1950s, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, 1957, 1960, 1960s, Bantam, David Bergen, Galaxy Science Fiction, Robert Sheckley, science fiction, short fiction, social satire, Soft SF, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
I said Sheckley was going to appear a lot more on my blog, but I was thinking of his magazine appearances in Galaxy to be honest. In case you didn’t see my last (chronological) post, Robert Sheckley is an underrated master of satirical, witty SF who made frequent appeareces in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine but who has been largely forgotten today. Sheckley’s been getting some more attention ever since the NYRB collected 26 of his stories in the collection Store Of The Worlds, but I’d still say he’s criminally under-appreciated.
The other half of my not-double, Notions: Unlimited collects a dozen of Sheckley’s short works, among them several of his best. Or, at least I consider them such. Well, some of his most famous at least. Nine of them appeared in the NYRB’s Store Of The Worlds, which says a lot; I actually own several of the magazine issues they appeared in. Three-fourths of them come from Galaxy, Sheckley’s old stomping grounds, though two come from F&SF, one from the short-lived Fantasy Magazine, and one from August Derleth’s Time To Come anthology. (Apologies in advance, since revealing even a little snippet of the stories can make it easy to predict the frequent twist/surprise endings.)
Gray Flannel Armor – Galaxy – Nov 1957
Our protagonist is one of the millions of lonely young men clad in gray flannel suits and horn-rimmed glasses prowling New York for swashbuckling romance and true love. Lucky for him, science is catching up with the times; he’s approached by an old sales rep peddling a subscription service that offers night after night of romance, and the first month’s free. Note that the offer is for romance, not love. A brilliant satire that still holds up in the era of e-dating and digital matchmaking services, with several laugh-out-loud lines and brilliant pacing. A classic Sheckley tale, and a great starting-off point. I really liked it; so did NBC, who adapted it for their X Minus One SF radio serial.
The Leech – Galaxy – Dec 1952
A strange being falls to Earth, which devours both matter and force to increase its mass—and it’s got an appetite. The proverbial tale about the immovable object, in this case the titular leech, versus the unstoppable force, in this case the U.S. Army. Given that it eats kinetic energy, I think you can see where this is going. The ending is particularly dark. A decent story, but this is a tale you’ve probably already seen before, making it a bit redundant; it reminds me of a lot of the monster movies of the era.
Watchbird – Galaxy – Feb 1953
A Presidential mandate to stop murder sees the initiation of the watchbirds—robotic avian watchers who can sense the brain waves and chemical glands given off by would-be killers. (An idea that turned out to be somewhat prophetic. Also– who watches the watchbirds?) The watchbirds were also given adaptive circuitry which allows them to notice the same murderous behavior in those few who don’t give off the same brain wave pattern or chemical scent as most murderers—only, the watchbirds’ adaptive reasoning goes far beyond what anyone had programmed them for. One of Sheckley’s more famous tales, a brutal satire that shows even the best intentions have damning consequences.
A Wind is Rising – Galaxy – July 1957
The winds of Carella I make a hurricane look tame, blowing up to two-hundred miles an hour in the case of a storm. (The octopus-like natives don’t seem to mind.) Two unlucky observers, Clayton and Nerishev, are running low on provisions, and it’s Clayton’s turn to head out in a twelve-ton armored truck to do a quick repair job on their water lines. As he leaves the observation station, the winds increase into a hellish maelstrom, and for some reason the natives are beginning to gather around the station… A tense story with taught writing, a very gripping depiction of planetary survival. The ending twist is superb, if half expected; I still loved it.
Morning After – Galaxy – Nov 1957
As the protagonist wakes up on a hellish alien world with amnesia and a hangover, the story alternates between the present and his daily life on New York City that led up to arriving in the alien jungle. For the former, it’s battling the hostile wildlife for survival; the latter shows a sterile Earth ruled by a World Government whose leaders sway public opinion for elections by offering free goods and services to citizens. Eventually, he remembers heading to the Total Recall-esque Adventures Unlimited on a bender back in New York City. How it all ties together is a work of genius; I liked this one though it could have been stronger in places.
The Native Problem – Galaxy – Dec 1956
Edward Danton never really fit in to the suburban life of the future, with its highly integrated social systems and games. That’s why he became a pioneer, a colonist on a remote tropical paradise planet he names New Tahiti. A few years down the line, trouble starts brewing in paradise with the arrival of colonists—descendants of a generation ship which left earth 120 years ago. They see Ed and assume he’s a native who’s learned English from passing traders, and having had trouble with natives on past planets, the colonists are more than a little worried about the native situation on New Tahiti. Another brilliant and witty satire that prods at post-colonialism and the burden of civilization. Sheckley crams a lot of fascinating world-building into a tight-knit story. One of my favorites in this collection.
