I, Robot

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

vintage-sf-badgeIt is Vintage Science Fiction Month – so designated by my fellow blogger friend, the Little Red Reviewer. Generally, I like participating in this non-challenge reading fun, but this January I’ve been traveling and busy and I am worried I will not have many entries. Nevertheless, I managed to eke out one novel so far. I went with a “classic” vintage work to start off. Honestly, I do not remember if I have read I, Robot before – all or in parts, or other. I do know I have never read further in the “robot series,” so I thought this was a good way to march back down the Asimov-pathway.

I, Robot is generally considered a collection because it contains stories that were originally published in periodicals in the 1940s. I think it can be successfully referred to as a sort of fix-up novel at this point, as well. The collection as titled I, Robot was first published in 1950 and I read the 2004 (movie cover art) version this time around.  As we all *should* know, the movie starring Will Smith has only a basic and tenuous connection to these stories.  The nine stories contained in the collection form a general timeline utilizing the life of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men employee Dr. Susan Calvin as a waypoint marker. Therefore, the collected stories form a more cohesive, although faceted, whole than I think Asimov originally created.  For anyone interested in trivia, this collection is dedicated to “John W. Campbell, jr., who godfathered the robots.”

I, Robot is considered a classic for a number of valid reasons.  It is an “early” science fiction work that is not embarrassingly dated by today’s milestones.  It is an intelligent read, unlike much of the 1940s pulp fiction that was being published.  It contains new and exciting ideas that demonstrated Asimov’s wit, knowledge, and forward-thinking mastery.  It ended up influencing and spawning all kinds of science, science fiction, and literary offspring. So, not only were Asimov’s ideas new at the time, but they didn’t wear out after a decade had passed, either.

Since this collection was published in 1950 and is so extremely well-known, it is difficult to know what to say that has not already been said hundreds of times. I am certain that this work has been examined every which way and with all sorts of hermeneutics. Many readers are already quite familiar with this book. If you are not familiar with this book, there are some key things I think you should know.  First of all, don’t connect the same-titled movie to this novel. There is not much connection there, so do not be put off by that.  Secondly, this is a quick-read, therefore it will not pull you too far from your current to-be-read stack trajectory.  Thirdly, it is an intelligent read, but it is not pretentious or high-brow.

The book is an undisputed classic.  However, I only give it four stars for a rating.  The main thrust behind each and every story in this collection is logic.  Literally, logic is what this collection is built upon.  That is fairly congruous since this is a book about “mechanical men” and mathematics and machines.  Asimov is a talented logician.  From only what this book tells me, I can promise that Asimov was comfortable with Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, etc.  Building all these stories on logic – while making them actually suspenseful and interesting – is really awesome.  However, at the end of the day, the skeleton is just logic and its really not enough.

Since the skeleton is logic, we must say that the Laws of Robotics are the flesh of the stories, the meat as it were. And boy, Asimov does drill these laws into the reader! He actually takes these laws and looks at them from a multitude of contexts and usages and no reader is going to escape this book without a very solid understanding of the laws.  Sometimes, this gets a bit exhausting. On the other hand, Asimov was an excellent teacher. He’s the guy you want teaching you logic, physics, and mathematics. His is the challenging class that you struggle through but your knowledge grows by leaps and bounds. Therefore, even though the laws are hammered at throughout these stories, the number of ways in which Asimov constructs the stories around them is quite masterful. Nevertheless, some readers might get a bit bored.

The most important character throughout this collection is Dr. Susan Calvin.  I am pretty sure someone, somewhere has ruefully commented on her last name and made some sketchy connection to John Calvin and his ideas, so I don’t need to go further on that point. But if this is a valid juxtaposition, it is something some enterprising student should run with in a paper or two.  Calvin is a robopsychologist.  She works for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, although most of the time I feel she would rather not.  It is unclear if there exist other such robopsychologists or if Susan is the only one.  Anyway, this “soft science” balance to the hard science of mechanical, mathematical robotics shows that Asimov was a keen observer of humanity.  When I first met Calvin in these stories, I really disliked her. Overall, she is really aggressive and hostile.  She is also, allegedly, really good at her job.  She is definitely a character study for those interested in such things.  More food for thought:  casting her role in a motion picture. . . who is that actress?

