The Robert Sheckley Tontine

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Mindswap by Robert SheckleyMonday, my buddy Mike and I were going up and down the isles of the science fiction section at Barnes & Noble looking to see if our old favorites were on the shelves. There were a few books each for Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, the Big Three SF writers of our childhood. But for many of the classic SF authors that we fondly remembered, none of their books were available. The last writer I looked up was Robert Sheckley. No luck. It’s sad to think modern readers won’t be discovering Mindswap or Untouched by Human Hands.

Generally, when science fiction fans today think of comedy SF they think Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But before Douglas Adams, there was Robert Sheckley. I worry that the number of Robert Sheckley fans is growing quite small.  Sure, a few new readers discover him, but that’s offset by older fans dying at a much quicker pace. The memory of his stories are like a tontine, and one day his last reader will be the only person on Earth to remember Marvin Flynn and The Theory of Searches, or any of the other wonderfully weird tales Sheckley wrote.

Much of Sheckley’s work has been reprinted in ebook editions and some of them have even gotten the audiobook treatment. Here’s the thing about books in general – most will be forgotten. Very few books are remembered over the long haul of time. I hate that. Of course, if we spent all our time cherishing old writers we’d have no time for new writers. Who are the new absurd comedy writers of SF today? Who follows in the footsteps of Robert Sheckley and Douglas Adams? I’d like to read them. I’m all for progress and time marching on, but I hate to see books I loved being forgotten. So I’ll just mention a few Sheckley titles to try.

My favorite Sheckley novels are Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. Even though these works are still in copyright, you can hear them on YouTube. I recommend you buy them from Audible or if you prefer reading with your eyes get the Kindle editions at Amazon. But for now you can give them a test spin via YouTube:

Actually describing Sheckley is hard, so I’m glad these audiobooks are on YouTube to do that work for me.

And here’s The Dimension of Miracles with a wonderful introduction by Neil Gaiman. It’s well worth listening to his introduction – I might not convince you to read Sheckley but Gaiman might.

Sheckley was a very prolific short story writer, and reading his collections captures the essence of science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Sheckley explored every science fictional concept through an absurd lens of humor, often giving insights into human nature that serious science fiction failed to find. Only one of his collection, Untouched by Human Hands is available on audio. Listen to the first story, “The Monsters” on YouTube and if you like it go buy the whole collection at Audible. The story is about first-contact from an alien’s POV. There are 13 unique tales here that should tickle your funny bone and impress your intellect. Sheckley constantly reminds us we see reality with a too narrow perspective.

Like I said, many of Sheckley’s novels and collections are available as ebooks, and they are reasonably priced. Just for my own fun, I’m going to include covers I first saw half a century ago that make me feel nostalgic for his books today.

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley

Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley

Journey Beyond Tomorrow by Robert Sheckley

Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley

Notions Unlimited by Robert Sheckley

Shards of Space

Probably one old guy’s nostalgia isn’t enough to inspire new readers. I love that Philip K. Dick’s short stories are being produced as Electric Dreams, a video anthology for Amazon Prime. Sheckley’s short stories deserve that same kind of treatment, and that might resurrect his work. When Mike and I were checking the shelves at Barnes & Noble we found quite a lot of PKD titles. Back in the 1960s, I loved PKD but I never would have imagined he would be the science fiction writer of our generation to be remembered.

Young people who have discovered old reruns of The Twilight Zone or love the new anthology show Black Mirror should try reading science fiction short stories from the 1950s and 1960s. Back then science fiction stories had a lighter touch than they do today, more focused on far-out ideas and less on being literary.

Here is one example of a Sheckley story that’s always stuck with me. Sunday I tracked it down. It’s called “The Language of Love” and is in the collection Notions: Unlimited, about a young man, Jeffrey Toms, who meets a girl, Doris, and falls in love. She wants him to tell her he loves her. He wants to tell her. But he wants to express his feelings precisely, and fears using the word love is imprecise. He says people say they love pork chops, how can he use the same word for his feelings for her? So he learns about a dead race of aliens across the galaxy that had specialized in the language of love. Jeff travels to their world and finds an old scientist there, George Varis, who had studied this alien culture and Jeff spends months learning the language of love. Here’s what happens when he returns to Doris:

“Oh, Jeff,” she said, very softly. “Oh, Jeff.”

Toms simply stared, unable to say a word.

“It’s been so long, Jeff, and I kept wondering if it was all worth it. Now I know.”


