book. "The Native Problem" is another amusing but implausible story about a lone earthman on a remote planet who cannot convince a group of colonists that he is not a native. "Feeding Time" is a very short fantasy about a man who realizes that since he is a virgin, he's the proper food for a gryphon. Space explorers find a depopulated planet in "Paradise II" and run into trouble with an automated space station that uses them as a matrix for food production. A plan to defraud a time travel insurance company goes awry in Double Indemnity." "Holdout" is a minor piece about racism in the distant future, which doesn't understand racism in the present. In "Dawn Invader" a human mentally invades an alien's body, only to discover he is not the first. "The Language of Love" is a precise formulation of emotions which unfortunately make human emotions seem trite.
Shards of Space (1962) opens with "Prospector's Special." A prospector in the desert of Venus refuses to turn back even when he runs out of water, overcomes various problems, strikes it rich, but has to thwart a bureaucracy in order to survive. "The Girls and Nugent Miller" is a rather depressing post apocalyptic story in which a lone male survivor casts aside his pacifism when he encounters some uncooperative female survivors. "Meeting of the Minds" pits a handful of men on an island against an alien creature that can control the minds of all living things. It's the best story in the book. "Potential" is a completely implausible story about a man who stores four billion human personalities in his mind when the sun is about to go nova. "Fool's Mate" is a good one. Two rival space fleets refuse to engage because their computers tell them that whoever attacks will lose, until one man turns off the computers and launches a random attack that completely perplexes the enemy. "Subsistence Level" is a mildly amusing satire about a future in which the concept of a rough life has changed dramatically. "The Slow Season" is a very minor vignette about a tailor who takes a job involving the supernatural. "Alone at Last" is another gimmick story about a man seeking complete privacy. Multiple discoverers of immortality are imprisoned by a secret cabal in "Forever", another minor piece. "The Sweeper of Loray" is an implausible spoof of racism and alien biology. "The Special Exhibit" is non-fantastic, a murder plot involving a museum exhibit. This collection seems to have been drawn from Sheckley's 1950s work not selected for the earlier anthologies and it consists primarily of minor work.
Next came The People Trap (1968), which was also drawn largely from stories published during the 1950s. The title story involves an overpopulated future and a dangerous race through an anarchistic Manhattan to claim title to an entire acre of land. "The Victim from Space" is a first contact story with an alien race that believes a painful, lingering death is the greatest thing one can achieve. A human space explorer is outwitted by aliens who invent a language on the fly in " Shall We Have a Little Talk?" There are more space travelers in "Restricted Area", this time on an enigmatic planet which turns out to be a windup toy - literally. "The Odor of Thought" is an interesting puzzle story about a man stranded on a planet where the local wildlife hunts telepathically. "The Necessary Thing" is a clever problem story involving AAA Interplanetary Decontamination service about a machine that will create anything you want, but only once for each object. The same characters buy an alien machine that produces a worthless stream of material and which they can't turn off in "The Laxian Key". "Redfern's Labyrinth: is a non-fantastic vignette about a man who may or may not have been hoaxed. "Proof of the Pudding" is a very minor last man on Earth story. Three prospectors fight and die over a cache of lost Martian technology in "The Last Weapon." "Fishing Season" is an excellent though obvious piece about humans disappearing, thanks to a fisherman from another reality. "Dreamworld" is a very minor story about a man who determines that reality is mutable. "Diplomatic Immunity" is a problem story involving an apparently invulnerable ambassador from an aggressive alien race. The last story is "Ghost V," another AAA Decontamination story. Our two heroes deal with a planet whose atmosphere creates deadly monsters from the id. Overall, a pretty good collection.
Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? was published in 1971 and contains what were then Sheckley's more recent short stories, which tended to be even more satiric than his earlier work. The title story involves a self aware futuristic vacuum cleaner that falls in love with a human woman. The hero of "Cordle to Onion to Carrot" discovers the liberating feeling of being a bully rather than being bullied. "The Petrified World" is a cute piece about a man living in what we would consider the dreamworld who has nightmares of a reality where everything's nature is fixed. "Game: First Schematic" is a very short piece about a public gaming event that isn't entirely comprehensible. A scientist tries unsuccessfully to breed an animal which can prey on humans in the rather dark "Doctor Zombie and His Little Furry Friends." "The Cruel Equations" pits a man against a robot guardian who takes everything literally. "The Same to You Doubled" is a not particularly clever deal with the devil story. "Starting from Scratch" is a trivial bit about worlds within worlds. "The Mnemone" is a short version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. After an apocalypse, a few people have memorized books. "Tripout" is a rather silly story about an alien visiting Earth. "Notes on Perception of Imaginary Differences" is a vignette about the difficulty distinguishing between people. "Down the Digestive Tract" is another story in which we think humans are hallucinating that they have different body types, but it's actually the human form that is the hallucination. "Pas de Tros of the Chef, the Waiter, and the Customer" tells a mundane story from three different perspectives. "Aspects of Langranak" is a boring but brief piece about a man on an alien planet. In "Plague Circuit" time travelers from the future sow plagues in the past to keep the population down. And finally there is "Tailpipe to Disaster", a minor tale of space soldiers bonding. All in all, a rather minor selection.
