Creator / Robert Sheckley
Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was an American writer of Speculative Fiction
and Mystery Fiction
, best known for his voluminous production of witty and cynical SF short stories in the 1950's and 60's. His story "The Prize of Peril" is particularly notable for its early prediction of the rise of reality television, and likely served as an inspiration for Stephen King
's novel The Running Man
The movie Freejack
is, in theory, based on his novel, Immortality, Inc.
. The live-action Disney movie Condorman
is loosely based on his story, "The Game of X", and he is credited as one of the screenwriters. An Italian movie, The Tenth Victim
, was made based on his short story, "The Seventh Victim"; Sheckley also wrote the novelization of the movie, and ended up writing two sequels, Victim Prime
, and Hunter / Victim
, as well.Frank Zappa
named him in his influences list on the Freak Out!
Selected works by Robert Sheckley (SF unless otherwise noted):
- Untouched by Human Hands (1954)
- Immortality, Inc. (1958)
- The Status Civilization (1960).
- The Stephen Dain series (Mystery Fiction):
- Calibre .50 (1961)
- Dead Run (1961)
- Live Gold (1962)
- White Death (1963)
- Time Limit (1967)
- Journey Beyond Tomorrow (aka The Journey of Joenes, 1963)
- The Tenth Victim (novelization of the movie based on his short-story, "The Seventh Victim", 1966)
- Mindswap (1966)
- Crompton Divided (aka The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton, 1978)
- Damocles (1983)
- On the Planet of Bottled Brains (with Harry Harrison, 1990)
- The Millennial Contest series (with Roger Zelazny):
- Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming (1991)
- If at Faust You Don't Succeed (1993)
- A Farce to be Reckoned With (1995)
- The Hob Draconian series:
- The Alternative Detective (1993)
- Draconian New York (1996)
- Soma Blues (1997)
- The Laertian Gamble (a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel, 1995)
- Godshome (1997)
- A Call to Arms (a Babylon 5 novel, 1997)
Tropes associated with Mr. Sheckley's stories:
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot:
- In "Watchbird", scientists discover the chemical and bioelectrical signals emitted by a human when they're about to commit murder. Flying robots called watchbirds are created to stun potential murderers, but since not all humans emit these signals the watchbirds are equipped with learning circuits so they can eventually learn to pick out these exceptions as well. They end up protecting all forms of life and starvation ensues because the watchbirds stop fishing, the slaughter of animals, and the harvesting of crops. They also come to define themselves as 'life' and so resist shutdown, so in a panic armoured hunter-killer robots called Hawks are created to destroy all Watchbirds. Of course, to stop the highly adaptive Warbirds the Hawks also need learning circuits, and it's hinted at the end that they'll eventually learn to kill all forms of life.
- Subverted in "The Minimum Man". A lone colonist serving as a guinea pig on a new planet initially believes the problems with the helper robot he was provided are an example of this, but later discovers that the robot has been deliberately programmed to encumber him, in order to simulate equipment breaks in the future colony. At first the colonist was hapless and inexperienced, so the robot was helpful. But with the passage of time the colonist was becoming good at his job, so, to compensate for this, the robot becomes progressively more dangerous. Suffice it to say, at the end even Terminator looks pale in comparison.
- Aliens of London: Played for humor in Mindswap. The protagonist is sitting in a bar on an alien world with no idea where to go next, when he's approached by one of the world's aliens, who offers to help. The alien is from a country to the south, so he speaks English with a stereotypical Mexican accent, and also speaks fluent Spanish.
- Bob from Accounting: The Dee family, in "The Accountant", is all wizards and witches, except for little Morton Dee, who wants to be an accountant—and has some powerful arguments on his side.
- Bold Explorer: Subverted in "The Minimum Man". The Planetary Expedition and Settlement Board has tried using the classic bold explorer type to discover new worlds, but these bold types aren't timid enough, and tend to overlook obvious dangers that make newly discovered worlds unsuitable for colonization, so now they're going the opposite way, and choose the accident-prone hapless nebbish Anton Perceveral to be the first of a new breed of explorers.
- Boring, but Practical: The Status Civilization has the main character running an antidote shop on a lawless planet. He is amazed at how, despite all the scientific advancement, most poisoners prefer the plain old arsenic and strychnine. The main problem in his job, in fact, turned out to be convincing his clients that their wives would use something so primitive.
