The Dangers of Failing to Lesnerize
NYRB Classics, 2012
In a 2003 interview with Locus Magazine, Robert Sheckley said, “A lot of us don’t want to be quite that serious about world problems. Our life is there to enjoy, not to be an eternal dissident, eternally unhappy with how things are and with the state of mankind…. I was trying not to take things too seriously.” But he did take things seriously. He was just really funny about it.
With the publications of his first short stories in 1952 until his death in 2005, Sheckley was one of science fiction’s greatest humorists, and Store of the Worlds, a newly issued selection of his stories, reads like a primer on the possibilities of satirizing the human condition. Both deadly serious and profoundly funny, this is a book of parables about the folly of good intentions, the societal tamping of primal aggressions, how we aren’t intelligent enough to keep pace with our own technology or ideals, and how, in many ways, we measure our progress in our inventions, not in wisdom or self-awareness. It lampoons, among other things, machismo, feminism, colonization, superstition, hubris of all sorts, drug enlightenment, America’s lack of preparation for it position as a postwar superpower—and the work of other science fiction writers. Sheckley understood that there’s a slender line between despair and hilarity, and to watch him maintain the fragile balance is one of the great underrated pleasures in American literature.
The 1950s heyday of the science fiction digest was a staggeringly fertile period for imaginative literature, and in their introduction, the book’s editors Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem characterize it nicely as “something more than a social formation, or a loose bundle of tropes: it was a kind of argument conducted in collective imaginative space, about what kind of fictional response to the 20th century, with its velocity of wonders and horrors, could be possible or appropriate.” Few contributed to the argument with greater skill or more variety than Robert Sheckley; like many writers of the time, he cranked out enormous quantities of material (ultimately, fifteen novels and somewhere around 400 short stories), and found a home for his work in two of the genre’s most important publications, Galaxy Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, from which most of the selections in this anthology were drawn.
It’s odd, then, after contextualizing the era and further noting that “Sheckley’s work is anchored in…the postwar U.S. consumer culture which was exploding into being in the early 1950s, with its devilish mix of seductive freedoms and injunctions to conformity,” that the editors chose to leave the stories undated (although there is a section at the end specifying where each story was “First Published”). Perhaps this is to imply that the themes are universal and not bound by their time period. This is true, but it also generalizes the material in a way that removes some of the sting: satire being social criticism, dating here is crucial to understanding the specific conditions that Sheckley, a writer precisely attuned to his times, was responding to.
Consider two stories from 1953. In “Seventh Victim,” repeated world wars have led peacekeepers to an alarming conclusion:
Simply – annihilation was just around the corner.
In the world wars, weapons increased in magnitude, efficiency and exterminating power. Soldiers became accustomed to them, less and less reluctant to use them.
But the saturation point had been reached. Another war would truly be the war to end all wars. There would be no one left to start another.
So this peace had to last for all time, but the men who engineered it were practical. They recognized the tensions and dislocations still present, the cauldrons in which wars were brewed. They asked themselves why peace had never lasted in the past.
‘Because men like to fight,’ was their answer.
‘Oh, no!’ screamed the idealists.
But the men who engineered the peace were forced to postulate, regretfully, the presence of a need for violence in a large percentage of mankind.
Emotional Catharsis Boards are subsequently established to regulate legalized murder for any man who chooses to participate as Hunter or Victim. But then Hunter Stan Frelaine, ad exec, is assigned a new Victim – Janet Patzig. Stan is upset that women won’t just stay home and leave men to their games, but even so, a kill is a kill. Janet subsequently lulls Stan with traits he finds feminine and appealing (ignorance, docility) and winds up killing him instead.
In “Watchbird”, scientists have concocted a solution to murder: the title characters, mechanical birds that fly about, swoop down, and send a debilitating electric shock into any would-be murderers, stop homicides before they occur. But, a debate ensues between the scientist Gelsen and a government representative:
‘I have an objection.’ Gelsen stood up. His colleagues were glaring coldly at him. Obviously he was delaying the advent of the golden age.
‘What is your objection?’ the representative asked.
‘First, let me say that I am one hundred percent in favor of a machine to stop murder. It’s been needed for a long time. I object only to the watchbird’s learning circuits. They serve, in effect, to animate the machine and give it a pseudo-consciousness. I can’t approve of that.’
‘But, Mr. Gelsen, you yourself testified that the watchbird would not be completely efficient unless such circuits were introduced. Without them, the watchbirds could stop only an estimated seventy per cent of murders.’
‘I know that,’ Gelsen said, feeling extremely uncomfortable. ‘I believe that there might be a moral danger in allowing a machine to make decisions that are rightfully man’s,’ he declared doggedly.
