Irony and Misunderstanding in the Stories of Robert Sheckley

By David Horwich

Cover of Notions Unlimited

The merciless world of publishing relegates many fine authors to the ranks of the out-of-print, leaving readers dependent on word of mouth or serendipitous discovery to find them. One such author is Robert Sheckley, most of whose work is available only on the shelves of used bookstores. Sheckley was a prolific SF short story writer in the 1950s; since then he has focused mainly on novels. His 1959 novel Immortality, Inc. was the basis for the movie Freejack, and some of his recent work includes the novels Soma Blues and Godshome, collaborations with Harry Harrison and Roger Zelazny, and books based on Star Trek, Babylon 5, and the movie Aliens.

Sheckley's short fiction, unfortunately, is essentially out of print. Story collections such as Untouched By Human Hands, Citizen In Space, Store of Infinity, Notions: Unlimited, and The People Trap, among others, are well worth reading, if you can find them. Sheckley is known for his sharp, satirical style, and his humor is often tinged with ironic bitterness at human folly. Although he wrote them decades ago, Sheckley's stories have a very modern feel; one of his best-known stories, "The Prize of Peril", is a prevision of today's 'reality TV' -- except in Sheckley's world, the game is lethal. Many of the themes that recur in Sheckley's work seem relevant today.

A number of his stories could be called "farces of misunderstanding" -- situations in which two different cultures, or races, or species, are unable to understand each other, usually because of radically different world-views and assumptions. These often take place in the characteristically Sheckleyian context of the colonization of a new planet, usually by Earth-based humans (but not always; count on Sheckley to explore the comic potential of role reversal). The Frankenstein theme -- the hidden dangers and costs of science and technology -- runs through many stories, and dominates in ones such as "Watchbird" and "The Gun Without a Bang". A related theme is what I call "poisoned paradises" -- worlds that are not what they first appear to be, as in "Paradise II" or "Ticket to Tranai". Some or all of these are often combined in a single story.

One of Sheckley's favorite techniques is to place a thoroughly ordinary character into an extraordinary situation. "The Minimum Man" explores this theme in exaggerated form. In this story, Anton Perceveral, an undistinguished, untalented individual, obtains a job as a planetary explorer -- not because he is well equipped to explore new planets, but because he is poorly equipped -- a "minimum man":

"So you want me because any place I can live in, anyone can live in."

"That more or less sums up our thinking on the problem," Haskell said, smiling genially.

"But what would my chances be?"

"Some of our minimum-survival explorers have done very well."

Having accepted the job, Perceveral is dropped off on an uninhabited world, accompanied only by a robot provided by the Plantary Exploration & Settlement Board. After a period of self-sufficiency, the robot begins to malfunction and act strangely. Perceveral discovers that the robot has been designed to sabotage his growing self-reliance. The more accomplished and clever Perceveral becomes, the more damaging the robot's mistakes and calamities. Finally Perceveral dedicates himself to deactivating the robot, a hazardous task (the Frankenstein theme makes its appearance here). By defeating the robot Perceveral disqualifies himself from further work as an explorer -- he is no longer incompetent enough to qualify. This ironic reversal -- Perceveral resigning himself to the quiet life of a colonist instead of moving on to explore new worlds with his new-found skills and self-confidence -- is a typical Sheckley twist.

Another story that presents a person in a situation s/he's not prepared to handle is "Skulking Permit", a story that is also a hilarious farce of misunderstanding. New Delaware, a small Earth colony, loses touch with the center for two centuries because of war back on Earth. The colony goes its own peaceful way until one day they receive an unexpected message from Imperial Earth (formerly the United Democracies) -- an inspector is coming to visit and make sure the colony is still loyal to Earth and follows Earth ways, with "no radical departures from the norm, such as free will, free love, free elections, or anything else on the proscribed list."

After this long period of isolation the colonists don't know much about Earth and Earth society, but in order to please the inspector they try to recreate what they perceive to be Earth's social and cultural structure. For the sake of accuracy, they decide that their peaceful, crime-free village requires a jail, and a criminal, although no one on New Delaware is really sure they know what these things are. The reluctant nominee for the job of criminal, Tom Fisher, tries to understand:

"I don't see why there has to be a criminal," Tom said.

"That's a very important part of Earth society," the mayor explained. "All the books agree on it. The criminal is as important as the postman, say, or the police chief. Unlike them, the criminal is engaged in anti-social work. He works against society, Tom. If you don't have people working against society, how can you have people working for it? There'd be no jobs for them to do."