Feeding Time – Fantasy Magazine – Mar 1953
Digging through a used bookstore, man finds an obscure title: The Care and Feeding of Gryphons, with the appendix “How To Get To The Zoo.” I thought the story was predictable a mile away; the tale itself is the shortest in this collection. Very minor Sheckley from a very minor magazine.
Paradise II – Time to Come, 1954 (anthology)
Two plucky planet-hunters strike gold and find an Earth-like planet to exploit, but their dreams of striking it rich by selling habitation, mining, and refueling rights are quashed when they find it littered with billions and billions of skeletons. In search of clues, and to make sure no survivors are there to claim ownership of the planet, they investigate a now-derelict orbital space station. A beautifully dark and twisted tale, with the grimmest finale I’ve seen from the era’s fiction. It made me a bit sick, but I loved it. Not fit for magazine publication, it showed up in one of Arkham House’s ’50s anthologies of new science fiction.
Double Indemnity – Galaxy – Oct 1957
Taking out an expensive life insurance plan on himself, the protagonist jumps forward and backward on a quest to cheat the system and make it rich. It’s revealed that his end-goal is to fake double indemnity—a situation where time-travel generates a mirror duplicate of a time-traveler; both are rewarded handsomely, one being allowed to stay in the present, the other forced to live in the past—and is looking through his past ancestors to find a suitable candidate. Another brilliant satire; solid and well-told. With greed as the main motive, don’t expect the happiest of endings.
Holdout – F&SF – Dec 1957
In the future, race prejudices and bigotry has been quashed, if only because space travel demands its crews to be a tight-knit community that operates well together. So it’s a surprise for Captain Sven when his radioman refuses to work with a prospective crewman based on racial prejudices and his Mountain-Georgian ancestry. Probably the best and most timely satire in the collection, it’s a clear allegory for the Southern US states in the Jim Crow-era. Sheckley does a great job leading us through all the types of crew the radioman does work fine with; although the ending became an easy guess, it was still satiric gold.
Dawn Invader – F&SF – Mar 1957
Mankind has been taught for time immemorial that alien species cannot exist in harmony, and has developed a rigorous method for eliminating these foreign threats. Covert operatives are sent into alien civilizations to merge minds with a native, dominate the new host body in a psychic arena, and then humanity’s natural leadership would take the now-controlled host to the top of the alien social structures. Our protagonist is one such warrior, and the psychic mind-scape battleground is the story’s focus. Though, not without a trademark surprise at the end. The satirical target here is war, and the idea that evolutionary life is in constant conflict and unable to adapt peaceful relations with other life-forms. A poignant brain behind a solid action story.
The Language of Love – Galaxy – May 1957
Our protagonist lacks the ability to relate his love for a girlfriend in terms he deems acceptable, so he heads out to learn the Language of Love, left by the dead race that invented it. His teacher is the sole earthman to spend time with the extinct aliens; his goal, to be able to truly relate his feelings for his girl. In typical Sheckley fashion, an enjoyable leadup to a brilliant surprise at the end which, predictable or not, is worth the wait. This story is a bit slower than the others, and tended to meander in the middle to build steam and spend time, but it was still an enjoyable gem.
The Bottom Line
An interesting run of shorter works. Seven stories from 1957, two from 1954, and one each from 1956, 1953, 1952; it wasn’t that Sheckley was more prolific in the later years of the ’50s, but that more of his fiction had already been published in collections like Citizen in Space (1955, mostly containing stories from 1953-55). And again, while nine of the twelve were reprinted in Store Of The Worlds (among other sources), Notions: Unlimited was itself not reprinted that often. It’s a shame, because like most of Sheckley’s work, it’s a gold mine for readers who enjoy social science fiction and satirical SF—in short, those entertained by the Galaxy-type story, since Sheckley was one of the poster-children for that magazine.
I’d say this collection’s quality was high, though that is all up to your subjective opinion. My favorites include “Gray Flannel Armor,” “Watchbird,” “A Wind is Rising,” ” The Native Problem,” “Paradise II,” “Holdout,” and “Dawn Invader.” None of the stories were true stinkers, though “The Leech” didn’t feel up to the same high standards as the other tales, “Morning After” could have used tightening up, and “Feeding Time” was a one-joke short-short and felt insubstantial. The collection is worth seeking out if you like satirical fiction, if only because Sheckley had a master’s hand at the short fiction formats, weaving tight-knit narratives bursting with creative ideas that still have room for a surprise revelation at the end.