Overall, I give this four stars because I can see what Asimov is capable of – and, frankly, he is capable of so much more.  Yeah, I am saying it:  Asimov was a big intellect – but I want to push him for more and better. The skeleton and flesh of these stories is good – but at points also a little monotonous. This is a necessary, classic read that should satisfy most readers.

4 stars

Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar

Arsène LupinArsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar (aka: Exploits of Arsène Lupin) is the first collection of stories about the character Lupin.  It was published in 1907, but the contents were all previously published.  The author, Maurice, Leblanc (1864 – 1941) was born in Rouen.  He dropped out of law school and is generally known only as a writer – famous for the Lupin catalog.  Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar collects nine stories that present a continuous, albeit hyphenated, timeline in the early exploits of the so-called gentleman thief, Lupin.

I gave this collection four stars in total, but I really did enjoy reading these stories. There is no great literary depth to these stories, however they are fun and have just enough suspense included to make the reader turn the pages with interest. I suppose anyone who enjoys Nero Wolf, Poirot, and Holmes will also enjoy this collection.  It is easy reading and entertaining writing.

After having read this collection, I would read further in the Arsène Lupin canon. I like these stories and even if they are sometimes simplistic, I think Lupin is a character that major readers should recognize.  I think Lupin is most famous for his connection to Sherlock Holmes; particularly in this collection wherein they cross paths for the first time.  The whole scene is written perfectly and the reader should be able to imagine it vividly.  It also begs to be put on stage/screen.

I rated the nine stories included in this collection separately and then averaged them for rating the whole. The dates provided are for their first publishing in magazines, etc. :

  • The Arrest of Arsène Lupin - July 1905 – 4 stars
  • Arsène Lupin in Prison – December 1905 – 4 stars
  • The Escape of Arsène Lupin – January 1906 – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Traveler – February 1906 – 5 stars
  • The Queen’s Necklace – April 1906 – 4 stars
  • Seven of Hearts – May 1907 – 3 stars
  • The Safe of Madame Imbert – May 1906 – 3 stars
  • The Black Pearl – July 1906 – 3 stars
  • Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late – June 1906 – 4 stars

Readers really must start with the first story in the collection: The Arrest of Arsène Lupin.  This story connects, beautifully, with the last in the collection and so there is a definite reading order to be followed. I liked the first story quite a bit, because Leblanc toys with the reader enough to make the story fun and witty.  I feel that it is also a curious thing to start off a catalog of stories about a thief with a story about his arrest!

My favorite story in the collection is The Mysterious Traveler because it is one in which Leblanc displays his skill at position his characters in different roles and swapping the points-of-view.  This is one of the noteworthy things about Leblanc’s style in this collection:  the narrator is rarely the same and Leblanc seems to enjoy such little tricks in storytelling.  It is part of what makes these stories so much fun.

Overall, as I have mentioned, these stories are quite easy reading and entertaining.  Still I can count at least three times in which the reader is given a deeper glimpse into Lupin’s heart and history.  Lupin, though adventurous and clever, also possesses a measure of sorrow, of loss, and of romanticism. Maybe this is because Leblanc is French and was influenced by Flaubert.  Whatever the cause, there are moments of gasp-worthy romanticism and melancholy. But Leblanc doesn’t wallow in these fleeting moments – the insensitive reader will probably miss them entirely. Lupin hides his melancholy and toska. [toska – a Russian word meaning………… ?]

Recommended for a quick, fun read. Also for readers interested in “gentlemen burglars” and Sherlock Holmes.

4 stars

Guest Review: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

I started reading this book based on a recommendation from my friend, AQ. The title was an immediate attention grabber! Not many books have such ludicrous titles. If nothing else, this book would get mad props from me for just the sheer ridiculousness of the title. And true to form, the title bespoke a lot about the book itself.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub – Stanislaw Lem

Though I am usually put off by introductions and editor’s notes, the introduction to this book is really a misnomer. The introduction is witty and intelligent in Lem’s imagining of an apocalyptic world bereft of paper, in which it has somehow lost meaning and substance.  Structure exists but devoid of content.

