Robert Sheckley: Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?

I enjoyed the Interstellar Radio Company‘s dramatization of Sheckley’s short story “Ghost V” quite a bit. It reminded me that Sheckley was one of the classic science fiction writers I’d never really explored. I’ve been working on remedying that, starting with the volume at hand, a short story collection from 1972.

The stories in Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? reflect an interest in perception, reality, and the gaps between them. Philip K. Dick is an obvious, and somewhat useful, referent, although Sheckley certainly has a distinct personality. But like Dick, Sheckley seems interested in the trappings of science fiction mostly for the opportunities they afford to observe the universe from different perspectives.

Take, for instance, “The Cruel Equations.” It’s a science fiction story featuring a robot and spaceship. A human astronaut, Halloran, finds himself outside the robot’s security perimeter without the password to re-enter it. Since his partner astronaut is away for several days, his only option appears to be to outwit the robot logically, in order to convince the robot to let him back into the ship. The set up is much like many of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories — but it’s hard to imagine any Asimov story featuring the sentence, “After some minutes, a creature sauntered out from behind a pile of rocks, whistling.” “The Cruel Equations” is partly an extrapolative logic puzzle in the Asimovian mode. But it’s also an examination of the limitations through which the robot — and by extension, any intelligence — observes the universe and draws inferences about what (if anything) is real. And it’s also funny, and the dialogue between the astronaut and the robot makes me wonder if absurdist playwrights like Stoppard, Beckett, and (especially) Alan Ayckbourn might’ve read some Sheckley (or vice versa).

Labels like “science fiction” and “fantasy” seem ill-suited to Sheckley. Several of these stories have no fantastic or futuristic elements whatsoever, but they are nonetheless decidedly, and distinctively odd. Sheckley’s prose is more evolved than what I think of as typical for “classic” science fiction writers. His well-tuned sense of rhythm encompasses terse, minimal sentences as well as elaborate constructions like “Inside this apartment, all alone and aching of anomie, was a semi-young housewife, Melisande Durr, who had just stepped outside of the volupturaium, the largest room in the home, with its king-size commode and its sadly ironic bronze lingam and yoni on the wall.” Several of these stories were also originally published in Playboy, which seems exactly right: they display the polish I’d expect from (what was then, I believe) a top-shelf fiction market; they also might seem a touch sexist if judged by current standards. (More by omission than commission; the “semi-young” Melisande Durr notwithstanding, many of these stories don’t have female characters at all.)

Needs More Demons? Nope. And I need to read heaps more Sheckley.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

2 thoughts on “Robert Sheckley: Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?

  1. I share your sentiments on Sheckley – think he was a very special writer. I’ve recommended him to a colleague who’s exploring some of his work in her lit classes.


  2. Oh, I strongly recommend:

    Cordle to Onion to Carrot,
    Pas de troi of the Waiter, the Chef and the Customer,
    The People Trap


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