“Yes, my darling! I waited for you! I’d wait a hundred years, or a thousand! I love you, Jeff!”

She was in his arms.

“Now tell me, Jeff,” she said. “Tell me!”

And Toms looked at her, and felt, and sensed, searched his classifications, selected his modifiers, checked and double-checked. And after much searching, and careful selection, and absolute certainty, and allowing for his present state of mind, and not forgetting to take into account climatic conditions, phases of the Moon, wind speed and direction, Sunspots, and other phenomena which have their due effect upon love, he said:

“My dear, I am rather fond of you.”

“Jeff! Surely you can say more than that! The Language of Love—”

“The Language is damnably precise,” Toms said wretchedly. “I’m sorry, but the phrase, ‘I am rather fond of you’ expresses precisely what I feel.”

“Oh, Jeff!”

“Yes,” he mumbled.

“Oh damn you, Jeff!”

There was, of course, a painful scene and a very painful separation. Toms took to traveling.

He held jobs here and there, working as a riveter at Saturn-Lockheed, a wiper on the Helg-Vinosce Trader, a farmer for a while on a kibbutz on Israel IV. He bummed around the Inner Dalmian System for several years, living mostly on handouts. Then, at Novilocessile, he met a pleasant brown-haired girl, courted her and, in due course, married her and set up housekeeping.

Their friends say that the Tomses are tolerably happy, although their home makes most people uncomfortable. It is a pleasant enough place, but the rushing red river nearby makes people edgy. And who can get used to vermilion trees, and orange-and-blue grass, and moaning flowers, and three wrinkled moons playing tag in the alien sky?

Toms likes it, though, and Mrs. Toms is, if nothing else, a flexible young lady.

Toms wrote a letter to his philosophy professor on Earth, saying that he had solved the problem of the demise of the Tyanian race, at least to his own satisfaction. The trouble with scholarly research, he wrote, is the inhibiting effect it has upon action. The Tyanians, he was convinced, had been so preoccupied with the science of love, after a while they just didn’t get around to making any.

And eventually he sent a short postcard to George Varris. He simply said that he was married, having succeeded in finding a girl for whom he felt “quite a substantial liking.”

“Lucky devil,” Varris growled, after reading the card. “‘Vaguely enjoyable’ was the best I could ever find.”

I hope whoever will be Robert Sheckley’s last reader hasn’t been born yet. We need to keep the Robert Sheckley Tontine going.



18 thoughts on “The Robert Sheckley Tontine”

  1. Philip K. Dick was the first author,as you know,to make in into the Library of America,which had a lot to do with his present elevation I think.Why though should it have happened to him though,and not Sheckley? As far as I know,he was far more famous than Dick during the 1950s and 60s,so why should this mist of obscurity have overtaken him?

    1. Richard, I tend to think in our modern times those authors who get movies made of their stories are the ones that are remembered in the future. Movie makers certainly have liked PKD, even though they always alter his work. But even a handful of movies hasn’t helped Heinlein. I would say PKD is famous today because Rolling Stone magazine gave him a bit of infamy in the 1970s and got the stone rolling. But then, Sheckley was also known for his illicit drug consumption like PKD.

      1. Sheckley had his “Immortality Inc.” made into a movie in the 1990s,but it didn’t seem to elevate his status then.They didn’t bother to make any more from his stuff.I’m not sure of how many who see films made of Dick’s work,go out and read his books,so I’m not sure what impact that has on how many of his books appear on the shop shelves.As far as I know,the “Electric Dreams” series is going to be made into short story collections,which will probably see more people read his books than the movies would.

        Certainly “Rolling Stone” gave him exposure that he hadn’t known before,but Paul Williams,who wrote the profile, was a long-time friend and fan of his,who obviously felt his work had been neglected,especially in America,and wanted to profile him as a major modern author,which he did,rather than to just sensationalize him as a drug fiend.Harlan Ellison had already done that in his “Dangerous Visions” anthology,nearly ten years previously,which didn’t seem to do him a lot of good.Dick’s present recognition,I’m sure really began following his death.Strangely enough,Paul Williams,as I assume you know,had to be introduced to his stuff before he even knew of him,but had already been involved in SF fandom for some years,so would obviously have read the magazines.It goes to show I think,just how obscure he was,even to SF readers in those days.