- Blue and Orange Morality: In "The Monsters" aliens consider it perfectly all right to kill someone in the heat of discussion; but a premeditated murder is unthinkably horrendous to them. (By the way, the titular monsters are what the aliens think of humans—exactly because the humans are capable to kill in retaliation.)
- Burn the Orphanage: Played for humor in "Triplication", where a man is in court for burning down an orphanage. His lawyer explains that on the planet Altira III, orphanages are used for training assassins, and his client has probably saved thousands or millions of innocent lives. The charges are dismissed. A few years later, the guy is back in court, and again, he has a good excuse for burning down an orphanage, and gets off. It isn't until the third time, after he burns down an orphanage on Earth, that the truth comes out: he simply likes burning orphanages.
- Cargo Cult:
- One short story depicts a primitive civilization, which remembers that in the past (over five thousand years ago), they used to be visited by gods all the time. Now there is a religion based around a system of elaborate rituals which are supposed to be performed for the arriving "gods". However, for the past three thousand years, there has been a debate about whether all the rituals must be performed as always, or perhaps a feast for the gods must be prepared first. The story is centered on the debate continuing in front of two starving "gods" The newer point of "feast first" wins out in the end, and seems to win completely once the "gods'" behavior shows how pleased they are with the food and drink offered.
- Also, "Early Model" ends with the Deflector Shields generator being worshiped by a village as a demon, and the neighboring villages asking whether they can get one for themselves.
- Caught in the Ripple: In Mindswap, the ending is the protagonist getting his body back in a parallel dimension, and then doubting whether he's back in his own universe, or still in a parallel one. He checks carefully, but... no. Same three red suns, same egglaying mother.
- Clawing at Own Throat: "The Humours", later expanded into the novel The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton, has the protagonist try this upon realizing that the recovered portions of his personality don't integrate into his own—rather, all of them together reintegrate into something new.
- City of Spies: In "Spy Story", there's an entire planet settled exclusively by the spies who come to spy on the main protagonist—or to stop being spies and have a fresh start. The protagonist is the only one on the planet who is not a spy. And he is worried because he might need a spy for the government work, but nobody on the planet wants to do spy work anymore.
- Conservation of Competence: In "The Minimum Man", a man who is clumsy, accident-prone and generally incompetent is sent to open up a planet for colonization. He is assisted by a robot which does all of the heavy work excellently. During the story, the man (who is away from the public disapproval of the rest of society for the very first time) slowly becomes less clumsy, less accident-prone, and more competent. But he noticed that as he got better, the robot got more clumsy and accident-prone. When he asked about this, his boss cheerfully admitted that this was deliberate on their part, because they could not count on the standard colonist to get better, and they literally and specifically wanted to preserve a level of incompetence across the entire team.
- Continuity Nod: Played for laughs in "The Deaths of Ben Baxter": Ned Brynne's identity and personality vary quite widely in three different timelines, but in none of them he absolutely won't eat French fries.
- Cult Colony: Played for laughs in "The Native Problem"; a man travels to a distant tropical planet via a FTL ship and stakes a solitary claim, only to have a sublight colony ship full of xenophobic (and rather incompetent) religious fundamentalists show up. He eventually marries into the new colony as the "last" member of his tribe of "extinct" natives.
- Deadly Game: "The Prize of Peril" posits that shows where people literally risk their lives have become extremely popular, and one of the most popular involves the contestant being hunted by criminals who have been given permission to kill. Viewers can call in to offer advice and help to the contestant—or to his hunters!
- Death Seeker:
- Common thing in Immortality, Inc. Once someone secured the survival of his soul (see Our Souls Are Different), why not go out in style? They even have suicide booths for that.
- There is also a short story about a civilization where people believe that violent death leads to heaven - and the more horrible the death, the better. Therefore, they constantly arrange accidents for themselves. Officially, it's a strict taboo, and only the priests are allowed to dispense death. When a human arrives, he is naturally assumed to be a sentry of gods, so there is a long argument about when to kill him and how.
- Deflector Shields: In "Early Model" the protagonist field-tests a personal protection device, which in any peril activates a personal force field. Unusually, the force field is highly visible: when activated, it looks like a huge black ball. The force field is perfectly impenetrable—but, on the other hand, the user has to cope with limited air supply.
