Nobody knows how many short stories Robert Sheckley actually wrote; too many of them appeared under pseudonyms because during his heyday, he was cranking them out faster than his byline could handle them. That tidbit makes any putative “best of” collection automatically suspect; one can only hope that the late Mr. Sheckley kept the best pieces for his own name.
Regardless, Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovitch have made a noble stab at pulling together the best of Sheckley’s body of short fiction under one cover here. Largely drawn from Sheckley’s peak period in the 1950s and ‘60s, the stories are fine exemplars of science fiction’s premiere satirist at work. “Seventh Victim” may be the most famous piece in the collection, but the over two dozen stories all speak to Sheckley’s rare skill. Lethem and Abramovitch are unabashed fans, as the introduction makes clear, and their mission here is to compile a greatest hits that can serve simultaneously as a definitive ur-text of Sheckley’s best and an introduction to the author for those who’ve missed him thus far. This is a big deal; for two heavy hitters on the literary scene like this to champion a genre writer in this fashion is a challenge to the literary establishment, and throwing out the Pynchon comparisons just ups the ante.
“Victim” is probably the story readers are most likely to know, a “nice-guys-finish-last” fable of a brutally optimistic future not too far from our own. It’s a prime specimen of one of Sheckley’s recurring themes: just when you think you’ve done the right thing, the world gets you for it. The trusting spaceman of “Paradise II”, the determined astronauts of “A Wind Is Rising”, the love-lorn AI of “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This” – all play by the rules, and all are betrayed by an uncaring universe that seems intent largely on scoring a punchline. Nobody gets away with anything in Sheckley’s universe. Nice guys are suckers or sacrifices, crooks sow the seeds of their own demise, and nobody’s nearly as smart as he thinks he is.
The problem readers discovering Sheckley for the first time are likely to have is that these stories are old. The conventions that underpin their endings have been subsumed into the zeitgeist, and the simplified setups that seemed possible in the Cold War are quaint in an era of smartphones, Mars Rovers and social networks. “Watchbird”, for example, is a warning about uncontrolled systems spiraling out of control, but the modern reader is liable to ask “why not put in a back door” or “you’d think they’d program it a little better than that”. Recent hiccups in stock market algorithms may suggest the points still cogent, but the mechanism here feels creaky.
So, too, it goes for the fistful of stories of a lone Earthman off to colonize an entire planet by himself – the sharp political satire of “Shall We Have A Little Talk?” is blunted by the premise, and the same goes for “Dawn Invader”. And there’s the “jerk tries to manipulate the system and gets bitten by it” tales, with shock endings that feel appropriate for Twilight Zone episodes. “Double Indemnity” fits neatly into that category, where the overreach of time-traveling petty criminality inevitably leads to destruction.
And yet, it’s too easy to simply dismiss Sheckley’s work as dated, because the core themes he worked with remain pertinent and vital. “The Language of Love” takes a vicious swipe at the packaging of idealized romance, as does “Pilgrimage to Earth; “Cordle to Onion to Carrot” makes some nasty comments about what rests under the surface of modern “civilized” life; and “Holdout” holds up the ridiculousness of racism for ridicule. Sheckley zeroes in on his targets with a sniper’s eye and tongue planted firmly in cheek, and when he hits, he simultaneously surprises and amuses.
And then there is the elegiac closer to the collection, “Beside Still Waters”. A simple tale of a loner and his robot companion, it plumbs unsuspected depths of emotion and suggests that, just maybe, we’re not all alone in an uncaring universe after all.
In conclusion, it feels that the editors have come as close as possible to their goals. Dated some of the stories may be, but Sheckley’s vision and talent shine through on even those tales whom time has more than caught up with. To read this collection just as an artifact would be a mistake; to skip it would be foolish.