The watchbirds are dispatched, they accrue information, their definition of murder expands, and soon they are stopping all living organisms from harming other living organisms, including hunters, fishermen, surgeons cutting patients, farmers cutting hay, rabbits eating vegetables, spiders catching flies. So scientists develop Hawks to kill the watchbirds, leaving Gelsen to wonder, once the watchbirds are gone, what the Hawks will determine needs to be killed next.
Two great ideas, beautifully developed. But to ignore that they are stories about the societal maintenance of murder, written post-World War II, by a Korean War veteran, no less, is to miss something beyond the satisfaction of a tale well told. Beneath the simple, fluid, almost breezy prose lie serious concerns about governmental and personal responsibility, and the morality inherent in setting potentially uncontrollable technology loose on an unprepared public. A writer who could distill, for instance, the anxieties of a society soberly regulating legalized murder, while also managing to deride war, male vanity, scientific hubris, and gender politics, has a sense of the tragic as acute as his sense of humor, and it’s these sensibilities that render Sheckley’s conceptions not only of universal concern, but, crucially, of his time.
Both of these senses are on full display throughout the collection, and ground even the most playful ideas with serious concerns. In “Protection” (1956), a voice that identifies itself as “a validusian derg” saves the narrator from being hit by a truck, informs him that a derg’s sole desire is to protect someone from unseen dangers, then commences to give relentless warnings of potential danger, not only in New York, but in Jersey City, Mexico City, Toronto, Omaha, Papeete – none of which the narrator has plans to go to, but, you know, just in case. Confused at the ever-increasing risks and finally reaching a point where his fear has become overwhelming, the narrator asks how he has become so much more susceptible to danger since the derg began protecting him:
‘Surely you know [the derg said] that if you accept protection, you must accept the drawbacks of protection as well.’
‘Drawbacks like what?’
The derg hesitated. ‘Protection begets the need of further protection. That is a universal constant.’
‘Come again?’ I asked in bewilderment.
‘Before you met me, you were like everyone else and you ran such risks as your situation offered. But with my coming your immediate environment has changed. And your position has changed, too.’
‘Because it has me in it. To some extent now, you partake of my environment, just as I partake of yours. And, of course, it is well known that the avoidance of one danger opens the path to others.’
‘Are you trying to tell me,’ I said, very slowly, ‘that my risks have increased because of your help?’
‘It was unavoidable,’ he sighed.
Contact with the derg has also opened the narrator up to other dangers. There’s the gamper, the grailers, the feegs, the leeps, which can be warded off with things like mistletoe and graveyard mold and keeping the closet door closed, but and worst of all, the thrang, which can only be eliminated if the narrator does not lesnerize. Problem is, the thrang gets the derg before it can define lesnerize, so the narrator is left alone, his actions reduced to eating and sleeping, afraid that anything more ambitious might cause his doom. It’s all great fun, but it’s the derg’s sigh that elevates “Protection” to something approaching tragedy; Sheckley’s is a universe when even dergs are slaves to their nature and weary from the inexplicable rules of existence. A friend I showed this story to got it exactly backwards when he said, “It’s good, but he’s no Douglas Adams.”
Despite being published in mainstream magazines like Playboy (which, in the past, took its fiction very seriously), Sheckley has usually been relegated to the genre ghetto, even if at an exalted level, and, yes, new readers will find, on occasion, genre tropes and clichés that will tempt a dismissal. Characters are mostly just moving parts in the idea machine, distinguished solely by rudimentary emotions (eagerness, trepidation, fear), and at this point in your reading life, you may not savor overripe expressions like “the cauldrons in which wars were brewed,” or need to be informed, as when a watchbird inexplicably appears to thwart an execution, that “Prisons are large and strong, with many locked doors.” But banalities like these occur rarely, and as the reader progresses through the riotous absurdities, stunning moments of pathos, and some of the most compassionate tales of lost innocents (and innocence) to be found in science fiction, any complaints become merely quibbles. There’s an thrilling cumulative effect as the worlds continue to deepen and elements cohere more seamlessly, and by the time we get to the superb final stories, terribly funny and moving tales of loneliness and desire, you can understand why Sheckley has often been compared to Voltaire.
In “Cordle to Onion to Carrot” (1969), for instance, Howard Cordle, milquetoast, always at the mercy of bossy people,
…couldn’t understand why this should be, until one mid-summer’s day, when he was driving through the northern regions of Spain while stoned out of his mind, the god Thoth-Hermes granted him original enlightenment by murmuring, ‘Uh, look, I groove with the problem, baby, but dig, we gotta put carrots in or it ain’t no stew.’
Everyone, Thoth-Hermes elaborates, is a necessary ingredient for humanity’s stew, both the docile (onions, like Cordle) and the aggressive (carrots). Then he gives Cordle acid, and leaves as
Cordle closed his eyes and solved various problems that had perplexed the greatest philosophers of all ages…. He awoke six hours later…[having] forgotten most of his brilliant insights, the lucid solutions. It was inconceivable: How can one misplace the keys of the universe? But he had, and there seemed no hope of reclaiming them. Paradise was lost for good.