        Sheckley’s drug habits then,would probably not have done him any more good than it did Dick,in bringing him fame.I don’t know then why his sterling reputation should have faded so quickly.I would like to think that it’s possible that the Library of America will take-up his work one day.It’s happened strangely enough for a few other leading 1950s SF authors,as it has recently for Ursula LeGuin and Kurt Vonnegut.[he’d already been established as a mainstream author though].

        I have to confess,that although I’ve read four of Sheckley’s novels,I haven’t read much of his short fiction.”The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley” is the only collection of his I’ve read,and also a very few of his pieces in anthologies.I wonder,did his work really leave so little impression apon me,that I didn’t pursue his stuff more?

        1. Richard, I’m not sure if humor writing is that respected, or lasting. I’m not sure if Mindswap will be funny to someone who didn’t live through the 1960s. Sheckley was a minor writer in a minor genre. The prestigious New York Review of Books Classics line of trade paperbacks did publish an anthology of Sheckley’s stories.

          I find Sheckley appealing now as a way to observe the history of science fiction. We can psychoanalyze ourselves by studying the pop culture we love. For a tiny portion of the population in the 1950s and 1960s science fiction was an expression of their desires and hopes. Sheckley was good at tapping into those unconscious wants and fears.

          1. You might be right,but Vonnegut as you know,was a writer of humourous SF too.That wit,was what got him noticed by the literary establishment,I thought.By “a minor writer in a minor genre”,I assume you mean Sheckley wasn’t recognised outside the SF genre.

          2. Would Vonnegut be as famous as he is if it wasn’t for Slaughterhouse-Five? That masterpiece accepted by the literary world allowed Vonnegut’s earlier SF work to survive, but is Cat’s Cradle or Player Piano really any better than what Sheckley was doing? Creating Billy Pilgrim and using the Dresden bombings elevated Vonnegut to new literary heights. Sheckley and most other science fiction writers never tried anything like that.

  2. Robert Sheckley was one of my favorite writers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many of his stories are funny (which was a rarity back in those days when most SF stories dealt with Serious Issues like World War III and nuclear winter). My favorite Scheckley short story is “Ghost V.” I also enjoyed his spy novel, THE GAME OF X.

  3. James, Robert Sheckley’s 1953 short story, The Seventh Victim, eventually became a movie in 1965, The Tenth Victim, with an international cast (Ursula Andress, Marcello Mastroianni etc). I guess I’m the only one that remembers that one, since as a nine year old I was infatuated with Elsa Martinelli at the time, ha ha.
    I tend to enjoy Sheckley’s earlier and shorter fiction, rather than the novels that just don’t live up to his initial standards of wit and unique perspectives. I found myself skipping entire paragraphs to get to the tedious end of the last three I’ve read: Mindswap, Journey Beyond Tomorrow and Crompton Divided. I read them this year so my disappointment is fresh. My expectations from the quality of his short stories made me think how his writing had fizzled. Perhaps it was the drugs mentioned in above posts…
    Anyway, I’d recommend sticking with the collections for the representations of Sheckley’s best works.

    1. Andrew, I vaguely remembered that The Tenth Victim was based on “The Seventh Victim” which is in Untouched by Human Hands. I meant to look it up, but now you have confirmed it for me. I think I saw The Tenth Victim back in the 1970s, but not sure. Need to give it a try.

      I agree that Sheckley is best in small doses. The novels can get to be too much at times. That’s why I prefer doing them a chapter at a time. Sheckley tended to write comic episodes anyway. Mindswap is still my favorite, but it can get tedious if you overdose. But line by line it’s still very impressive.

      I stopped reading Sheckley in the sixties and never tried his later work. Like I told Richard, I like using Sheckley as a time capsule. I guess that’s because I’m getting older and reevaluating my past.

    2. Also, Andrew, I think there were a number of writers that worked best as short fiction, like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Bradbury’s nostalgic moods and Ellison’s rage were also better in short doses.

      This is probably just me, but I find science fiction works best when it’s short, even the novels. Nowadays series go on forever, and I’m usually burned out on an idea in the second volume of a trilogy.

      1. James, although we disagree elsewhere, I agree with your assessment that short is better in science fiction. That’s the main reason I primarily read books from the 50s through the 70s, whether collections or novels, but I admit Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is still one of my favorite books. I don’t bother with contemporary sf because it’s just too wordy and usually fizzles at the end. One exception was Andy Weir’s The Martian.
        From your lists I’ve found many books I originally ignored and have enjoyed them immensely, the foremost being Olaf Stapledon. I’m still looking for The First and Last Men and Starmaker…
        And the last comment I want to address is the lack of classic sf in book stores. The only store around southern NH is B&N. Beyond the big three they have a very few reprints, such as Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and one of Alfred Bester’s books. They also have a bunch by Philip Dick. When I first read him I didn’t rate him in the first rank of sf. My assessment of him hasn’t changed over the years, despite a slew of movies from his fiction.
        Anyway, I’m looking forward to your next post!

