Authors: Robert Sheckley
Tags: #Science Fiction
ROBERT SHECKLEY (1928â2005) was born in New York City and raised in Maplewood, New Jersey. He joined the army shortly after high school and served in Korea from 1946 to 1948. Returning to New York, Sheckley completed a BA degree at New York University and later took a job in an aircraft factory, leaving as soon as he was able to support himself by selling short stories. In the 1950s and '60s his stories appeared regularly in science-fiction magazines, especially
, as well as in
. In addition to the science fiction for which he is best known, Sheckley also wrote suspense and mystery stories and television screenplays; from 1979 to 1982 he was the fiction editor of
magazine. Sheckley traveled widely, settling for stretches of time in Greenwich Village, Ibiza, London, and Portland, Oregon. Many of Sheckley's more than fifteen novels and roughly four hundred short stories have been translated and four have been adapted for film. In 2001 he was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
ALEX ABRAMOVICH has been an editor of
Very Short List
and a writer for
The New York Times, The London Review of Books
, and other publications. He lives in Oakland, California, and Astoria, Queens.
JONATHAN LETHEM is the author of eight novels, including
Girl in Landscape
, and five collections of stories and essays, including
The Ecstasy of Influence
(2011). He has previously written the introductions for the NYRB Classics editions of
A Meaningful Life
by L.J. Davis and
On the Yard
by Malcolm Braly. He teaches at Pomona College and lives in Los Angeles and Maine.
STORE OF THE WORLDS
The Stories of
Edited and with an introduction by
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
annals, in the rare moments they're kind enough to glance at a few of the millions of stories and novels racing away in the rearview mirror, tend to blur context. This is largely a blessing. In advocating for a forgotten or neglected writer, best simply to raise the curtain and say: This is worth your time. For instance, these stories; Robert Sheckley's little sculptures in syntax emanate a magnetism that still rewards curiosity. They stand up. You ought to read them. Yet once on board, a reader may wonder: Who wrote this stuff? What makes these stories so completely the way they are, instead of some other way?
Ask about the life of Robert Sheckley, and you'll find out he came from somewhere and ended up in a few other places; he lived among human beings and loved and hated more than a few; he practiced a difficult trade, with difficulty; he attempted things he wasn't quite able to do, and mastered some other things not quite worth doing. The personal details are particular, and par for the course. Sheckley also, along the way, wrote more than his share of stories that refuse to go out of your mind once you've allowed them to enter. By “refuse to go out of your mind” we mean in the sense of Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” or Kurt Vonnegut's “Harrison Bergeron” or George Saunders's “Pastoralia” or John Cheever's “The Swimmer” or Ray Bradbury's “The Veldt” or Bernard Malamud's “The Jewbird.” That is to say, specifically in the sense of stories standing outside “the realist tradition,” and which seem to form a tradition of their own, however difficult to define except in words charting this distance from the familiarâ“surrealist,” “antirealist,” “fabulist”âand which contain little descriptive power of their own.
Sheckley's stories operate as irresistible language artifacts, like extended puns or paradoxes: off-kilter, provocative, unsettling even if partly silly. They're like psychedelic lamps that cast an eerie light in one room where they're encountered, but then turn out to transform one's view of all subsequent rooms. These are the kind of stories which, if young or otherwise inattentive at first encounter, you may forget the titles and the author's name, only to rediscover them in some anthology many years later, with a sense of recognition akin to discovering someone else recounting a dream that you yourself once had.
By “more than his share” we want to suggest that Sheckley wrote not just two or three unforgettable things but eight or nine or possibly twelve; more, even, than some of the above-named authors, though they are famous in a way he is not and will likely never be. Sheckley was unforgettable often enough to inspire memorable arguments about which stories, exactly, are his best. These arguments we found ourselves extending, rather than settling, until this inspired us to settle them in a capacious table of contents, one which also satisfies our growing sense that to read Sheckley was to want to read more Sheckley, and that the stories thrived in one another's company.
