Vintage Treasures: The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley
Bantam Books, 1979. Cover by the great Paul Lehr
Back in the 90s, when I was reading a lot of Gardner Dozois’ science fiction anthologies, I got used to his complaints about the short memory of science fiction fans. What he meant was that after a popular and important SF writer died or retired, it wasn’t long — 2-5 years, sometimes less — before their entire catalog was out of print, and shortly after that they were virtually forgotten.
He made a compelling case at the time. But to be honest, these days the science fiction heroes of my formative years don’t seem very forgotten. Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Clifford D. Simak, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, James Tiptree, Jr, John Brunner… maybe it’s just because I hang out at places like Black Gate, but their work seems to be discussed, celebrated, and enjoyed nearly as much as ever. Some — like Philip K. Dick, Lovecraft, Tolkien, and Robert E. Howard — are even enjoying a renaissance on a scale none of us could have imagined while they were alive.
There are exceptions, of course. Wonderful writers whose works are forgotten, or very nearly so. Robert Sheckley is a good example. In 2001 Sheckley was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he produced nearly two dozen novels in a career spanning five decades, including Dimension of Miracles (1968), The Status Civilization (1960), and The 10th Victim (1965). His most enduring work was his short fiction, collected in Citizen in Space (1955), Pilgrimage to Earth (1957), Shards of Space (1962), and over a dozen more — including the NESFA Press tribute volume The Masque of Mañana, and five volumes of The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley from Pulphouse (1991). Sheckley died in 2005, and his work — the most popular of which was kept in print continuously for decades — is nearly completely forgotten today.
Well, if we’re going to pay attention to someone, it might as well be someone forgotten. So today’s Vintage Treasure is a wonderful little collection from 1979, very nearly the peak of Sheckley’s popularity, The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley.
NESFA tribute volumes to Robert Sheckley: Dimensions of Sheckley (omnibus of five novels, 2002),
and The Masque of Mañana (short story collection, 2005). Covers by Bob Eggleton
The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley contains 12 short stories and novelettes published between 1953 and 1968, which appeared in magazines like Galaxy, F&SF, and Playboy. Most are standalone, but the books does feature “Seventh Victim” (1953), the first tale in his 10th Victim series, which includes the novels The 10th Victim, Victim Prime, and Hunter/Victim, and the film adaption The 10th Victim (1965). It also contains “Ghost V,” an installment in his popular “AAA Ace” series for Galaxy, featuring the beleaguered 2-man team of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service, tasked with dirty jobs all over the galaxy,
The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley gathers stories from several of Sheckley’s early collections, almost all from his early career. Jonathan Cowie has a fine review at his SF2 Concatenation blog, which discusses each of the 12 tales. Here’s the highlights:
Sheckley’s stories are firmly grounded in traditional SFnal tropes: alien worlds, space colonization, near futures, media spectacle, robotics, [computers] and so forth. In the main they follow one protagonist who is having to make do with the hand (situation) with which he is dealt, and we get to sympathise with this person’s trials. This singular-person protagonist enables us to identify with the stories’ circumstances even though the circumstances themselves are exotic, grand or way out. As such Sheckley’s tales kind of have the charm found in Clifford D. Simak’s rurally-set novels; though, make no mistake, Sheckley is not afraid of cities. Often, it is the charm of the small person innocently trying to make sense of it all against a big, wide
worlduniverse. They are also smartly written and often there is a recursion in each stories’ conclusion to something near its beginning…
It begins with a three-page introduction that briefly hints at his approach to writing: he gets an idea, writes it and moves on, never looking back… In The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley we get:-
- ‘Seventh Victim’ a near future sees murder legalised for those who want to indulge. The premise is that this provides a release for those with latent aggressive tendancies [sic]. But there is a price to pay for those who participate… This 1953 story’s neat idea does betray a typical mid-20th century western attitude to women.
- ‘Specialist’ A spaceship hits a photon storm and loses one of its crew. There is no choice but to find a planet to recruit a replacement… As the story continues we realise that perspectives change who is whom… Note, that this was written before Star trek popularised the term ‘photon storm.’
- ‘Skulking Permit’ A world sporting a small human colony, that has been out of touch with other colonies for a couple of centuries, is suddenly re-discovered and an inspector is on the way. The colonists need to make things as they are on Earth. That means they need a church, a school house and… a jail. Someone has to be the colony’s official criminal… Will Tom be up to the job?
