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.”

“You—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.

JWH