June/July/Aug 2012

Tomorrow Never Knows

Ed Halter


Robert Sheckley wrote tightly crafted, whacked-out social satire in the form of science-fiction stories, using the conceit of future worlds to provide an alienating vantage point on the present. His heyday was the 1950s, when he emerged as a young writer in the pages of thumb-staining pulp mags like Galaxy, Astounding, and Infinity. Sheckley was part of a generation that disassembled the square-jawed tropes of 1920s space operas to produce a new, proto-postmodernist mode of literature, hidden within a genre that many readers at the time dismissed as kiddie lit. Unlike the more mainstream-friendly sentimentalism of Ray Bradbury, or the soberly cosmological world building of Isaac Asimov, Sheckley’s work is unabashed termite art. He illuminates standard sci-fi’s cutout characters and quasi-magical contraptions with a hallucinatory, Technicolor vibrancy, spinning yarns more fabulist than plausible, banged out as permutations of his own pet obsessions, among them mind control, extraterrestrial psychology, and the cruelties of love. Writing in 1956, his contemporary Damon Knight criticized “the stripped quality of his . . . work, and its utter divorcement from fact and logic”—aspects that today read more like pleasurably conscious choices than defects. And indeed, Knight conceded that, “like it or not, what Sheckley does is art.”

In 1960, Kingsley Amis seconded that notion, citing Sheckley as one of the most important postwar writers in New Maps of Hell, Amis’s book-length study of science fiction. In New Maps, Amis argued that the “satirical utopia”—Jonathan Swift by way of Tom Swift—was the most significant development science fiction had contributed to literature, and analyzed the work of Sheckley and his contemporary Frederik Pohl as paradigmatic examples of what Amis dubbed the “comic inferno,” dystopian capers ridiculing the notion that the technological transformation of the world could engender social progress or existential satisfaction. In Sheckley’s work, the prevailing spirit of the comic inferno is summed up in tales like “Seventh Victim,” positing a future in which wars are averted by channeling human death drives into a legal form of competitive assassination, or “Watchbird,” in which crimes are prevented via swarms of violence-detecting robots who, following their programming to its logical end, begin killing anyone who tries to swat a fly or pluck a flower. He skewers the legacy of manifest destiny in a series of colonialist spoofs, including “The Native Problem,” about a lone Earthman, stranded on a jungle planet, who is mistaken for an alien aborigine by a paranoid group of would-be pioneers.

These examples also convey the cynical darkness that adds a more complex shading to many of his tales, elevating them beyond mere cleverness. Taken in aggregate, Sheckley’s stories delve into an even more profound nihilism, positing an amoral chaos underlying the materialist universe, a sublime negation of any and all values. The typically hapless Sheckley protagonist becomes caught up in larger processes—sociological, computational, or cosmic—that run amok beyond any individual control. The most nightmarish of these stories is “Paradise II,” ending with a gruesome scene in a robotic slaughterhouse gone haywire.

Though Sheckley continued to write almost up until his death in 2005, Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich’s new collection, Store of the Worlds, leans heavily on the author’s work from the 1950s, including just four tales written in the 1960s, and one in the 1970s. In keeping with the implicit goal of other NYRB science-fiction reissues, they want to rescue Sheckley from the genre ghetto, but at the same time make clear that his talent could only have been forged within that particular crucible. In their introduction, Lethem and Abramovich praise his stories as “little sculptures in syntax” that “refuse to go out of your mind,” comparing him to Shirley Jackson, George Saunders, and John Cheever, and argue that Sheckley’s postwar writing constitutes “a period of greatness defined specifically by the application of a formal pressure against the chaos of an instinctive surrealism.” Their selection is at times uneven, but this may be an unavoidable quality of Sheckley’s prolific output. The weakest inclusions still convey the author’s eye for bizarre invention, as in “A Wind Is Rising,” which takes place on a planet constantly buffeted by lethally strong gale forces, populated by a species of intelligent octopods evolved to crawl close to the ground.

The few later tales included in Store of the Worlds show how Sheckley would eventually let the zonky undertones of his earlier work loose into more full-blown psychedelia, most markedly in “Is That What People Do?,” wherein a pair of mysterious X-ray binoculars reveal David Lynch–ian goings-on in the apartment building next door, and “Cordle to Onion to Carrot,” the only non-science-fiction story included in this collection, in which one Howard Cordle receives mystic revelations from the god Thoth-Hermes in the course of “driving through the northern regions of Spain while stoned out of his mind.” The inclusion of “Cordle” is a clever move, retroactively accentuating Sheckley’s frequent interest in psychic possession and fractured states of consciousness, and bridging his work with that of Philip K. Dick, as well as later cyberpunk mind-benders like Rudy Rucker. “For what else is there to talk about, finally, but reality?” Sheckley observed in 1975, asked to lecture on his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. “Surely one of our foremost tasks is the testing and probing of ourselves and our interaction with the world. . . . We are each of us alone in the vast regions within our skulls, testing the world with the make-shift instruments with which we were born.”

Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry in New York City, and a frequent contributor to Artforum. He teaches film and electronic art at Bard College.

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