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Brian Aldiss, once described fellow sci-fi author Robert Sheckley as
"Voltaire-and-soda." Sheckley, in his opinion, was one of the three
great "entertainers" of 1960s science fiction—along with Kurt Vonnegut
and Philip K. Dick. "Modern life and its absurdities," Aldiss noted
"provoked his sharpest and wittiest responses."  

More than anyone, Sheckley set the stage for the absurdist science
fiction that would flourish in later years, especially in the works of
Adams and Terry Pratchett.  He somehow managed to combine the
metaphysical angst of Kafka with the playfulness of Lewis Carroll, all
mixed up with the pulp fiction sensibility of the so-called 'Golden Age' of

Sheckley achieved that extravagant hybrid at a heavy cost.  
His plots are the least coherent of any of these authors. The
tone of his tales shifts without warning, and at any moment
he might lapse from storytelling to satire, philosophy,
technological musings, or outright parody. His characters
are just as changeable—they are typically innocent victims
of the charades around them and quickly learn, like
Sheckley's readers, that it's best to simply roll with the

In his short stories, Sheckley could usually hold it together
long enough to maintain the narrative momentum and reach
a pleasing resolution. But longer forms posed a formidable
challenge to his piecemeal sensibility. Sheckely had little
patience for the slow, careful construction required in writing a coherent
large-scale novel. Instead, he promised a series of thrills, surprises, laughs
and smarty-pants observations on the foibles of the human condition. If you
were willing to settle for that bargain, Sheckley would not disappoint.

Mindswap, from 1966, shows just how far this author would sacrifice structure
in the pursuit of some amusing tangent.  Sheckley isn't really sure whether
he wants to write a sci-fi adventure, or a detective story, or a Western, or
sword-and-sorcery fantasy, or poetry, or a romance.  So he solves the
problem by squeezing all of these disparate approaches into a meandering
200-page novel.  

The story begins with protagonist Marvin Flynn, resident of Stanhope, "a
pleasant rural community situated in the foothills of the Adirondacks," and
some 300 miles distant from New York City. Flynn suffers from wanderlust,
and longs to visit other planets. He can't afford a flight to Mars, but he can
get to the Red Planet on the cheap if he agrees to a "mindswap." This
technology allows him to  inhabit the body of a Martian for a specified length
of time; the Martian, in turn, gets to use Flynn's body back on Earth. Think
of mindswap as a time-share scheme for the interplanetary age.

Flynn agrees to a mindswap with Ze Kraggash, inhabitant of the
Disappearing Desert in New South Mars.  But soon after arriving in his
new body, he learns that Kraggash illegally sold mindswap rights to 12
different individuals. Flynn finds that he must leave Kraggash’s body—he
receives the equivalent of a mindswap eviction notice—but he has no
place to go. Kraggash has gone into hiding with Flynn’s original body.  

Sheckley manages to stick with this story for around 50 pages, but then
he grows weary with his plot.  Fortunately the concept of mindswap allows
him to bounce his unfortunate protagonist from planet to planet, and insert
him into new complications without ever resolving the old ones. On the
flimsiest pretexts, Sheckley also changes his prose style, and sometimes
writes with faux Shakespearean grandiloquence, or in a parody of
academic posturing, or in a dozen other ways.  

All pretensions to continuity are lost before we reach the halfway point
Mindswap. We now realize that Sheckley is intent on delivering….
well, no, not science fiction, but rather what we would now call a
postmodern pastiche. At one point, he sends Flynn into a pickup bar,
where every line of dialogue spoken comes from the lyrics of various
pop songs. Ten pages later, Flynn embarks on a Don Quixote-ish quest
with a a strange Sancho Panza-esque companion. In another ten pages,
Flynn finds himself on a remote planet in the galaxy, where he just happens
to run into his Mom and Dad. Ten pages later, he is thrust into a
medieval adventure story.  And so on and so forth.

Sheckley’s skill in mimicking and ridiculing genre formulas is impressive,
and compensates to some degree for the gaping holes and contradictions
in the plot. But even the most tolerant reader will bristle when the main
character seems to have forgotten the very reason why he set out on
this adventure in the first place.  And that his body has been stolen.  And
that he will die if he doesn't track down the person who took it from him.  
Why should we care about the hero's plight, if he doesn't care about it

Sheckley finally returns to the original mindswap plot in the closing pages,
and offers up a resolution to the plot…but one with more holes in it than
it would take to fill the Albert Hall. His ending is more like the punchline
to a shaggy dog joke than the conclusion of a novel.  And I will chuckle here,
and elsewhere, at this unhinged book.  But I can't help thinking that, with
all his excess of imagination and writing skill, Sheckley could have done
so much more than work just for laughs.   

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
by Robert Sheckley

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

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

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

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

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

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

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

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

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

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
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

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction

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conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction