By John Clute
21 May 2012
Up here in the second decade, still wired at dawn into box canyon dreams of living in the century where the House Always Wins, waking can seem a bit like reading the last words of a Robert Sheckley story: Thought you'd get away, did you? Have another think!!!! You just saved us a trip.
"If he didn't hurry he would miss the evening potato ration."
"'Now I can join the Tens,' he heard her say elatedly as she squeezed the trigger."
"Food! Food for the starving billions on Paradise II!"
"There was no denying it. Both gods were on their feet now, standing with their heads tilted back, mouths open to the rain."
"It was as happy an ending as could be found in the latter half of the twenty-first century."
"Ah, he thought, just before the sudden rush of extreme cold. I've been in storage. They must just be waking me up."
[Note that each of these endings is pure SF: not a metaphor in sight.]
[Note that pure SF is not really about being about something.]
Dawn in 2012, or the last sentence of a Sheckley story from 1953 or so, are whistle-blowers on anyone who jumps cover, commits to an Attempted Escape, forgets that the House Always Wins. Unlike most Utopias—unlike all those doomed Five-Year Plans Guaranteeing Purchasers an out from the Law of Answered Prayer—most of the great Sheckley stories, bar a few cheerier tales featuring aliens or humans who are safely off-planet, are about what happens to human beings when the future stops teasing us. The heart of his best work is all about comeuppance, what happens in the latter years of the Age of Anxiety when the spell fails and you hit vacuum like Casey, what happens when the gods grant your wish. The heart of a Sheckley story is how it ends.
Perhaps this is more common than we think. Maybe the long-held shibboleth against spoilers (as an author of encyclopedia entries for many years, I can attest to how difficult it can be to find out from reviews or critical works what some half-century-old story I've never actually read or long forgotten is actually about) blindsides us from getting the point—getting to the heart—of much of what we read: because what we can't talk about we can't remember.
Whatever. I just pulled an old trick back there. The last Sheckley quote above wasn't by Sheckley. Jumping the gun of this column, whose aim is to show (or at any rate to hint broadly) that the two authors on view walk the same plank, I quoted the last lines of Brian Evenson's Immobility, his third book this year. Brian ("He stayed there, motionless, his hands still clenched where her neck had been, trying to bring her back. He waited for someone to tell him who to be next." The Open Curtain (2007); "And only then did it start happening, again and again and again." Baby Leg (2009)) Evenson is a writer the heart of whose tales, like Sheckley's, are often found in the sting at the end, though Immobility may tentatively allow a sense that to repeat the nightmare of history is better than to die in vacuum. There is some terminal grandeur in this, some earned echo of the Samuel Beckett who provides an epigraph and who permeates the novel, an obduracy Sheckley quails from, or is too battered to indulge in (he was born in 1928); he reads like some HUAC surivivor gone to ground, though savage if cornered. In Evenson, when the trap shuts you start again like Sisyphus; in Sheckley, the game is over.
As the sharp introduction (PDF) by editors Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem makes clear, there is not much new in Store of the Worlds: the Stories of Robert Sheckley (though there's not a single bad choice, either). Of the 26 tales here republished (all originally released between 1953 and 1978), 15 are shared with Is That What People Do? (1979), and there are several other earlier assemblages to choose among, not counting the original collections—the most famous of these being the first, Untouched by Human Hands (1954)—or for that matter the 5-volume Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley (1991), which encompasses the same chronological period. This last title evokes a question, one I cannot answer myself (because I haven't done the work): were none of the 50 stories Sheckley published between 1991 and his death in 2005, 25 of them in the twenty-first century, good enough to be chosen here?