Tom takes the job and tries, to the best of his ability, to become a thief and murderer, but his attempts at actual crime are absurdly ineffective. Despite the other villagers' attempts to help him, he hasn't committed nearly enough crime to satisfy the worried mayor by the time the inspector arrives --

He fixed Tom with a stern stare. "Criminals on Earth commit dozens of murders a day and never even think about it. All your village wants of you is one little killing. Is that too much to ask?"

Tom spread his hands nervously. "Do you really think it's necessary?"

"You know it is," the mayor said. "If we're going earthly, we have to go all the way."

The mayor chose Tom to be the criminal because he hoped that being a fisherman, Tom would be able to deal with the gory aspects of murder, but he is unable to bring himself to do it. When the Imperial inspector arrives, it turns out that his main mission is to gather men & supplies to help fight a revolt on another colony. Tom's inability to commit a murder demonstrates that the colony's inhabitants are unable to kill after decades of peace --

"Then the rest of you would be equally unable to kill?"

"We wouldn't even get as far as Tom did," the mayor admitted sadly.

The soldiers were staring at the villagers with wonder and respect. They started to whisper among themselves.

The inspector, his ship, and his troops hastily depart New Delaware lest the soldiers become infected with the pacifist spirit of the colony.

The theme of cultural clashes and misunderstandings receives a bleaker treatment in "Pilgrimage to Earth". Alfred Simon, born and raised on a quiet agricultural planet, yearns to visit Earth, where "everything is possible", and find love. He works and saves for years to afford the trip, but once he finally arrives on Earth he learns that it's not what he expected (the poisoned paradise). He's soon disillusioned when he stumbles across a shooting gallery, with live ammunition and live female targets. A naive outworlder on a cynical, jaded planet, Simon does find love -- Love, Inc., which sells him the experience of a night of genuine love. Simon is brutally disappointed when he discovers that the experience was programmed, entirely a commodity, and in his rage he returns to the shooting gallery to vent his anger. The clash of cultures, the poisoned paradise, the ordinary man out of his environment all come together in this disturbing ending.

In a more satirical vein is "The Native Problem", another outrageous farce of misunderstanding that touches on other recurring themes of Sheckley's work. Like Perceveral and Simon, Edward Danton is a misfit, a loner in a highly social world. Danton leaves Earth to live alone on a distant planet, but he finds that isolation was more enjoyable imagined than lived. After a period of increasing loneliness, a spaceship comes to his planet -- an older, slower ship that has been traveling, and cut off from broader human civilization, for over a century.

These new arrivals ("Hutters"), who are paranoid and belligerent after an unpleasant encounter with the natives at a previous landfall, are unwilling and unable to believe that Danton is an Earthman. Despite his protests to the contrary, the Hutters take him for a potentially dangerous "native", and misinterpret all the evidence of his earthly origins; for example, to pass the time Danton had carved a number of large stone statues -- the Hutters take these to be examples of 'primitive' art. They explain away his knowledge of English by theorizing that he learned it from a passing trader. Nothing Danton says can convince the Hutters that he isn't deceiving them; they believe he's concealing the existence of countless other 'savages', to whom the Hutters are determined to bring "the fruits of civilization and the flowers of culture."

Danton ends up being chased off into the jungle by the Hutters when he's found in an embrace with the daughter of the Hutters' leader. The Hutters, hopelessly mired in their delusional world-view, decide to offer Danton and his "people" a treaty and a 1000-acre reservation -- their solution to the native problem. Danton turns the Hutters' lunacy against them: instead of continuing to try to convince them that he's a single Earthman, he bluffs the Hutters into accommodation by threatening them with an attack of 50,000 New Tahitian natives. To seal the new "alliance" between the Hutters and his people, Danton marries the leader's daughter and accepts his role as the "Last Native" --

"My people?" [he] would say, when questioned. "Ah, they could not stand the white man's diseases, the white man's mechanical civilization, the white man's harsh and repressive ways. They are in a happier place now. . .".

Danton, like Perceveral, Fisher, and Simon, ends up playing a part diametrically opposed to his original expectations -- the last native, instead of the first man. As we have seen, this inversion of expectations, resulting from misunderstanding and mutual incomprehension, is the characteristically ironic outcome of many of Sheckley's stories. His ordinary characters, reluctant heroes, experience extraordinary situations that force them into unanticipated roles as they struggle against the absurdities of humanity and machines.

Sadly, Sheckley's stories have gone the way of Danton's imaginary people -- they could not stand the publishing industry's harsh and repressive ways. His brilliant satire and sharp, ironic observations deserve to be better known today.


David Horwich is an Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.