I started reading the book and instantly felt I was pulled into “The Castle” (Kafka) meets “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare” (Chesterton) in a “1984” (Orwell) kind of setting. As with all these books, the effect is surreal and defies any kind of formulaic plot. You are just thrown in media res into a world in which you cannot adhere to the regular norms and conventions of what is sensical and what is absurd.

It is a world not only involving intrigue, conspiracies, agents, double agents but going all the way up to sextuple agents; and that is something one does not get to say/write often. It is a mind-spinning tale written with such vivid details that some of the scenes, such as the one with the professors, are the embodiment of the absurd with the all the underlying senses of meaning and depth.

Even after I had finished the book, it kept resonating with me. The key question I found myself speculating and contemplating was the reason for the protagonist not leaving. It struck me because of what it implied about human nature in its quest for structure and meaning.

Here’s a world in which there is structure, an obscene amount of it actually, yet, with a myriad of schemes and plots in the absence of any real content. The protagonist chooses to cling to structure and the machinations of the absurd, and even propagate it, rather than attempt to use his logical skills in arriving at the conclusion that there simply is no meaning to what is happening inside the building, a reality in which he is has found himself entrenched.

It is as if logical reasoning cannot abide by a lack of meaning. Though logic is essentially a set of rules that contributes to inferences and meaning, it operates independently from actual reality / substance for you can always posit the existence of hairy pink dragons and derive logical conclusions.  However, as gifted as our protagonist may be in questioning and following the rules of logic, yet, he is caught in the loop of trying to derive meaning from the meaningless instead of venturing outside the building to change the paradigm.

He opts for the illusion of meaning instead of seeing if there is actual meaning that can be derived from the “outside.” The possibility of there being no meaning or no content is what drives the protagonist to persist in the bureaucratic intrigue, in the paranoid absurdity of structure.

The protagonist is persistent, but what kind of fortitude, grit, or strength does it take for a person to choose a course in which the realization that no readily available meaning is an actual possibility. How many would actually let go of the illusion to achieve certainty whichever way it turned out.

This book is truly brilliant and I am sure that each reader will take from it something different. Just be ready for a book that defies formulaic plots, for it is nowhere near ordinary. 4 stars

Teneen, the author of this review, has written a previous review (here) for this blog. She is a busy reader, but not a frequent reviewer.

The League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men - Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men – Rex Stout

The second Nero Wolfe novel was published in 1935.  I read the previous Rex Stout effort and so was really excited to get my hands on this book. I ordered it straightaway and read it through.  I think I liked it just as well as the previous novel – but this one seems to be written better.  I zoomed through the first couple of chapters right away and it was immediately fun to hang out with Archie and Nero again.

The voice of the narrator, Archie Goodwin, is very unique.  His narration is interesting and helpful and seems consistent to his character. Also, every once in awhile Archie gives a turn of phrase that makes me read it twice because it is so quirky or unusual.

My first impression of Nero Wolfe was not that I disliked him, but that I felt a lot of other readers would dislike him.  Or misunderstand him. I think he is a hoot – although I am still occasionally taken aback by some of the banter and sniping that he and Archie share. Nero Wolfe (after these two novels) is a bit of an enigma and a person one cannot help but be curious about.  I also feel that Wolfe would say there is actually nothing to be curious about.  Anyway, one of my favorite moments is the “trick” Wolfe uses with Spenser’s poem “The Shepheardes Calender” – and when Archie gets sarcastic later on with Wolfe about this “trick.”  It’s so witty.

Descriptors that come to mind referencing Wolfe are easily “obese” and “smart.”  However, I think a very necessary ingredient to his make up is a bravado/confidence.  He is not really a person who is capable of false humility or insecurity.  And it is this odd confidence found in an agoraphobic that really interests me qua reader.

