The Short Version: Twenty-six short stories by “the creator of dystopian worlds and alternative universes”, blending sci-fi, morality, and humor is a way that would later inspire writers like Douglas Adams and Jonathan Lethem.
The Review: I vaguely remember reading a handful of these stories as a very young man, in the second floor office at my grandmother’s house – the room where all of the books were, the books my two uncles hadn’t taken with them into their lives. And my there were a lot of them. I still have some of them – the rare editions of Tolkien, mostly. Anyway, that house and that room are long gone to the mists of time – but Sheckley has been… rediscovered? by the fine people at NYRB.
It’s really a shame that Sheckley isn’t more famous. He should be, that’s for damn sure. His stories, most of them here from the 50s and 60s, are so prescient it’s scary. In some ways, he just imagines the stories we love now long before anyone was clamoring for them: a Hunger Games-esque mashup with Escape From New York, a human race who can invade people’s minds and dreams, numerous Earths that have become overpopulated and undernourished. Of course, he’s also got the morality thing happening: he’s talking about things that we’re only now starting to really take seriously, but he’s talking about them half a century ago. Most of the planetary explorers in these stories are doing so because Earth has become (or is close to becoming) uninhabitable. Even throwaway lines about an Alpine Bronx have got to flag a few warning markers, although that (like The Day After Tomorrow) is probably a bit much, thank you.
Still, I can’t get over how remarkable it is that this guy is so unknown considering you can trace just about every smart-ass sci-fi trope to these stories. He’s as funny as Douglas Adams and as socially aware as Asimov & Frank Herbert. It’s quite something. The story that sticks in my mind is “Watchbird” – which is also one of the few I remember from my youth. A semi-sentient robot is created to stop murder before it happens (coughcoughMinorityReportcough) and it’s also programmed to learn. Not surprisingly, it quickly comes to ‘learn’ that murder is actually all around – it’s just murder that we have to do to survive as a planet. You can’t kill a bug, let alone a cow or pig. You can’t cut the grass, let alone operate on a patient – even to save their life. And the whole time, there was one scientist who raised objections and was shouted down and is proven correct… but it’s a lesson no one learns.
I mean, that story is engrained in our culture now. Someone says Skynet and we all just cross our fingers and thank our stars that it didn’t in fact become self-aware last year. But also, that’s not a fear out of the realm of possibility. Also not out of the realm of possibility? Mankind belligerently taking to the stars, as they do in so many of these stories, and setting out to dominate the galaxy and beyond. Reading this book on the week the remaining Space Shuttles were so dramatically (and beautifully) flown to their final resting places, I was saddened to think that it’s unlikely we’ll truly go back to the stars in my lifetime… but also, I’m secretly rather glad. Because I believe these stories are an accurate reflection of what it would be like – and it’s bad enough that the rest of the world looks at Americans as obnoxious assholes. I’d rather not have the whole galaxy – the whole universe – the whole multiverse thinking that humanity, in general, is a bunch of obnoxious assholes. Because we all are. But anyway, I digress.
One of the most interesting things in this collection is probably the fact that a few of the stories don’t quite fit in. “Cordle to Onion to Carrot”, for example, has (apparently) the presence of a god at the outset but I actually somewhat doubt that. The story feels like that of a guy coming off of an acid trip who believes he’s seen a god but really was just floundering on the couch in someone’s basement. There’s a pessimism, too, to many of the stories that is then offset by a few genuinely happy stories. Most of them feel snarky, but then a few feel totally earnest. This is kind of lovely, if I may say so. It makes the collection feel fluid and like a full-on retrospective instead of an examination of one specific thing. So many collections – even in the art world – are too narrowly focused. This, on the other hand, is certainly for sci-fi readers – but it has a breadth and depth that surpass that narrow definition.
Rating: 5 out of 5. An excellent introduction to one of, if not the, fathers of modern science fiction. Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich (two excellent writers in their own right) do well by their forefather in their curation of this exhibit. It’s not just a collection of sci-fi short stories: it’s an examination of how we’re becoming exactly what our forefathers we afraid we might. As Jon Stewart recently said, “how often does the news in 2012 sound like you expected the news to sound in 2012?” Reading this collection made me realize the answer to that question is: “far more often than you’d think.”