The stories in The Wonderful Worlds of Robert Sheckley (1979) were all drawn from earlier collections, so the next title of interest was The Robot Who Looked Like Me (1982). In the title story, a harried man in a near future world employs a humanoid robot to impersonate himself during a courtship, only to discover that the woman he is courting has also used a robot stand in. "Slaves of Time" is a convoluted time travel story about a man warned by a later version of himself that the time machine discovery will be used for evil purposes, but he invents one anyway. "Voice" is a trivial piece about a man listening to his inner voice. "A Supplicant in Space" is an average first contact story, but "Zin Left Unguarded, the Jenghic Palace in Flames, John Westerley Dead" is a brief, minor spoof of genre SF. "Sneak Previews" is better, a very short tale about efforts to use computers to predict the outcome of marriages. "Welcome to the Standard Nightmare" is also a first contact story. A peaceful race recognizes the aggressiveness of humans so it appoints a human as supreme leader, and he promptly sets out to conquer Earth. "End City" is another semi-surrealistic vignette. "The Never-Ending Western Movie" is the best in the collection. A perpetual western is enacted in the desert, with real bullets and real deaths. In "What is Life?" a man hears a mysterious voice asking that question and discovers he is helping with a cosmic crossword puzzle. "I See a Man Sitting on a Chair and the Chair Is Biting His Leg" is also quite good. After the next war, humans are dependent upon a mutated ocean goo as their primary source of food. A harvester is infected by the goo and becomes irresistible to women, and then to inanimate objects. A bit silly but cute. "Is That What People Do?" is a fantasy about magical binoculars. "Silversmith Wishes" is a variation of the three wishes fairy tale. Despite a few good stories, this was a pretty weak book.
In 1991, Pulphouse published the five volume The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley, but with the exception of volume five, the stories were all drawn from previous collections and dozens of other short stories remained, and remain today, uncollected. About half of the stories in the fifth volume are not mentioned above. The first of the new titles is "Meanwhile Back at the Bromide", which actually consists of three short spoofs of trite story plots. "Five Minutes Early" is a vignette of a man whose soul is harvest five minutes early. A woman uses a man's obsession with the occult to win his favor in "Miss Mouse and the Fourth Dimension." "The Helping Hand" is a vignette in which a woman murders her husband before he can kill himself. Most of the stories in this collection are in fact very short spoofs of various subjects, the end of the world in "The Last Days of (Parallel?) Earth," sexual repression in "The Future Lost," homicidal children in "The Swamp," participatory television in "The Life of Anyone", and marriage counseling in " Goodbye Forever to Mr. Pain." "The Shaggy Average American Man Story" stands out a bit. A man who is the perfect statistical average discovers that he is the standard by which many women want to gauge their sexual satisfaction. "Shootout in the Toyshop" is an odd little story about advanced toys that come to life. "The Universal Karmic Clearing House" suggests that luck might be bankable currency. "Sarkanger" brings back AAA Decontamination, but it's a rather silly one about a planet exterminating troublesome lifeforms. "At the Conference of the Birds" is even sillier; humans open communications with birds. A man unwisely makes lover to an alien in "Love Song from the Stars." Humans learn the downside of appealing to the gods in "Divine Intervention" and "The Destruction of Atlantis" is a minor parable about the effects of anomalous events at crucial moments. "The Eye of Reality" is a pointless vignette. "There Will Be No War After This One" is an overly long satire on the innate shortcomings of fascism and other right wing passions. "Wormworld" is told from the point of view of a telepathic intelligent worm living inside a planet with no conception of an external reality. "Robotvendor Rex" is another story about a human trying to get a robot to act outside its programming. The last two stories, "Message from Hell" and "Dial a Death" are minor pieces about life after death.