“Don’t badger me. I read it because it was a book.  I had finished The Native’s Return, by Louis Adamic, and Outline of Human Nature, by Alfred Rossiter, and I read books.” – Nero Wolfe to Archie, pg. 18; chapter 2

This semi-churlish quote from Wolfe amused me.  But I, of course, had to look up the names of these.  I am pretty sure other readers probably run right past them. I cannot let a book reference in a book go un-researched.  Anyway, I discovered that Alfred Rossiter was a relatively famous and successful astronomer who married Ruth Stout. Ruth is Rex Stout’s sister.  Kudos to Rex for planting this little reference in his novel!

I like the way Stout writes because I can be in the scene with the characters.  Somehow, using Archie’s voice and Wolfe’s uniqueness, I can easily form images of the scenes in the novel.  Everything is so clear for me to imagine.  I contrast this with so many novels that, try as I might, I can only summon up some vague picture that may not really be accurate to the author’s conception.  In this novel, I was right in the Wolfe’s office, in the roadster with Archie, and in the Inspector’s building.

Anyway, this is reputed to be a major example of a psychology-filled mystery. I think that is clearly accurate.  There’s a lot of “psychology” going on in this novel – not just with the overall criminal.  As far as “scientific psychological analysis,” that’s something different.  But fiction-wise, this novel presents characters that are not just handed some flat and barren motive that allows the heroes to hunt them down.  Archie and Nero are astute with examining people and describing the other characters in terms of psychological-driven ideas, mores, motives, and moods.  It’s very well done and deserves most of the praise given to it.

However, I think this novel is a bit long. The mystery, that is.  There are a lot of mis-trails and re-directions.  They all seem connected and some seem needless. And maybe it is not exactly the most logically-precise wrap up of a mystery.  But that is okay, because it is quite entertaining and a truly interesting read.  Once again, mystery readers will not be disappointed whatsoever.

4 stars

The Journey to The End of The Night

The Journey to the End of the Night - L-F Céline.

The Journey to the End of the Night – L-F Céline.

Finally I finished reading this infamous novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894 – 1961).   The Journey to the End of the Night was first published in 1932 in French.  I think I got this book sometime in the spring/early-summer of 2013.  I started reading it then, but I just completed it now.  I think, though I’m uncertain about this, that I actually re-started it from the beginning somewhere in that timeline.  Needless to say, this was a long slog through murky waters.

A bit about L-F Céline:  this is his penname, derived from his grandmother’s name.  His real name is Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches.  There’s plenty of photos of him as a handsome young fellow who turns into a smirking middle-aged chap, and finally a cantankerous looking old man. He had a diverse life, working in jewelry shops, as a sergeant in the military, as a writer, and a physician.  He traveled extensively.  In fact, one wishes that Céline just wrote an honest autobiography instead of hiding behind characters.  But one cannot trust Céline – he embellishes and he clearly knows how to slip away, around, and under.  He is world-wise and absolutely not simple.  On the other hand, of all the things I would think of as compatible employment for his personality, medicine is not one of them.  Oddly incongruous.

Céline has this bizarre fascination, though, with the worst and/or lowest of society.  Not, please, like Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi; but in some morbid, weird way he is drawn to them.  This novel is supposedly semi-autobiographical.  I feel like that statement is misleading. It seems somewhat difficult to tell where the autobiography stops and the fiction begins and vice versa.  The main character, Ferdinand Bardamu, follows a timeline very much like Céline’s own.  The locations and some of the stories change a bit, I think, but overall, this is Céline ripping loose through the guise of a fictional character – loosely fictional.

Any possibility of cowardice becomes a glowing hope if you’re not a fool. That’s my opinion.  Never be picky and choosy about means of escaping disembowelment, or waste your time trying to find reasons for the persecution you’re a victim of.  Escape is good enough for the wise. – pg. 102

The first half of this novel is actually quite engaging and well-written.  It is a bit grumpy, let’s say, but it still contains that flavor of gullibility or goofiness in the narrator.  Bardamu really seems to go wherever the current takes him and does not seem to do a lot to help himself.  Generally, the situations and places in which he finds himself are coincidence and fate, but he never seems surprised about it.  He makes bad choices and from the start of the novel we learn that his vices control him.  Nevertheless, there is an adventurous and almost exciting thrill to following Baradmu’s overseas adventures.

