My last few reads have been deep, dark, serious SF, and after all that I realized I just wanted something fun for a change. Robert Sheckley came to mind. Sheckley is a bit underrated these days, though a recent collection by the NYRB may help correct that; he was one of the finest SF social satirists of the 1950s, ranking at the top with William Tenn, Fred Pohl, and Cyril Kornbluth. His novel Dimension of Miracles was one of many books recommended to me in a past post’s comments by Mike of Transreal Fiction (a place I’ll be sure to stop at if I ever get to Edinburgh). Other than that, all I knew about it was from endless comparisons to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker books, which was a ringing endorsement to me.
Tom Carmody’s only exceptional trait was that he’s exceptionally unlucky, as an alien arrives to inform him he’s won the Galactic Lottery. Shrugging, he accepts and is brought to galactic center, only to be interrupted by another Carmody who claims the Prize belongs to him. After sorting that out, and obtaining his Prize, Carmody finds himself in a tricky situation—he has no homing instinct to guide him back to Earth, and not knowing the Where, When, and Which coordinates of his planet, the lotto organizers are unable to transport him home. The shapechanging Prize proves to be of questionable utility. Worse yet, he’s pursued by a dangerous predatory entity which tries to trick Carmody into becoming supper. Forced to run, Carmody hops between worlds, visiting an array of planets and alternate Earths—other realities, past incarnations, and outright fabrications—in his attempt to get home.
Much of Dimension of Miracles is a madcap scramble between strange worlds, a kind of ludicrous, picaresque journey from one silly set-piece to another. Each one is a brilliant combination of humor and world-building: there’s the Earth populated by intelligent talking dinosaurs, and the sentient city that’s nagged all of its inhabitants away, and the alternate New York where everyone speaks in advertising jingles and catchphrases. Sheckley’s humor felt very British to me, like Monty Python blurring one skit into another, or Douglas Adams’ similarly madcap Hitchhiker’s Trilogy (all five volumes of it). It’s often compared to Adams’ work, and I did find some similarities: the comments on philosophy and the human condition, the madcap scramble in a universe much more important and grand than anything found on ole Earth. Both are hit-or-miss with their humor, and neither are jam-packed with gut-busting laughs, but throw so many jokes and parodies on the page that it’s hard to read without grinning and chuckling.
But underneath that layer of humor is some rather deep commentary on philosophy, religion, free will, the laws of predation and diminishing returns. Some of the humor is blatant, like the advertising taglines world. Others have a cunning depth to them. The intelligent tyrannosaurs’ comfortable stone-age society mirrors the 1950s, with some civil rights elements thrown in; the T-Rex patriarch makes derogatory comments about the other intelligent dinosaurs (hadrosaurs, if you must know), commenting on their appearance and asking if the “hadrosaur problem” has been solved in the future. There’s a number of gods or god-like beings creating entire planets and moving Carmody about like an insignificant pet, the events so far beyond his control (and outside his knowledge of reality)… yet these gods are flawed, rich with hypocrisy, bullshit artists of the first order. The multitude of gods constructing an even greater multitude of miracles wears out Carmody’s surprise and they become commonplace:
The fact was, Carmody was annoyed. He had encountered too many entities of great magnitude and miraculous power. He had been one-upped from one end of the galaxy to the other. Forces, creations and personifications had jumped out at him without cessation, causing him time and time again to lose his cool. Carmody was a reasonable man; he knew there was an interstellar pecking order, and that humans did not rate very high on it. But he was also a proud man. He believed that a man stood for something, if only for himself. A man couldn‘t very well go around all the time saying ‘Oh!’ and ‘Ah!’ and ‘Bless my soul!’ to the various inhuman entities that surrounded him; he couldn‘t do that and keep any self-respect. Carmody cared more than a little for his self-respect. It was, at this point, one of the few things he still possessed.
Dimension of Miracles is a meandering screwball comedy, an outrageous trip from start to finish. It may not be as tight as the best of Sheckley’s witty short satires, and its jokes often succeed due by sheer number and rapid succession. But it’s a very enjoyable book, combining a rich array of satire with some rather poignant insight into philosophy and religion—it’s a satire with something to say. Even readers who normally disdain comedic works may find something of value in the satire and philosophizing buried just below the time-twisting humor and outright silliness. It’s not a very long read, but a worthwhile one for fans of Douglas Adams, comedic SF fans in general, or readers of Sheckley and other ’50s social satirists.