I finished the short story collection Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005). It was first published in 1955 and contains twelve stories – the majority of which had appeared in Galaxy Magazine. I have recently been stuck in the 1950s as far as my reading goes, and the cover of this book looks so colorful that it always catches my eye. Richard Powers created this cover. Anyway, this is the first Sheckley I have read, although I have heard from a variety of sources that he is one of the “grandmasters” of science fiction short story writing. I reviewed a collection by Kornbluth and then one by Sturgeon not too long ago, so I feel I was really into the swing things with short stories. Sometimes, a reader feels like a great novel, sometimes just shorter works are perfect for the day.
In all of these stories, Sheckley is critical of society. He questions the current conceptions of civilization qua civilization. His best questioning, I think, comes when he highlights the paradoxes and contrary outcomes of intentional ethical scenarios/acts, etc. In other words, when Sheckley presents characters whose acts conclude in unexpected – unintended – ways, his stories excel. In many places, Sheckley plays on the idea of concepts that are heavily influenced by a limited perspective. And sometimes, this even results in peeking at simulacra, which I find super fun in science fiction.
Here are the stories in this collection:
- The Mountain Without a Name – 3 stars – (1955)
- The Accountant – 3 stars – (1954)
- Hunting Problem – 5 stars – (1955)
- A Thief in Time – 2 stars – (1954)
- The Luckiest Man in the World – 3 stars – (1955)
- Hands Off – 5 stars – (1954)
- Something for Nothing – 4 stars – (1954)
- A Ticket to Tranai – 5 stars – (1955)
- The Battle – 2 stars – (1954)
- Skulking Permit – 4 stars – (1954)
- Citizen in Space – 3 stars – (1955)
- Ask a Foolish Question – 4 stars – (1953)
The Mountain Without a Name is the first story in the book. I gave this one three stars because I felt it was precisely what a science fiction story should be; a solid start to the book. The frustration of the main character, Morrison, is evident and the environmental ethics of terraforming as a commercial enterprise drive the storyline. Primitives and magic also play a role here – juxtaposed against the final quote of the book “Where do we go from here?” (a question the primitives wouldn’t know how to ask).
The Accountant is more fantasy than science fiction. It is a relatively “cute” story – the main character is interesting. Here is a witty, critical commentary on society. However, like all of Sheckley’s critiques and complaints – done in a gentle and oblique manner. Again, three stars.
Hunting Problems did not start too highly in my esteem. I really do not go in for “coming of age” stories. However, the occasional alien terminology/vocabulary interested me. I’ll be honest: I loved the ending. The human characters are a bit “plastic” and “stereotypical,” but maybe that’s okay for this story. Sheckley’s got a little more obvious disdain here for the humans than he usually shows in other stories. Still, five stars….
A Thief in Time was only a decent, basic read. I’m not a fan of time-travel paradox stories. Too much jammed into this one made it annoying and made me wonder why authors ever attempt time-travel paradox stories. Of note, this is a story wherein Sheckley explores the concept of utopia, however here it is the stereotypical one. Only two stars for this one.
The Luckiest Man in the World is the shortest work in the book. It presents an oddly optimistic, pro-science post-apocalyptic scenario. This is not a new story, per se, but the positivity and optimism seemed “new.” In any case, it is important to see that of all the challenges mankind faces, it seems the need for society/companionship is one that cannot be conquered by mere science.
Hands Off is one of those “cautionary tales” that one remembers and worries about even if the story isn’t particularly great. Because in the case in which one finds oneself in an alien environment, all these warnings seem valid and crucial. This story did seem slightly more heavy-handed than the previous ones, but no matter how overt or blatant, it still had a couple quirky twists and turns. A good one to have young undergraduates read in their beginning Ethics courses. Four stars.
Something For Nothing is supremely ironic and witty. It suggests that greed, haste, assumptions lead to ruin. But also that man cannot isolate himself from the bigger entity – government, IRS, society, civilization, etc. There is also a fun quote: “When the miraculous occurs, only dull, workaway mentalities are unable to accept it.” Anyway, something for nothing / something out of nothing. Either way, this is a unique piece. Four stars.
A Ticket To Tranai is one of the longer works in this collection. It is creative and thought-provoking. Sure, the characters are a bit wooden (in all of these stories, they tend to be – but the main character here is actually named ‘Goodman’), but this is a curious look at intentions and ethics within society. In this story Sheckley questions the concepts of (again) utopia, ethics, social change, and feminism. The science fiction takes a backseat here – even though we have gone to the edge of the galaxy – this story is best enjoyed by those who like to play conceptual engineer. I gave this five stars and recommend it for all readers.
Skulking Permit is one of those unpredictable stories where the omniscient reader has to keep shaking their head at the silly characters. The story is about a long-forgotten Earth colony that has recently been re-contacted by Imperial Earth. Earth demands that the colony be up to “Earth standards” (which have long since lost any meaning to the colonists). This results in a bit of a farcical comedy. Definitely a unique piece, so I gave it four stars.
Citizen in Space is the title of the collection and though I gave it three stars, I cannot say I was really thrilled by the story. It is good fiction, also a bit light on the science and a bit heavier on the “criticize society” parts. Nevertheless, it is all couched in a lovely witty amusement that is good entertainment. Three stars.
Finally, the collection ends with Ask a Foolish Question. This is the most esoteric of pieces in the collection. Many readers who are not given to contemplation or introspection may not tolerate this one. However, philosophers will be amused by this. The underlying suggestion is valid, if not obvious. It is interesting and novel to see this wrapped in any kind of science fiction. Four stars.
Overall, this is a great collection of really good stories. The science fiction is present but not overwhelming. All of the characters are wooden – like any true 1950s science fiction – but the concepts and the ideas are priceless. Above all, entertainment is not sacrificed for any sort of ideology-mongering or attempt to seem philosophical. These are amusing and clever and should be enjoyed by most (if not all) readers. I am definitely going to read more Sheckley.