A master of satirical science fiction
By Michael Dirda,
Let’s say you are a devoted fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, love the sardonic comeuppance stories of John Collier and Roald Dahl, own all of Edward Gorey’s little albums and enjoy watching reruns of “The Twilight Zone.” Where else can you find similar instances of sly, macabre wit, of such black-humored, gin-and-tonic fizziness in storytelling?
The answer may be unexpected: among the many masters of satirical science fiction and fantasy. Robert Sheckley — to whom we’ll turn in a moment — is certainly a leading example, but there are others: Avram Davidson, for one, and William Tenn and John Sladek. For example, in Sladek’s “Tik-Tok” — something of an homage to the English cult movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets” — the courteous robot-protagonist starts his steady climb to wealth, social success and a shot at the presidency by not only murdering a little girl but blithely getting away with it. And not just any little girl. A blind little girl.
Something similar occurs at the beginning of Sheckley’s “The Monsters,” one of the stories in “Store of the Worlds.” The opening scene brilliantly exemplifies Sheckley’s understated, dryly humorous voice, while also providing a writing-class lesson in how to surprise and hook a reader:
“Cordovir 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.
“ ‘It’s balancing on the fire,’ Hum said. ‘That should be apparent even to your old eyes.’
“Cordovir lifted himself higher on his thick tail, to get a better look. The object settled to the ground and the fire stopped.
“ ‘Shall we go down and have a closer look?’ Hum asked.
“ ‘All right. I think we have time — wait! What day is this?’
“Hum calculated silently, then said, ‘The fifth day of Luggat.’
“ ‘Damn,’ Cordovir said. ‘I have to go home and kill my wife.’
“ ‘It’s a few hours before sunset,’ Hum said. ‘I think you have time to do both.’
“Cordovir wasn’t sure. ‘I’d hate to be late.’
“ ‘Well then. You know how fast I am,’ Hum said. ‘If it gets late, I’ll hurry back and kill her myself. How about that?’
“ ‘That’s very decent of you.’ Cordovir thanked the younger man and together they slithered down the steep mountainside.”
Back in the 18th century there was a vogue for satirical stories in which Persians or Noble Savages visited Europe, only to make one faux pas after another, often while being sickened by the barbarity and repulsiveness of Western ways. “The Monsters” is this kind of story, but Sheckley works a number of variations on the template of a naif in a strange land.
In “Shape,” for instance, 20 successive expeditions have failed to set up the simple transporter device that will open the Earth to invasion by the Glom. What has stopped the aliens? In “The Store of the Worlds,” Mr. Wayne gives everything he has, including 10 years of his life, for something most of us would never think of buying — until we read the last lines of the story. In “The Accountant,” a little boy in a family of witches and warlocks won’t study his sorcery and insists on becoming an accountant. His parents are at wit’s end; they’ve scrimped and saved to send him to the best schools in demonic studies. The kid is breaking his father’s heart, so dad summons up the Demon of Children to “persuade” junior to walk the satanic straight and narrow. It goes without saying that the boy proves more than a match for the Evil One.
If Sheckley is known beyond the confines of science fiction, it is probably for “Seventh Victim,” made into a 1965 movie called “The 10th Victim” (and still fondly remembered for Ursula Andress’s bullet-shooting bra). In a future society, war has been eliminated, but man’s killer instincts remain. So some outlet for his aggression must be found. The outlet is a game, of sorts, overseen by the Emotional Catharsis Board. In it, people alternate being hunters and victims, the object being to kill — or be killed. A hunter knows the name of his victim, but the victim doesn’t know the identity of his hunter. What happens, though, when you’re Stanton Frelaine and the person you’ve been assigned to murder is Janet-Marie Patzig, a beautiful young woman with whom you find yourself falling in love?
The 1950s were Sheckley’s heyday, when he graced Galaxy magazine and revealed, again and again, that the 25th century was a lot like consumerist, postwar America. Stories about aliens often turned out to be about — happy coincidence — alienation, or they explored questions of identity and quiet desperation. In his later years, however, Sheckley fell into a serious writer’s block. To get started writing again, he tried everything, even elaborate plot diagrams. As he recalled in a typically tongue-in-cheek essay:
“Working with diagrams is fun. First I made mine with an ordinary fountain pen. Then I switched to colored Pentels. For greater efficiency, I worked out a set of color-coded symbols which was well worth the time it took. I also experimented with different modes of lettering to improve clarity. My diagrams grew larger and more complex, whereupon I switched to larger sheets of paper. After that, I got into colored inks. The commercial brands weren’t quite right, so I began to mix my own.”
And on and on, ever more hilariously.
That memoir-essay was reprinted in a hefty 1984 collection called “Is That What People Do? The Selected Stories of Robert Sheckley.” Sadly, that sturdy hardback is out of print, but this attractive paperback provides a welcome substitute. You’ll find Sheckley’s most famous stories in either volume. To the New York Review of Books edition, Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem also provide an enthusiastic, if somewhat overwritten introduction: “Sheckley’s little sculptures in syntax emanate a magnetism that still rewards curiosity.” No doubt.
In the end, what really matters is that stories like “Pilgrimage to Earth” — a deliciously cynical take on romantic love — are once again available: “Alfred Simon was born on Kazanga IV, a small agricultural planet near Arcturus, and there he drove a combine through the wheat fields, and in the long hushed evenings listened to the recorded love songs of Earth. . . .”
The young farmer eventually travels to Earth, which turns out to be a huckster’s paradise, reminiscent of Times Square at its seediest, and there he finds the very woman of his dreams. Poor Alfred Simon.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
STORE OF THE WORLDS The Stories of Robert Sheckley Edited by Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem NYRB Classics. 396 pp. Paperback, $17.95