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Robert Sheckley is a maddening author to read.  He could have been a famous
crossover talent, breaking out of the sci-fi ghetto into the literary mainstream, a
master of the profound and the absurd attuned to the emerging counterculture
of the 1960s. Certainly Sheckley possessed all the ingredients for greatness:
unfettered imagination, a deft prose style, a wild sense of humor, a philosophical
bent, and an acute eye for the fashions and foibles of his fellow earthlings.  

Yet Sheckley's longer works suffer from a slapdash
sensibility. The plots wander, characters are hastily
constructed without drive or focus, incidents are
strung together without rhyme or reason, and dropped
as soon as Sheckley loses interest with them—which
is usually sooner  rather than later. Even Vonnegut
seems like a tight formalist by comparison. Sheckley's
extended efforts are marketed as novels, but they remind
me more of those old Broadway revues from the Jazz
Age, in which a series of set pieces and routines are
presented for the entertainment of the audience, with
only the most cursory attempt at linking them together
into a narrative.

Yet the miracle in this novel about miracles is that
Sheckley can achieve so much despite these shortcomings.
The man was brilliant, make no mistake about it.  
Dimension of Miracles has no
structure, no narrative arc, but almost every page offers something pleasingly zany
or piquant or provocative for your enjoyment. The characters may be made of
cardboard, but they are colorfully decked out. The dialogue can seem aimless, yet
somehow manages to address deep issues amidst all the superficial chatter. Put
simply, the book is a mess, but still only a few steps away from earning accolades
as a masterpiece.  

When tackling longer forms, Sheckley typically returned to the earliest origins of
science fiction as speculative travel literature—we see the roots of this in the sci-fi
interlude in
Gulliver’s Travels, and Jules Verne later established it as a powerful
formula for the genre. In truth, we can trace this loose travel-oriented structure for
an adventure narrative back to Homer's
Odyssey, or even more distantly to various
myths and legends, which rely on a hero’s journey into the unknown as a entry point
into conflicts, discoveries and awe-inspiring sightseeing.

Alas, Sheckley wants to write sci-fi travel narratives, but he has no patience with any
journey that takes more than a fraction of a second, let alone time-consuming space
flights into distant galaxies.  So in
Dimension of Miracles, as with his other leading
Mindswap and Immortality, Inc., the story begins with his unwitting protagonist
getting transported, almost magically, into the first of a series of anxiety-provoking
incidents. When the first adventure loses steam, the hero gets transported to another,
typically unrelated, situation, which serves as the setting for the next crisis. And so on
and so forth.

Dimension of Miracles, the hero is Tom Carmody, a hapless New Yorker
('hapless' is almost always the right word to describe a Sheckley protagonist).  
A messenger arrives in Carmody's living room, amidst a bolt of lightning and
clap of thunder, and tells him that has won the Galactic Lottery. Carmody is
ushered off to the Galactic Center to claim his prize, a trip that proves to be
"brief, lasting no more than Instantaneity plus one microsecond squared."  
Readers are never quite clear what the prize is—it starts out as a "small,
brightly-wrapped parcel" but changes shape and nature several times during
the course of the book. Yet whatever its form, it can speak, and turns into an
amiable, but occasionally petulant, sidekick for the resulting adventures.

Carmody now wants to return home, but the bureaucrats at the Galactic Center
prove even more incompetent than their counterparts on planet Earth. They aren't
sure how to get the prize-winner back to New York, or even to the right solar system
and correct universe.  He must travel around, checking in with various local deities
in the galaxy, until he finds the god-like force that can bring him back to Manhattan.    

This is not a promising beginning, but Sheckley doesn’t need much to work his
wonders. Carmody gets to interrogate some quasi-deities during his travels, and
these scenes are so smartly written that you could even assign them as required
reading for theology students, and stir up a devilish debate. God should never appear
as a character in your novel, Philip K. Dick once warned, but Sheckley shows that
you can safely ignore this advice—at least if you are as clever as him in constructing
dialogues between a wandering New Yorker and an omnipotent being.  

But Sheckley, true to form, quickly loses interest in everything, even the process of
divine creation.  After interviews with two deities—the fickle Melichrone and the
cost-cutting Maudsley—Carmody is transported (again instantaneously) into a
series of probable Earths in possible Universes.  The science here is vague and
fuzzy, and the metaphysics even less solid, but Sheckley only wants a pretext for
various skits and satire. He sends Carmody to a city so perfectly constructed that
all of the inhabitants have abandoned it.  Then Carmody travels to another universe
in which everyone speaks in
Mad Men-era advertising copy. And then Carmody
must deal with a dangerous predator who can take on the appearance of a space
ship, a subway station, or whatever else it needs to camouflage its intention of
swallowing up our hapless hero. (Yes, 'hapless' is the right word again.)

The book fizzles out at the end. Sheckley isn't very good at tying together loose
ends. Let's be honest, he hardly even makes an effort here.  Many have seen
Dimension of Miracles as a precursor to Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy—Adams, who didn’t know about Sheckley’s work when he
wrote his bestseller, was later struck by the similarities. But even the rambling
Adams offers more closure than Sheckley, who seems to stop worrying about
his characters' problems after a few hours of writing (or perhaps when he reaches
the requisite daily word count).

Yes, this is maddening. With a little more attention to the nuts and bolts of writing,
Sheckley might have delivered one of the great counterculture classics. Instead,
Dimension of Miracles is not only mostly forgotten, but even unavailable in print.  
If you want a hardcover copy, be prepared to shell out more than five hundred
dollars. Yet this is Sheckley's strongest novel, and even with its flaws, well worth

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of
love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date: July 21, 2014
Dimension of Miracles
by Robert Sheckley

Essay by Ted Gioia
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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