The street was like a dismal gash, endless, with us at the bottom of it, filling it from side to side, advancing from sorrow to sorrow, toward an end that is never in sight, the end of all the streets in the world. – pg. 166

Nothing in the first half of the novel is worthy of the shock and raving that people heap on this novel.  It’s pessimistic and there is sex and violence.  But it is all relatively literary.

The second half of the novel is where all the misanthropic, nihilistic, savage criticism, and shock appear at full strength.  Even so, this is 2014 where there exist TV shows like True Blood, Dexter, and Spartacus.  The 50 Shades of whatever also has been dumped into society like a burst-sewer.  So, it is actually a case of society outgrowing even Céline’s vicious writing.  It is somewhat shocking to read how extreme Céline/Bardamu think and act, however it is not special or unique to someone in 2014 who lives with the extremes we find in contemporary media. That fact makes me a bit dismayed.

It was true what she’d said about my having changed, I couldn’t deny it.  Life twists you and squashes your face.  It had squashed her face too, but less so.  It’s no joke being poor.  Poverty is a giant, it uses your face like a mop to clear away the world’s garbage.  There’s plenty left. – pg. 187

What makes Céline’s style of ribald nihilism so fascinating (even this many years later) is that he writes it with such literary style and double-edged wit.  Céline, himself, and therefore Bardamu, are not dumb.  These are not bumbling idiots writing out strings of vulgarities just because they want to zap us.  Céline actually writes with skill and the vulgarities are just part and parcel of it.

The thing is, roughly around page 300 (around La Garenne-Rancy scenes), I felt the novel change.  Not only did Bardamu stop having international adventures, but the tone became much more vicious and dark.  There seemed to be more vulgarity and more despondency.  To put it bluntly:  Bardamu wasn’t very entertaining anymore and any interest or sympathy I had as a reader was now gone.  The storyline and the characters had become tedious. Dare I say, before the events at the insane asylum, I was even bored with the storyline. It was a struggle to get through the last 150 pages of this novel.  The famous “ellipses” one hears about Céline’s writing are present in this novel – though less so in the first half.  The second half ramps up those – another sign of how the novel degrades.

Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment.  Being in love is nothing, it’s sticking together that’s difficult.  Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow.  On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state – that’s the unconscionable torture. – 291

I really don’t know what to say about most of the characters in this novel – especially Robinson.  I feel like all the characters in this novel are immature and juvenile – as if they really never ever “grew up.”  And so, the last 25 pages or so, which heavily involve Robinson, were tedious and droll.  Yeah, yeah, we could read this existentially, or in terms of the nihilism, or in any other sorts of filters – but if we are being honest and not just trying to impress others – the novel is good, but it isn’t great. And its just not that shocking anymore. Or maybe I am just as miserable and jaded as Céline.

Interiors are no good.  As soon as a door closes on a man, he begins to smell and everything he has on him smells too.  Body and soul, he deteriorates.  He rots.  It serves us right if people stink.  We should have looked after them.  We should have taken them out, evicted them, exposed them to the air.  All things that stink are indoors, they preen themselves, but they stink all the same. – 308

Overall, I am between a 3-star rating and a 4-star rating for this novel.  Nothing else is like it – and if there might be something like it, it is not as good as this.  And it probably owes a debt to this.  Nevertheless, I cannot lie and say that the second half of the novel was on par with the first.  That’s tricky, because is that like saying Céline’s second half of life was not as “entertaining” as the first part? Hence the difficulty with this so-called semi-autobiographical label.  I’m going to give it 4-stars, though, because I do think it will remain in my brain for quite some time for mulling and pondering and comparison.  Plus, Céline is so quotable!