He did remember about the onions and carrots, though, and he remembered The Stew.
Mindful of The Stew, Cordle goes alpha, i.e., carrot, and confronts various forces of oppression throughout Europe (a waiter, a clerk, a guy honking his car horn), resulting in astonishing repercussions – while demanding an apology from the horn honker, a crowd of tens of thousands gathers, military police throughout Italy assume a state of alert, Soviet tanks in Hungary prepare for a NATO assault, Switzerland seals its borders. The honker relents, apologizes, and Cordle, like a newly anointed Caesar, triumphantly drives through the Arch of Titus accompanied by the blare of a thousand trumpets. But then he falls in love with Mavis, an irrevocable onion, who can’t bear Cordle’s world-altering bravado. They marry, settle down in New Jersey, and Cordle is resigned to the occasional, surreptitious “vacation,” where he is free to unleash his inner carrot.
Then, in “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This” (1969), the frigid, materialistic Melisande is sent a vacuum cleaner, the Rom. Affronted (she already owns a vacuum cleaner), she angrily demands to know who sent it. The Rom refuses to reveal the sender’s identity, and begins to seduce her via stain removal and erotic massage. Melisande, alarmed at feeling actual pleasure, demands to know who sent him:
The Rom hesitated, then blurted out: ‘The fact is, Melisande, I sent myself.’
‘It all began three months ago,’ the Rom told her. ‘It was a Thursday. You were in Stern’s, trying to decide if you should buy a sesame-seed toaster that lit up in the dark and recited Invictus.’
‘I remember that day,’ she said quietly. ‘I did not buy the toaster, and I have regretted it ever since.’
‘I was standing nearby,’ the Rom said, ‘at booth eleven, in the Home Appliances Systems section. I looked at you and I fell in love with you. Just like that.’
‘That’s weird,’ Melisande said.
‘My sentiments exactly. I told myself it couldn’t be true. I refused to believe it. I thought perhaps one of my transistors had come unsoldered, or that maybe the weather had something to do with it. It was a very warm, humid day, the kind of day that plays hell with my wiring.’
‘I remember the weather,’ Melisande said. ‘I felt strange, too.’
‘It shook me up badly,’ the Rom continued. ‘But still I didn’t’ give in easily. I told myself it was important to stick to my job, give up this unapropos madness. But I dreamed of you at night, and every inch of my skin ached for you.’
‘But your skin is made of metal,’ Melisande said. ‘And metal can’t feel.’
‘Darling Melisande,’ the Rom said tenderly, ‘if flesh can stop feeling, can’t metal begin to feel?’
Well, no, of course, but who could resist the exhilarating, deranged romanticism, or the melancholy in Rom’s insistence that, “…the stars love and hate… The trees have their lusts, and I have heard the drunken laughter of buildings, the urgent demands of highways…,” as if we humans have isolated ourselves from a universe literally alive with yearning? Suddenly, David Levy doesn’t seem so insane.
And speaking of yearning, in “Is That What People Do?” (1978) Eddie Quintero has bought binoculars
…looking for that moment of vision, of total attention, that comes when a bit of the world is suddenly framed and illuminated, permitting the magnified and extended eye to find novelty and drama in what had been the dull everyday world.
The moment of insight never lasts long. Sooner you’re caught up again in your habitual outlook. But the hope remains that something – a gadget, a book, a person- will change your life finally and definitively, lift you out of the unspeakable silent sadness of yourself, and permits you at last to behold the wonders which you always knew were there, just beyond your vision.
To put it another way, he wants to spy on women undressing in the hotel across the street. What he does see is lunatic role-playing, a conjured man-sized smoke-monkey committing sexual assault, and finally, himself, or not himself, staring back through the binoculars.
Like any great science fiction, the stories sound ludicrous, and like all great literature, each makes its own kind of perfect sense. If Store of the Worlds doesn’t secure Sheckley in the canon the way the Library of America volumes have for Philip K. Dick (Who’s in charge of this canon, anyway? Lethem? If so, reelect him for another term), it still makes a welcome addition to the NYRB Classics, an invaluable imprint that brings great ‘lost’ or neglected works back into print. This one’s a beauty. Deeply humane, full of lyrical, spirited prose, it consistently provides the genre’s most coveted quality, a sense of wonder, and when you finish, you are left, for days afterwards, with a persistent feeling of delight. If there’s something higher to shoot for in the literature of ideas, I don’t know what it could be.
Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. His fiction has appeared most recently in The Coffin Factory, and will be in upcoming editions of Locust and Anemone Sidecar.