2.07.2004

What about Bob?

Alright, I'm not going to get all pseudo-academicy on you, but here's the scoop on Sheckley and why you should read his stuff right freakin' now.
I think I'll start with an accepted authority on the matter, John Clute and Peter Nichols' wonderful The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In it Sheckley's stories are described as
unfailingly elegant and literate; their mordant humour and sudden plot reversals separate them from the mass of magazine sf stories of the time, for the wit and surprises usually function to make serious points about the calamitous aspects of life in the later 2oth century. At the same time, RS clearly found it worthwhile during these early years to express the corrosive pessimism of his wit within the storytelling conventions of sf, to dress his nihilism in sheep's clothing.

That's a nice summation of the personal nature and content of the stories, but lacks in that it neglects to illustrate the impact upon the genre at the time. Bob became something of a star writer for Galaxy under Horace Gold, and continued to influence and be influenced by that magazine until just shortly after Gould was oustered. The early period of Sheckley's work, '51 through '60, was filled with acerbic explorations of all the traditional milieus and tropes that persisted in the contemporary magazine sf out of the pulp traditions of the latter two decades. Sheckley obviously thought more of sf than his contemporaries, he continued to write within the genre he continually lampooned, and yet I get a sense that he had more than a passing interest in the potential of the literature as more than escapist fan fodder. Bob's best stories (most of which come from this period) choose a particularly hoary (to Bob) theme and caricaturize it (Absurdism). Bob Sheckley, fully engaged with his subject, is a kid holding a magnifying glass over an ant, the ant being those enduring elements of the genre, the muscle-bound scientist/heroes, the wicked aliens, the helpless, ever virtuous women, that abounded in the science fiction of the early fifties. Bob obviously, on some level, saw the absurdity of the accepted model and he did his part in helping science fiction to move more toward character and idea driven literature, rather than jumped up plot driven stories writers inherited from the 30s pulp tradition. In fact, I’m willing to go out on that limb and say that Bob helped set the stage for Moorcock’s New Wave, in that he pointed out all the things that weakened science fiction that later writers banished from their own writing. That seems like an important contribution to me, and certainly worthy of something more rewarding than the proverbial gold watch that Author Emeritus represents to Bob.
If you’re looking for what I see as the best of Sheckley, try Untouched By Human Hands and Is That What People Do? first. Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is also a treat, though not as deeply motivated as the others. In Bob’s later work, and especially in his longer stuff, there’s a kind of capitulation that is disaffecting and hard to ignore. This is, in the most part I think, due to his incredibly strenuous personal situation, in which he’d bounced from one bad marriage to another, one home to another, and essentially sabotaged himself. Of his longer works, only Dimensions of Miracles hit me as Bob at his best; the other novel length works seem more like a man searching for the spark that fueled what he used to do, rather than what he could be doing now.


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