Altered at "The Altar" of Robert Sheckley

Bob Urell asked me what my favorite Sheckley story was. I wrote back, "Surely, ye jest!" There is no such thing. That's like asking, "What's the possibility of impossibility?" or "What's your favorite Jelly Belly... if they finally perfected every single flavor possible?" or "How many stars are in the sky, on a cloudless night, without pollution... or atmosphere, and with a perfect vision that can detect the least quantum packet of energy emnating from a speck in space once every 100 billion years?" Yes, the question is that absurd. There is only my favorite Sheckley story for this time of the day/month/season/life/mood.

That said, I am more than willing to share one of innummerable stories of Sheckley that I am inordinately fond of.

You've read him, too, haven't you?

You'd know. At least if you read one of his collections, you'd find you've been led down street after street you thought you knew--only the directions have been changed. Things you thought were the same have been twisted around. This is not the town you thought you lived in.

And yet it is. He is. Sheckley is the town you live in. You no longer live in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvannia but Sheckley, PA--no longer Eugene, OR but Sheckley, OR.

One Sheckley story is not enough to change your world. You must read at least a collection. And then he becomes yours. You own him. And he you. You possess him, horde him as a troll madly desires the billy goat gruff that passes over his bridge. You read his collections until the covers fall off and weep tears of sad joy. And you will find the only responsible thing for any human being still having the least faculty of sense is to sign Bob Urell's petition for making Robert Sheckley Grand Master, which he already is in all but name. It's just a terribly small gesture of your support for the meaning he's added to your life.

When I stop to think about it too seriously, I do get a little (if you'll pardon the sentimentality)... a little, well, let's just say I can't put it into words without a hanky. I'd read Sheckley stories before, but only read them as a group last year when I most needed the light of a little humor about and enlightenment of humanity. Here's as an overly simplistic guide to the periods of Sheckley--they're all Sheckley but variations on his many aspects:

50s (wit master)
60s (extension of the fifties but focused on books and other genres like spy thrillers)
late 60s-late 70s (experimental)
late 70s-late 80s (wit with Twilight Zonish aspects--darker, more )
late 80s-mid 90s (colloborations, media novels)
mid 90s to present (Sheckley reborn! The Phoenix arises from the ashes of media tie-ins)


"The Altar" can be misread. One misreading is the kind of Twilight Zone that you watch but leave with little more than being entertained by a twist. Another misreading is to take it as disparaging toward other cultures. These misreadings are due to carelessness. The difference is only the fraction of a second it takes to pick up what each clue is really telling us about our world. Moreover, all science fiction at its best unveils the history of all humanity. And few have the humanity that Sheckley has for humanity. But, as I've said, you have to read more than a handful of random stories.

Not one of our ancestral lineages can claim a purity of humane humanity. At some point in our past we've dipped into the belief that the harvest will be bountiful if we sacrifice this young girl, that we will become stronger if we eat our enemy. It is only slowly, slowly that we've learned to turn our backs on our more loathesome pasts....

Or have we?

How distant is our past? Could uncivility come to even our own small town where we know every inhabitant by name? Wouldn't the mayor know it if we were invaded by darker elements of our past?

Mr. Slater of North Ambrose thought so until his "pleasure to be alive, a joy to be commuting" was interrupted by his encounter with the strange man in the light blue topcoat.

Soon the preoccupation of these encounters makes him late for and distracted at work. There's only on thing for it....


Sometimes I wonder: Might I not have been a smarter, wiser man had I read Sheckley en masse at an earlier age? Might I not have avoided the Temple of Dark Mysteries of Isis?

And you: did you know that they've set up a Temple of Dark Mysteries of Isis in your neighborhood? Do you know what paths that man might lead you down? Do you know which man is the man in the light blue topcoat? He might have changed coats between now and then.

(To learn more about Robert Sheckley, visit this webpage--always under reconstruction.)

(To sign the petition for asking SFWA to recognize Robert Sheckley as the Grand Master he is, visit this webpage.)

discuss this post at our messageboard