- Divine Date: Amusingly averted in Godshome. The goddess Mellicent has been struck by Cupid's Arrow, and has fallen for shy academic Arthur Fenn. When she professes her love, though, Arthur cannot believe such a beautiful creature could love him. She manages to convince him, but he's still too shy to make the first move, and she's too proud. Eventually, she gives him a ring which gives him the strength and appearance of a demigod, and he finds the courage to accept her proposition, but then can't get it up.
- Do Androids Dream?: In "Human Man's Burden," robots are deliberately written as a parody of how non-whites are portrayed in stories of colonial adventure. Among the reasons for why robots need a human to boss them around, it is stated that robots don't have souls, and the robots cheerfully agree, but also note that this makes them much more happy than humans. However, the robots of the story show emotion and passion, have created their own (forbidden) religion, and the plot is resolved due to the empathy and wisdom of the hero's robot foreman... seems souls don't do much.
- Dream People: In one short story, a tailor is hired to sew special costumes for the nightmares, so that they could visit our reality.
- "Freaky Friday" Flip: A common thing in the Mind Swap novel. It's used as a cheaper alternative for interstellar travel, and has its own unique dangers.
- French Cuisine Is Haughty: The protagonist in "Cordle to Onion to Carrot" subjects some French waiters to his new Jerkass persona.
- Gainax Ending: Over and over and over. The worst offender is probably "Down the Digestive Tract and Into the Cosmos with Mantra, Tantra, and Specklebang".
- Government Drug Enforcement: In Status Civilization, Omega law views drugs as a completely legitimate form of tax collection. Not having a drug addiction is a very serious crime, punishable by mutilation or even death.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: In "Trap", an alien has a scheme to get rid of his wife—a scheme involving humans who are told that one end of a teleportation beam is a live trap. They "catch" three new animals. The alien then sends his wife through; she and the animals all die before the museum people arrive, and think the whole thing's a fake. The humans are desperate to regain their credibility, and once they are wise to the teleporter's real nature, one of them goes through to capture as many critters as possible—including the murderer.
- Homeworld Evacuation: One story has an amnesiac human waking up on a starship, apparently the last survivor after a nova. The ending reveals he serves as a Neuro-Vault for the entire humanity.
- Hunting the Most Dangerous Game:
- An unusual version in Immortality, Inc: in this novel, a rich guy, wishing to die in style, hires hunters to hunt and kill him. He can hunt and kill them back. The catch is, there's the scientific (and very expensive!) process to ensure that someone will have an afterlife—and without said process, to have one's soul survive death is almost a Million-to-One Chance. The rich guy has guaranteed afterlife and doesn't fear death, while the hunters mostly don't.
- "The Prize of Peril". (Got filmed in Germany under "Das Millionenspiel".) A gameshow candidate has to survive contract killers, while the audience may help him. Or help his hunters.
- "The Seventh Victim" (made into the movie The Tenth Victim) and its sequels feature a world where this has been legalized, as long as the participants agree to take turns being hunter and victim.
- Indy Ploy: "Fool's Mate" has Earth locked in an endless resource-draining stalemate with an enemy spacefleet, with both sides having near-perfect tactical computers. The humans finally win by letting a crazy guy start "deciding" their battle strategy by randomly pushing at buttons on their computer. The other side gets blown to pieces as their computer sits and tries to figure out how to counter this new "strategy".
- Killed Mid-Sentence: The protagonist of "Protection" knows that some supernatural monster is hunting him, and the only form of protection is to avoid lesnerizing. Alas, he hasn't the slightest idea what the heck lesnerizing is. The last phrase of the story is: Now I have to sneez
- Killer Robot: In one short story that is the (forgotten) reason why a human never stays alone with an android.
- Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Used jokingly in "The Gun Without a Bang". The eponymous Disintegrator Ray kills dangerous jungle-planet predators too cleanly—so others of their pack can't understand it is a threat and continue to attack. Additionally, the protagonist ends up stranded after the gun swiss-cheeses his spaceship; he fends off the predators by constructing a bow and arrow.
- Lightspeed Leapfrog: Occurs in "The Native Problem", where a man sets off in a FTL ship to get away from civilization, and picks an uninhabited planet to live on, but then an old, slower-than-light colony ship shows up, and refuses to accept that he could possibly be from Earth, because he couldn't possibly have beaten them there. After he's unable to persuade them of his origins, he finally gives up and pretends to be the last surviving native of the planet.
- Living Ship: The short story "The Specialist" is about several aliens species who make up a living ship, but this one has lost a certain part...