The easy answer, and it's a fair one, could be Maybe Yes Maybe No, but the task on hand was to capture the Robert Sheckley who rode the zeitgeist into the August 1952 Galaxy and stayed there, and of whose best stories, as Abramovich and Lethem astutely suggest, "you may forget the titles and the author's name, only to rediscover them . . . many years later, with a sense of recognition akin to discovering someone else recounting a dream that you yourself once had." I think Sheckley's end-stopped tales may nestle phoenix-like within the pleached trellis-work of memory partly because they do precisely locate the heart of telling at the point where telling stops and dreamwork begins: those last words which tell us what we've lost (the story under the story, the dream in which the House does not win) and what we've gained (a phosphorescent touch of the truth of things: which is to say that if we have to be told the truth, it's best told in words which sink into our being because they are beautiful).
But they also lie down there in the bone shop because of the nature of the age during which most of the were written, the period after World War Two when the storytellers of the civilization of the West had arguably become musclebound after the demands of the previous two decades. Suddenly we were all dressed up with nowhere to go but Cold. The Korean War seems to have occurred in some impossibly distant caricature venue, the main survival of that anguish in the American memory being some vague amnesiacal whimsy about brainwashing. The Manchurian Candidate, in the 1959 novel by Richard Condon and the 1962 film by John Frankenheimer, may be one of the few renderings of that airless plush decade to startle us now with its radical exposure of dysfunctions familial and political, of a sense that the engines that turned the world were spinning their wheels (the year after the film, of course, Kennedy was assassinated; which spiked the wheels for many of us who thought history had begun again). The novel ends with the brainwashed Candidate's suicide, and Major Marco "listening intently for a memory of [him], for the faintest rustle of his ever having lived, but there was none." The movie ends with his simply murmuring "Hell . . . hell."
Under the wit and occasional hilarity of his stories (he is always likened to Vonnegut and William Tenn and the gang), Sheckley is in fact, it may be, the darkest of them: because almost nothing happens in his stories that is not punished profoundly, punished because a move was made in the termitary silence of 1953; if his characters make a move (often comically doomed, ho ho), they are pinned to the shite by the Anwer to their Prayer. Like freshly pinned butterflies, they donate us their ichor.
Immobility is not worse than this, though it is far more certain that Evenson knows exactly what he's on about, so there is very little room for manoeuvre in this short dark tale set near post-holocaust Salt Lake City. Rubble and ruined freeways and abandoned churches and strip malls and poisonous red water in the creeks all generate a deeply 1950s aura, a sense of focused belatedness markedly increased through our gradual (but really pretty quick) awareness that the paraplegic protagonist, Josef Horkai, who has just been painfully yanked out of deep sleep, is a bomb-created mutant (though not a zombie) and is immune to radiation and most bodily damage. The tiny survivor community he awakes into is run on military lines (another '50s touch) by the sadistic Rasmas (sadists in power are a constant in Evenson's work), who forces Horkai (who seems to have a Darwin-Award-winning loyalty gene) to travel across the desert in search of a McGuffin. He is carried by two vat clones named Oleg and Olaf, whose patter is eerily Beckettian; he reaches his goal, which seems to an accurate rendering of the Mormon Granite Mountain Records Vault, where millions of family records are (in real life) stored, and where (in Immobility) Horkai's fellow mutants have hunkered down for reasons which may be clear to readers of Evenson's early work on his excommunication from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the sort of thing I personally find too painful to look for narratives about. In the vault is found the McGuffin, which turns out to be enough undamaged seed to start history all over again. Horkai returns (by this time he has been persuaded that his paralysis is more or less imaginary), gives over the seedcase, and allows Rasmas to return him to deep freeze: he does not escape the story: but he goes on.
It is a simple story, notable out of the overall context of Evenson's densely urgent work for two things: a belatedness that may be intended to signal to SF readers (who are most likely to catch the cold backward and abysm of the book) that we would be foolish, here in 2012, to think we've won free of the shackles of HUAC, the dry-ice torpor of a world no story can end successfully; and for the acute bony rectitude of the telling, which takes no prisoners, a cold book hot to the touch, as though Evenson had picked up the whole world in his hands, and returned it to sender.