- ‘Ghost V’ A small planet decontamination outfit gets its first job. The problem is that the planet they are sent to decontaminate is said to be haunted. How do you protect yourself against a ghost…?
- ‘A Wind is Rising’ A two-person outpost on a windswept planet have to contend with higher than usual winds. No problem you might think…
And so there you have it. Yes, the tropes you will have come across before… But the wit, the simple novelty of each story’s premise, still shines brightly.
Here’s the complete Table of Contents.
Introduction Robert Sheckley
“Seventh Victim” (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1953)
“Specialist” (Galaxy Science Fiction, May 1953)
“Skulking Permit” (Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1954)
“Shall We Have a Little Talk?” (Galaxy Magazine, October 1965)
“The People Trap” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1968)
“Ghost V” (Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1954)
“A Wind Is Rising” (Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1957)
“Gray Flannel Armor” (Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1957)
“Pilgrimage to Earth” (Playboy, September 1956)
“The Prize of Peril” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1958)
“The Store of the Worlds” (Playboy, September 1959)
“Fool’s Mate” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1953)
The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley was reprinted only once, in a Sphere (UK) paperback a year after the US edition. The cover of that one (by an unknown artist) is notable for its portrayal of the author.
Sphere UK, 1980. Artist uncredited.
If you’ve been following Matthew Wuertz’s issue-by-issue reviews of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine here at Black Gate, he’s covered a great many of Sheckley’s short stories. Here’s what he said about a couple of the stories in this collection.
“Seventh Victim” by Robert Sheckley — Murder is legal — if you sign up to participate in it. If you register, you must play two roles — first as a Hunter, second as a Victim. Hunters are given information about their Victims so they can find them. But the Victims can defend themselves and kill the Hunters. Frelaine begins pursuit of his seventh Victim — a woman who seems to have no defense and simply awaits the Hunter.
It’s an interesting premise, and I was a bit surprised (in a good way) by where the story went.
“Specialist” by Robert Sheckley — A photon storm strikes a spaceship without warning, killing one of their crew. In the ship, each crew member has a special function — Eye, Engine, Talker, Walls, etc. But without their Pusher, the ship is limited in its rate of travel. So they explore nearby systems hoping to find a planet of Pushers, no matter how primitive it may be.
There’s an excellent symbiosis of the alien characters within the ship. I wasn’t surprised that Earth was the planet of Pushers they find (I doubt most readers would be), but I think that by adding a human character, it helps to ground the story.
Our previous coverage of Robert Sheckley includes:
The Robot Who Looked Like Me
Wildside Double #6 — Alien StarSwarm by Robert Sheckley / Human’s Burden by Damien Broderick & Rory Barnes
Ten science fiction books for ten bucks
Copies of The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley aren’t hard to find — I bought the one above back in December as part of a set of 10 science fiction novels offered for ten bucks on eBay. To be honest, it was the only one I was really interested in. (Okay, I’m lying. I’m also fascinated by Pigworld, and will probably report on it here, as soon as I convince myself it’s real.)
The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley was published by Bantam Books in November 1979. It is 196 pages in paperback, priced at $1.95. The cover is by the great Paul Lehr. It has never been reprinted in the US, and there is no digital edition.
See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.
I adore Sheckley’s stories and novels and agree that he’s not well enough remembered. (If you want to bring my blood to an instant boil, put me in the presence of a voluble Douglas Adams worshiper…who’s never heard of Sheckley.) However, in 2012 New York Review Books Classics published a volume titled Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley. Over 400 pages of stories and still in print – what a deal!
I almost forgot about that book! And you’re absolutely right; it’s still in print, and well worth the $17.95 cover price. For those who, you know, prefer new books to delicious old vintage paperbacks, anyway. 🙂
“The Store of the Worlds” is probably among my top five favorite short stories ever, even though I prefer the original Playboy title, “The World of Heart’s Desire”.
I haven’t read that one. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the rec!
Back in the 90s I read almost all Sheckley’s short fiction collections, mostly slim Ballantine paperbacks. An excellent writer.
Wow, that’s a big undertaking. Which collection do you recommend for someone who’s trying Sheckley for the first time?