4 stars

Tik-Tok

Tik-Tok - John Sladek; DAW, 1985  cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok – John Sladek; DAW, 1985 cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was first published in 1983.  It won the 1984 British Science Fiction Association Award.  I read the DAW 1985 edition with cover art by Peter Gudynas.  At 254 pages, this is a relatively fast read, nothing overwhelmingly difficult or causing brain-drain.

The whole novel is something of a vicious satirical autobiography of the title character, a robot named Tik Tok.  This name should be familiar to all of those who are acquianted with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series.  In that series, a servant “mechanical man” is named Tik Tok. Using flashbacks this autobiography, Me, Robot, is a parody of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot novel.  Parodying Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Sladek utilizes the story of a robot to heap condemnation upon human society.  In essence, the novel is not Tik-Tok, but rather Me, Robot and we are shown the worst of humanity through the eyes of the character Tik Tok.

When I say “the worst of humanity,” I think many readers may skim that phrase.  Sladek traipses his robot character through many aspects of human society – the taboo, the ridiculous, the morally decrepit – and despises them.  However, Sladek (and therefore Tik Tok) keep a distant and rather deadpan reaction throughout.  Readers may be more accustomed to virulent and emotional ravings about the ills of society and so be surprised when, here, they come upon a muted bluntly stated criticism.

At most, Tik Tok expresses only a vague surprise at the depths of immorality and ridiculousness that humanity affects. Nevertheless, the experiences that Tik Tok shares in his autobiography are from all locations, walks of life, and classes of people.  In particular, the tactless yuppie and the ennui of the absurdly wealthy are highlighted.  However, a Southern plantation family’s fall from grace, religious organizations, politics – in and out of America, sports, art and artisan lifestyles, hippies, activist groups, health care and medical organizations, commercialism, etc. are all mocked and shown to be farcical.

The storyline of Tik Tok is only interesting insofar as reading about robots is interesting.  Tik Tok is mostly honest and only once witty to a noteworthy extent, so his autobiography is more so about the reactions humans have toward him.  His “owners” have been from a variety of walks of life – but all possessed of a wretchedness that is characteristically (as Tik Tok sees it) human.  They are stupid, conniving, vicious, sadistic, perverted, immoral, sycophantic, hedonist, and lazy.  Even the game-players are cheaters.  This book is about as anti-human, anti-compassionate, nihilist, and bitter as any book I know of.  But the most horrific element of humanity as depicted in this novel is that they are all totally and willingly blinded to truths that they do not like; i.e. that a robot can be just as evil as they are.

There were times when I wondered whether the asimovs even existed.  It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had both been conned into believing in programmed slavery.  The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive.  People wanted it to be true.  They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves.  So of course the manufacturers of robots would invent imaginary circuits to make it so.  Ecce robo, they’d say.  Here is a happy slave with a factory guarantee of trustworthiness. – chapter E, pg. 63

From the first chapter to the last, humans deceiving themselves as to what robots are capable of is constantly thrown at the reader. It seems ludicrous and absurd that humans are so clueless to such an extent.  There are incidents spoofing the Titanic, religious evangelists, and even fast-food.

The old-fashioned hamburger was, in some run-down areas, no longer made of genuine soya, but was bulked out with chili-favored sawdust, celery-taste cotton waste, and so on, ending up so highly flavored that no new additive would be detected.  – Chapter S, pg. 216

The criticism and bitterness toward humanity is actually so profound that it seems difficult to believe that Sladek wrote this in the early 1980s, because it surely seems still relevant today.  And while I am not usually a fan of “over the top” miserableness, I appreciate the work in this novel.  The current “hype” of pseudo-dystopian literature seems outright heroic and also part of that “total, willing denial” of reality when compared to this novel. This book is decidedly not for everyone.  Good for when a mostly intelligent reader feels sick of society and is repulsed by the plastic, immoral, and gross face of humanity.  Tick tock…

4 stars

Citizen in Space

Citizen in Space – Robert Sheckley; Ballantine, 1955; cover art: Richard Powers

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.

4 stars

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