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Robert Sheckley was a powerful writer…in small doses.  For ten pages at a
stretch, maybe even fifteen, he could compete with the best of them. He was
as sly as Kurt Vonnegut, as crisp as Joseph Heller, as absurd as Italo Calvino.
He would surprise you, amuse you, maybe even educate you.  But beware: if
Sheckley continued beyond a certain word count, you could sense the fatigue
setting in. In a strange reversal of the usual state-of-play, the author would lose
interest before the reader. If you were lucky, Sheckley would stop at that point,
but often he went on—usually with a painfully sharp rupture in the narrative
indicating where the writer had shifted gears. In short, Mr. Sheckley was a
sprinter, not a marathon runner, but sometimes he still kept in the race even
when he was out of wind.

So do yourself a favor, and start your exploration of
this sci-fi master with his short stories—especially
those from the mid-1950s, when Sheckley seemed
to have a magical touch, an inexhaustible imagination,
and an acute sense of when to bring a tale to a close.  
Fortunately for us, Jonathan Lethem and Alex
Abramovich have done us the favor of sifting through
this author's many shorter works and compiling a
selection of the most exemplary in their 2012 anthology
Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley.
This is as close to a definitive collection as you
will find, and will help you understand why, back
in his late twenties and early thirties, Sheckley
earned such high-flung praise. No one "is so deft
as Sheckley in using interplanetary fiction as a vehicle for Gilbertian satire,
topsy-turvy, shrewd, and wholly captivating," Anthony Boucher asserted in
1956. And in 1960, Kingsley Amis cited Sheckley as one of the
leading postwar authors, lauding him as "science fiction’s premier gadfly."  
Brian Aldiss later compared him to Swift and Voltaire.

Sheckley's best work was mostly behind him by the time of Amis's advocacy .
This is all the more dispiriting because his wry, satirical bent would seem to
have been custom-made for the irreverent spirit of the late 1960s. He ought to
have evolved into a counterculture hero, but his sense of dialogue and character
development were still entrenched in the formulas and stereotypes of the
Truman-Eisenhower era. The kind of leap that Heinlein made with
in a Strange Land, or Vonnegut with Slaughterhouse-Five was beyond him.  
Instead of reinventing himself, he settled for repeating himself.

But turn to those great mid-1950s stories, most of them published in
magazine, and enjoy Sheckley at his finest. "Seventh Victim" (1953) the most
famous of these, served as the basis for an influential film featuring Marcello
Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, and though Sheckley tried to recapture its
spirit and success in later works, the sequels never surpassed this taught
15-page account of a murder competition in which each contestant much take
turns as predator and prey.  I saw the film before reading the story, and was
surprised when I came to Sheckley's narrative by the light touch he applied to
such a gruesome story.  

Even when murder is not on the agenda, the protagonists of Sheckley stories
are invariably unwitting victims, who only gradually grasp the sticky situations
into which they have stumbled. Many of the stories in
Store of the Worlds deal
with unintended consequences, and Sheckley is at his best in showing how
what promised to be oh-so-good proves to be oh-so-bad.  In "Watchbird,"
Galaxy story from 1953, a new technology to identify and prevent
violent crimes ends up by forcing a halt to almost every productive activity.
The story is entertaining and briskly told, but also with enough intellectual
content to spur a long, hard discussion on the nature of violence and how
we compartmentalize it.  In "Pilgrimage to Earth" (1956) and "The Language
of Love" (1957) he accomplishes the same kind of mordant turnabout on the
topic of romance.  Here again, Sheckley pushes beyond the dictates of pure
escapism, and shows how thought-provoking he could be—but without
sacrificing anything in pacing and humor. Both stories clock in just under
fifteen pages, that sweet spot where this author could pull off his finest effects.

Other tales here stay closer to science fiction formulas. Sheckley unleashes
new variations on stories about galactic warfare ("Shape"), time travel
("Double Indemnity"), first contact ("All the Things You Are"), the colonization
of space ("The Native Problem") and clairvoyance ("Protection").  But his
most reliable subject—one that would come to the fore in most of his
best-known novels, such as
Mindswap and Immortality, Inc.—is human
consciousness itself, and the ways it can lead a life separated from its
original biological organism. You might even say that Sheckley is obsessed
with the nature of the soul—and at times his writings take on a zany theological
bent.  But for the most part, Sheckley uses this platform to address the absurd
rather than the transcendental. Three of the best stories in this collection rely
on this starting-point to reach very different ends: "Warm" deals with a man
who starts taking the voice in his head far too seriously, and ends up by
becoming it; "Morning After" presents a new type of adventure vacation in
which the participant is never quite sure whether it is really happening; "The
Store of the Worlds" describes a post-apocalyptic world in which individuals
with lots of cash can experience a utopian alternative reality, but only inside
their mind.

The later and longer stories in this volume, however, painfully reveal the
limitations of Sheckley’s talents—maddening limitations, since he still
manages to show, in short bursts, his unassailable skills at satire and
social commentary.  "The People Trap," from 1968, attempts to recapture
the vitality of Sheckley's "Seventh Victim" story of 15 years before; again
a dangerous competition sets the stage for violence and romance.  But
even at just 21 pages, this story feels bloated, the unfolding plot meanders
and the characters' motivations for key actions almost incomprehensible.  
In other later stories, such as "Cordle to Onion to Carrot" and "Is That What
People Do?" Sheckley betrays the same indecisiveness that undermined
so many of his longer works during this period—he simply strings incidents
together, hoping that the reader will forgive the gaps and loose ends.  

But the editors of
Store of the Worlds compensate for this. At first glance, it
must seem odd that a survey of Sheckley's entire body of short works should
focus so much on a five-year span from 1953 through 1957—indeed, more
than half of the book is devoted to that fertile period. After all, Sheckley's entire
career as a writer spanned more than a half-century; so why focus on just five
years? But during that brief stretch between the invention of the H-bomb and the
launch of Sputnik, Sheckley had few peers as a writer of short sci-fi works,
and somehow managed to turn abstruse scientific concepts into his own
personal playground. Give him credit for setting a standard hard to match—sad
to say, most of all by the author himself.

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
Store of the Worlds
by Robert Sheckley (edited by Alex Abramovich & Jonathan Lethem)

Essay by Ted Gioia
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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

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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