Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands

Untouched by Human Hands - Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands – Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley is a collection of stories published in 1954. I believe it is his first collection published. I have also read his collections:  Pilgrimage to Earth and Citizen in Space.  Just like in those collections, Sheckley’s stories are witty, wry, unique, and very readable.  These were all published in 1952/53 so they were collected soon afterward.  The stories remain very contemporary and I could pass them off on unsuspecting non-science fiction readers as this month’s best stories.

On the back of the book is a short paragraph of praise comparing Sheckley to John Collier and Shirley Jackson. The blurb calls the stories here “delightfully fresh in concept, development, and writing.”  It is signed H. H. Holmes. Now some trivia:  H. H. Holmes is the assumed name of an infamous pre-1900 killer. It is also the sometimes used penname of Anthony Boucher (1911 – 1968).  Boucher was a well-known editor and reviewer of mystery and science fiction writing.

  • The Monsters – 2 stars – (1953)
  • Cost of Living – 2 stars – (1952)
  • The Altar – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Shape – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The Impacted Man – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Untouched By Human Hands – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The King’s Wishes – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Warm – 4 stars – (1953)
  • The Demons – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Specialist – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Seventh Victim – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Ritual – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Beside Still Waters – 4 stars – (1953)

Several of the stories in this book deal with first contact scenarios – but not the usual “aliens invading earth” story. Therefore, as can be expected, several of the stories also hinge upon the ability or inability to communicate. I like this little problematic. Communication, miscommunication, and knowledge-sharing are key components in The Monsters, Ritual, Beside Still Waters, and Specialist. In each of these, the problem of communication is faced and dealt with differently; in some cases by using ingenuity of the characters’ wit to circumvent the issue.

I have seen that many readers liked The Monsters. I liked it, but it seems too obvious. I guess after you read enough Sheckley you start to expect more and better. It is a rather disturbing first contact environment juxtaposed with cultural habits. Sheckley presents it in a tidy, light amusing way. A good story, but I expect better!

Cost of Living is another story wherein the basic idea is okay as a topic/plot, but I just felt like the story was flat. Maybe a little too heavy on the morality. I am fine with authors using ethics as a skeleton in their work, but this was a little too shoved in the reader’s face. Maybe not pure ethics, but it contains that questioning society/guilt-factor that the reader is supposed to pause and consider. I did not like the ending, either. So I only gave this two stars.

The Altar is good average fare. It is creepy and puzzling and mysterious, which I like in stories. It may not be science fiction, though. It probably fits that other category – speculative fiction. Mr. Slater lives in North Ambrose, which is a small town where the residents find safety, security, and contentment in their very basic “plastic” lives. One morning, en route to work, he runs into a dark stranger looking for an oddly named place: The Altar of Baz-Matain. Obviously, Slater is at a loss and cannot help the man. Later that evening, Slater tells his wife and she says that she does not think the Better Business Bureau or the P.T.A. would allow such things in their town. Slater continues crossing paths with the stranger……… In any case, I enjoyed the story, the ending was a little less than perfect; I actually like everything up until the ending a lot more.

The stories Shape and Ritual are both average stories. They are both from the viewpoint of alien species who meet humans. The gulf in this meeting is pretty vast, so the humans are less characters than plot devices. In Shape, Sheckley gets a little bohemian on us and the main character alien questions the culture and habits of his species upon visiting Earth with his ship and crew. In Ritual, there is a small power struggle among two aliens regarding the proper way to welcome (using dance) the gods (humans) who have landed on their planet. In both cases, the alien race is the point of view and in both there is a questioning of the authority of the species’ traditional norms. Solid stories, but not much wow-factor.

The Impacted Man is my favorite story in this collection. I like that it is told from a “bird’s-eye view” as well as from a human standpoint. The “bird’s-eye” is a construction contractor who builds galaxies and meta-galaxies, which is really cool. He has built one and is demanding payment for it. The controller is refusing payment due to some anomalies and at least one impacted man. The impacted man is Jack Masrin (and by association, his wife and landlord). I really like the usage of parallelities in this story. And I like that this is sort of a lightweight-action story that kept me a lot more engaged than the other stories. This is good writing all-around and I found the resolution sudden and witty. I recommend this one to all readers.

Untouched by Human Hands and The King’s Wishes both deal with two humans facing a strange, difficult scenario. In the first, two rather annoying characters are forced to land on a strange planet in search of food. In the latter, a djinn-type creature appears in the humans’ appliance store and whisks major appliances away with him. In both cases, the humans face the serious damage to their lives/livelihood and seek out solutions. In the former, the two humans find a warehouse, but cannot comprehend the writing on the stores there in order to determine if there is food and potable water. They end up unleashing things that worsen their predicament. In The King’s Wishes, one human tries one method, the other human tries another. The solution is somewhat lame and the story fizzles out. Very readable stories, just nothing outstanding or vibrant.

Warm is easily the most esoteric story of the collection. It is also nihilistic, existential, and psychological. Unlike most of Sheckley’s other stories, this one does not contain any humor – and in places it is quite dark. In fact, if the reader is particularly existential, it has terrifying elements to it. Not for the casual science fiction reader and not for those who prefer action scenes. I found the “story” gripping and disturbing. Sure, there are some (let’s call them…) holes in the “plot,” but the general thing is creepy and metaphysically well-written. I feel like there are a lot of edgy writers who attempt things like this, but either try too hard or make it too heavy handed.

The Demons is a quirky story told from various viewpoints. I really liked the different viewpoints, no matter how brief some of them were, and I really enjoyed how the story just rolls around without seeming disjointed or confusing. It is a super skill of Sheckley’s that I have seen him use before. He combines elements without being plodding or chaotic, which keeps his stories light and fast. This one involves demons conjuring demons; sort of a twist on the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp. Or “demons.” And the ending is a witty chortle. This is a really original fun story.

Specialist is a very unique story. I really liked it because the characters are so unique and the problem they face is one of those “usual science fiction space problems.” This story is another where the ability to communicate and understand foreign/alien cultures and norms is a key component. For whatever reason, I was drawn in to these bizarre characters who compose their cooperative “ship” and had concern for them. Generally, that means a well-written story. I even liked some of the seemingly sensible (or realistic) reactions the characters have. Definitely four stars.

Seventh Victim is a really unique read, too. It has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, its noir-dirty and not at all science fiction. For another point, it has a dose of resentment and criticism regarding the violent human race. In some sense, it is a partial “study” of drawing this violence out to the absurd. So, here again we have a strange cultural norm that has been established. Now, overall, the female characters in Sheckley’s stories are rather dumb and flat. Or just plain non-existent. However in this story, that changes a lot. And it changes in a wry manner, as well. The female character is just as stupid and simple as one would expect her to be in any vintage story by a male author. But that is not exactly how this one ends. Perfectly written.

Beside Still Waters is a very maudlin piece. It really is sad, although in a contemplative, gentle way. I do not know what to make of this one. The elements of communication are definitely there, albeit in a different way than just alien vs. human miscommunication. And the ending is far more serious than how Sheckley’s stories usually end. I’ve only read one thing comparable: Contraption by Clifford Simak. This is a good story, but only on rainy, introspective, lonely days, I think.

Overall, easily a four star collection. I read this Ballantine edition and I really think the cover is a hoot. Again, expand this cover to poster-size and I surely have a print of it on one of the walls around my home.

4 stars

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Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

Citizen in Space

citizen in spaceI 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