Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley, edited by Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem

Chances are good that you’re not familiar with Robert Sheckley.  Don’t feel bad—I wasn’t familiar with him either until less than a year ago, when New York Review Books (that great bastion of unjustly forgotten writers and works) released Store of the Worlds, an collection of his short stories.  Sheckley was a mainstay of science fiction anthology magazines in their heyday—Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Omni, Weird Tales, et cetera—although he also published in “higher-class” magazine as well (Esquire, Playboy, Semiotext(e), even Cosmopolitan).  And yet today—less than ten years after his death—he is practically forgotten, with almost all of his work out of print.  And that’s terrible.

It’s immediately clear from the first story that editors Alex Abramovich (journalist and editor) and Jonathan Lethem (genre-defying fiction writer and essayist) have selected for the collection that Sheckley was a great talent.  “The Monsters” (first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in March of 1953) is a short, darkly funny tale of a planet’s natives dealing with invaders from outer space.  (If you have guessed that the invaders come from Earth…well, yeah.)  It’s followed by twenty-five other stories, ranging from twists on time travel (“Double Indemnity”) to philosophy (“Warm”) to overcrowding (“The Human Trap”) to linguistics (“Shall We Have a Little Talk?”).  (The stories in this volume, incidentally, represent not even a tenth of Sheckley’s output of short fiction between 1952 and his death in 2005.  The man was prolific.)

But the stories that really stand out are the one that have a more human focus.  Which doesn’t mean they’re not funny: “The Language of Love,” in which a man ventures to a far-off planet where love was transformed into a science so that he can learn how to truly express himself, is probably the funniest selection in the book (and the one that most earns Sheckley the comparison to Douglas Adams that the New York Times once bestowed on him, although Adams reportedly declared Sheckley the superior writer).  But these are the stories where the satire is deepest and truest and where the characters are most real.  These also include “Cordle to Onion to Carrot” (the least SF-ish of the stories, in which a man gets stoned and learns the virtues of being a jerk), “Holdout” (a trenchantly weird take on racism), and the title story.  The collection closes with the odd and deeply moving “Beside Still Waters,” an early, appropriately funereal story about the friendship between an asteroid prospector and the personality he’s programmed into a robot companion.

That Store of the Worlds is almost the only book of Sheckley’s work that is readily available (of the three-hundred-some-odd short stories and essays and more than thirty novels, there’s also a collection of novels  and one of short stories, both published by the New England Science Fiction Association) is a terrible pity.  His stories are certain to appeal to anyone who likes Bradbury or Vonnegut (or, yes, Douglas Adams), and probably quite a few people who aren’t fans of science fiction in the first place.

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