Dimensions of Sheckley and The Masque of Manana are both omnibus collections so the final book of note is Uncanny Tales (2003). "A Trick Worth Two of That" is as close as Sheckley got to real horror, a traveler in Transylvania who is possessed by the atmosphere of the place. "Mind Slaves of Manituri" is a gentle spoof of B movies, an asteroid terraformed by enslaving the minds of others. "Pandora's Box - Open With Care" presents problems on a planet where elemental spirits exist. A psychologist is given the gift of communication by a demon in "The Dream of Misunderstanding." Another man can create inanimate objects through magic in "Magic, Maples, and Maryanne." "The New Horla" suggests that the creature from the de Maupassant story might have been benevolent. "The City of the Dead" deals with out of body experiences and goes on far too long. "The Quijote Robot" is an amusing but slight retelling of part of the Cervantes classic in a fantasy setting. The "Emissary from a Green and Yellow World" comes to warn Earth that the sun is about to explode, and discovers that humans are the only intelligent but irrational race in the universe. "Deep Blue Sleep" mixes virtual reality within dreamworlds. In "The Day the Aliens Came" a writer sells a story to an alien visitor, with unexpected consequences. "Dukakis and the Aliens" is an alternate history story in which President Dukakis discovers that aliens have contacted our government. Worlds exist within mirrors in "Mirror Games" and "Sightseeing 2179" is a vignette about a man dying in Venice in the future. The final story, "Agamemnon's Run," is an interesting story in which people from the future re-enact events from ancient history. Generally a weak collection though none of the stories are actually bad.
The Perfect Woman and Other Stories (2011) is largely a cross collection but has a few uncollected stories as well. "Final Examination" is from Imagination magazine in 1952. A telepathic announcement that humanity is about to be judged eventually causes an atomic war that wipes out the human race. Not very good. "Warrior Race" also appeared in 1952, in Galaxy. It's a problem story about dealing with an alien race whose idea of warfare is mass suicide. "The Perfect Woman," from Fifty Short Science Fiction Stories edited by Isaac Asimov & Groff Conklin, is a vignette about men buying robot wives because they are more amenable. "Writing Class" is a dreadful joke story in which we discover that describing aliens is nonfiction rather than fiction. "We Are Alone" was reprinted in Escape to Earth, edited by Ivan Howard. It's a first contact story in which telepathic aliens flee from human explorers because of the terrors that exist in our subconscious minds. "What a Man Believes" is another minor piece about an encounter with an up to date devil. In "What Goes Up" a man is stranded on a planet ruled by statistics. Earthmen have to contend with telepathic invaders in "Hour of Battle."
There is a great deal of uncollected Sheckley fiction so the titles mentioned below should not be considered exhaustive. Several stories from 1950s magazines remain unreprinted. "Operating Instructions" from Astounding is a very minor piece about the best way to treat psi powered individuals aboard a spaceship. Quite a few of Sheckley's stories from this period centered on psi powers. "Wild Talents, Inc." is a good story from Fantastic about the problems of dealing with a man with remote viewing ability who is interested in people's sex lives. A bureaucrat goes native on a world where everyone despises everyone else in "Conquerors' Planet" from Fantastic Universe. "Carrier" first appeared in If. In a future where almost everyone has powers like teleportation and levitation, the last disease on Earth is one that robs people of their powers. This is one of Sheckley's longest stories and it's surprising that he didn't include it in any of his collections. "The Hungry," from Fantastic, is a very short tale of a child who can see an invisible creature that feeds on anger.
"Time Check for Control" appeared in Climax, not an SF magazine. A history professor has to guard a scientist working on a defense against aliens who can seize control of human minds. Not very good. "Spacement in the Dark," from the same source, is quite good. A chance meteor strike leaves the crew of a spaceship with no interior lights, and the tension builds when they discover they cannot fix it. "Off Limits Planet" in Imagination suggests that only bipedal intelligent races have wars. "Minority Group" (Fantastic Universe) satirizes the idea that we can hate other groups and still be the good guy. "Warrior's Return" (Galaxy) is another psi story. A man with extraordinary powers virtually wins a war singlehandedly, but is troubled by the fact that everyone wants him to perform personal miracles for them. Very weak ending. AAA Decontamination is back in "Squirrel Cage" (Galaxy). It's another humorous adventure this time involving a plague of invisible rats. "The Mob" (Infinity) is a joke story about a mob convinced that a computer is evil until they are talked out of it, and we realize they were right in the first place. AAA Decontamination returns yet again in "The Skag Castle" (Fantastic Universe), a minor story about a possible ghost in a building left by a long vanished race. "The Martyr" (Galaxy) has a man going insane from fear even though he is immortal and invulnerable. "The Machine" (Fantastic Universe) deals with a machine that decides it doesn't want to be owned. In "Accept No Substitutes" (Infinity) a man purchasing a surrogate sex partner inadvertently ends up with one designed for an alien race.
Sheckley continued to produce short fiction throughout his career. "In a Street of Dreams" (in The City 2000 AD) a man moves to a new city where an artificial intelligence monitors every aspect of human life. "In a Land of Clear Colors" (New Constellations, 1976) is a novelet in which mixes an alien culture with Buddhist philosophy. More to come...