So our curtain's raised. Yet, though it is impossible not to want to argue that Sheckley's best rise above it, the context for his efforts is awfully particular. The American science-fiction pulp-digest format at mid-century, when Sheckley began publishing stories there, in magazines like
Astounding, Amazing, Infinity, If, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, and above all,
, formed a vibrant and diverse alternate literary reality, one bounded from the realms of literary respectability. Within it, excellence was rewarded; Sheckley, only a decade after his first stories' appearance, was widely understood as a paragon and exemplar. (In that parallel critical realm, Sheckley was often described as “the best of the
writers,” to an audience for whom that was real and telling praiseâsurely an illustration of just how parallel a critical realm can be.) The elegant urbanity of Sheckley's stories meant he was soon also published in
, and elsewhere outside the strict limits of the “SF field,” but there can be no question that the development of his career, and his art, took place inside, not outside, that sphere of activity. Nor that it was mostlyâor completelyâignored elsewhere.
This matters not because of some general principle that such boundaries should be broken down (in retrospect, any such sentiments are useless) but because, in 1953, the SF field was something more than a social formation or a loose bundle of tropes; it was a kind of argument conducted in collective-imaginative space about what kinds of fictional responses to the twentieth century, with its velocity of wonders and horrors, were possible, or appropriate. Sheckley's brilliant stories entered into the thick of this argument and became essential to it. Some of their lasting vitality is traceable to this dynamic, even when that framework is obscured. To those only superficially familiar with the history of American SF, Sheckley may appear to write in lonely skepticism against what are often presented as its technocratic rationalism and optimism. That form of skepticism, however, was by the time of Sheckley's appearance already a valued part of the field. Sheckley's sardonic outcry, his characteristic toneâsatire riding an undertow of despairâextended from the morbid and agonistic strains in earlier SF writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Henry Kuttner, and C.M. Kornbluth. The lineage is what made his work legible in the field, and what allowed it to embolden the SF writers who came after, like Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and J.G. Ballard.
Sheckley's stories are anchored in another context, too: the explosion, in the 1950s, of American consumer culture, with its devilish mix of seductive freedoms and injunctions to conformity. As much as the Beats, and the “sick” comedians like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, or other artists then fitfully finding voice in terms that anticipated the countercultural '60s, Sheckley railed against the cloistering assumptions of his time. And yet, as with John Cheever and Richard Yates, the iconography of '50s cultureâcommuter businessmen, suburban housewives, the quicksand enticements of middle-class splendorâwere imprinted so deeply in Sheckley's work that he continued to write from inside them, and against them, long after the historical moment had passed.
Our selection of Sheckley's representative best centers in the 1950s, with just a scattering of stories from subsequent decades. Like the painter Giorgio de Chirico, Sheckley had a period of greatness defined specifically by the application of a formal pressure against the chaos of an instinctive surrealism. In Sheckley's case, the forms were the motifs of '50s science fiction: the tales of first contact with aliens; the meticulous exposÃ©s of alienation and spectatorship in a burgeoning media culture; the
âstyle allegories and inversions employed to destabilize the apparent normality of waking life. When in his later stories Sheckley was driven to shake off these generic materials, the results, while often verbally astonishing, suffer from the loss of the structural elegance that makes the earlier work perfect stories of their type.
In an introduction to a gathering of his “greatest hits” that was published in 1979 (one with plenty of overlap with our own selection), Sheckley wrote:
From this position, these stories from a vanished age appear to me safe; acceptable; commodities sanctioned by their own continued existence, and given a mysterious and no doubt spurious air of rightness by the processes of time. Yet when I wrote them, each story involved me in a dangerous movement into an unfamiliar situation, and each story initiated a process in which a concept, itself sometimes barely visible, was to be freighted with words, and perhaps sunk by them.
I have nothing to say about the stories themselves. To talk about them I would have to reread them, and I went through entirely enough hell writing them ever to want to look at them again. Anyhow, a glance at the contents page brings them all back to me, as well as the dingy rooms in crumbling brownstones in New York where I wrote most of them ...
That's the sound of Robert Sheckley, morose comedian, raining on his own parade. We wish he could be around to rain on this one.
and Hum stood on the rocky mountaintop, watching the new thing happen. Both felt rather good about it. It was undoubtedly the newest thing that had happened for some time.
“By the way the sunlight glints from it,” Hum said, “I'd say it is made of metal.”
“I'll accept that,” Cordovir said. “But what holds it up in the air?”
They both stared intently down to the valley where the new thing was happening. A pointed object was hovering over the ground. From one end of it poured a substance resembling fire.