        1. Andrew, do you ever listening to the old science fiction on audiobooks? I started doing that in 2002 when I joined Over the years I’ve found most of my favorites from childhood to reread with my ears. I think it’s great. Hearing Olaf Stapledon is much easier than reading him. Alas, Babylon, On the Beach, and Earth Abides were great on audio. Stand on Zanzibar was wonderful on audio. I’m currently listening to the new audio release of The Sheep Look Up. I got to spend an afternoon with Brunner back in the 1970s. He was a fascinating guy. It’s too bad the genre is forgetting him too.

          My B&N didn’t have any Alfred Bester. Bester’s two books, The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man are always highly remembered by older fans, yet they aren’t available on audio. That’s a damn shame.

  4. I was lucky enough to pick up a UK book, ‘The Robert Sheckley Omnibus’ in my mid-teens, exactly the right time. It contained the best of his novels that I’ve read, ‘Immortality, Inc.,’ but even that was overshadowed by some of the stories, ‘Specialist,’ ‘Ghost V,’ ‘Pilgrimage to Earth,’ etc. Some great stuff there.
    I think Sheckley’s problem of persistence is two-fold: weak novels and mixed collections. In the seventies there used to be a ‘Best Of’ series that showcased various writers—something like this is badly needed today, and not just for Sheckley.
    Thanks for the post, I’ll use it as a nudge to dig out some of his short stories.

  5. I didn’t say that Vonnegut was any better than Sheckley.”Slaughthouse-Five” is a strange hotchpotch of a novel,but suppose it suited the world of general literature,for the reasons you give above.I’m not all that keen on “Player Piano,but even at that early stage,I think he was coming to the attention of general literature,so “Slaughthouse-Five” was probably no surprise to those who had followed him since then.I’m not sure though if I prefer it to “The Sirens of Titan” or “Cat’s Cradel”.

  6. Anyone who enjoys Sheckley should definitely check out William Tenn’s wickedly wry tales. Also the short stories of Frederic Brown and Alfred Bester, and the Pohl/Kornbluth novels “The Space Merchants” and “Gladiator At Law”. Avram Davidson, Damon Knight, and R. A. Lafferty also turned out some great offbeat short stories back in the 50’s/60’s heyday of “Galaxy” and “The Magazine of F&SF”. The humour found in a lot of these works can be pretty dark.

    Actually, once one starts thinking about that era, there’s a veritable cornucopia of stuff infused with wit, humour, and social satire. Keith Laumer’s Retief stories come to mind, or Harry Harrisons’s ribald “The Technicolor Time Machine” and “Bill the Galactic Hero”. The fact that so many of these works and authors are now forgotten is enough to make you cry.

    Personally I never much cared for Philip K. Dick. His persistent theme of subjective reality is uninteresting to me but possibly the biggest factor in his current popularity with both mainstream intelligentsia and Hollywood. All part of the post-modernist zeitgeist. Of course Dick got a big boost in the public consciousness from “Blade Runner” and Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall”, which made him bankable name. Posthumously of course – like a lot of SF writers, he didn’t have much financial success during his lifetime.

    1. I haven’t read any William Tenn in years but I have some vague fond memories. I put his collected stories on my “Science Fiction I Want To Hear Before I Die” list. I remember “Time Waits for Winthrop.” I’ve been meaning to reread the R. A. Lafferty. He’s another writer that’s disappearing from the genre’s memory. The main stories that come to mind of his were “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” and Space Chanty.

      Overall, it felt like there were more humor stories back the SF digests of the 1950s and 1960s. Or is that just a misconception on my part?

  7. The William Tenn story that most sticks in my head would be the much anthologized “The Liberation of Earth” (1953). It hasn’t gotten any less relevant over the years, seeming very au courant during the VietNam era and now during our endless war in the Middle East.

    James, the 1940’s to 1960’s SF that we grew up on had lots of humorous stories (remember “Lewis Padgett”?). These days though… well, humor is almost bound to offend someone or other but if it’s mean-spirited enough it will appeal to about half of your audience.

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