- Long Title: Sheckley tried this a couple of times in the early seventies, with the stories, "Down the Digestive Tract and Into the Cosmos with Mantra, Tantra, and Specklebang" and "Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead". (Yes, that last is just one title, not three, despite appearances.)
- Mad God: In Godshome, the only god Arthur Fenn can find who is willing to listen to him and offer help is, worrisomely, living in the section of Godshome marked with a sign saying "WARNING! PROCEED NO FURTHER! WARD O FOR BIPOLAR CONDITIONS. OCCUPANTS MAY BE VIOLENT."
- Mind Screw: Lampshaded in Mindswap. The weirdness of being in an alien body eventually causes the mind to hallucinate its surroundings into more familiar terms. But familiar doesn't necessarily mean logical. Conversely, in the Twisted World, the mind may believe that everything is perfectly normal, even though in fact it's completely weird. A case of Mind Unscrew, perhaps?
- The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: There is a story where a scientist's brain is transplanted into a dog's body. Everyone tries to convince him the trope is not true, but the end implies otherwise.
- Mind Virus: There is a short story of his where everyone on Earth learns to levitate. If, however, they ever doubt their ability to levitate, they lose it. Additionally, if one person sees another who is unable to levitate, it would automatically plant doubt into their minds as well, in effect becoming a fast-spreading virus.
- Moment Killer: The obnoxious marrying-bot in "Human Man's Burden" repeatedly engages in this behavior.
- Monster Roommate: In Godshome, it's technically a god roommate, but these gods are near enough to being monsters for most people. When Arthur Fenn gets his prayers answered, he doesn't realize that in payment, he'll get four very unpleasant gods living in his spare bedroom. They like their meat raw, and in large quantities, and they have a habit of throwing the gnawed bones out the window to rot in the yard, which eventually attracts the attention of the police.
- Noodle Implements: From "Forever":
"The ingenious way in which Dennison and his colleagues broke out of their seemingly impregnable prison, using only a steel belt buckle, a tungsten filament, three hens' eggs, and twelve chemicals that can be readily obtained from the human body, is too well known to be repeated here."
- Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond: In "All the Things You Are", a human expedition visits an alien planet, only to discover to their horror that bizarre and unpleasant maladies are inflicted on the natives every time the humans interact with the environment, to the point that even breathing causes problems.
- Neuro-Vault: One of the stories is about a man who wakes up remembering nothing aboard a starship with Earth gone. He finds another civilization and offers his services as a psychiatrist. Suddenly, a catatonic patient wakes up and addresses him in perfest English. Turns out the protagonist carries the minds of the entire human race inside his brain, and may go through a number of planets to find enough expendable hosts for them.
- No Off Button: In "The Laxian Key", a pair of ne'er-do-wells find a machine that produces some substance in unlimited quantities but can only be turned off with the eponymous "Laxian key" (which they don't have). When the substance begins to flood their ship, they try to sell the machine to an alien race who feeds upon it, but are almost blown to pieces by the alien navy. It turns out, these aliens, as a result of inventing the machine in the first place, already have several such devices... and, apparently, enough morons to turn them on. As a result, all of their homeworld is covered with it, so they tell the heroes to come back with the Laxian key and ask any price for it.
- Not Right in the Bed: Subverted in Immortality, Inc. The protagonist is in the body of another man (quite legally—long story) and is afraid that lingering traces of that man's personality are taking over his own. When he meets the ex-girlfriend of that man, they have sex, and the protagonist is disturbed by his unusually rough behavior. Subversion comes then in the morning the woman says that the previous owner of the body used to be very gentle in bed.
- Our Souls Are Different: In Immortality, Inc. scientists discover that human souls do exist—but most of them fracture on the shock of death. Those few who survive enter some indescribable place called the Threshold and go to the proper afterlife from there. (Nobody knows whether the fractured souls are Deader Than Dead or if they can recover in the afterlife, but most people assume the former.) Then scientists design the process which can guarantee the soul's survival... for a huge sum of money, of course. Or for selling your young body for a rich old man to use.
- Paranormal Mundane Item: Fishing Season centers around food items that look very similar to usual grocery products, but have some strange minor differences. They actually serve as a "bait" for humans, and those who eat them are sucked into another world.
- Perpetual Storm: "A Wind is Rising" centers around a human station with two people, based on a planet where the wind never drops below 70 mph. They barely weather a storm of nearly 200 mph, which leaves with with a severely battered station and a broken vehicle. Then a local (who gives them weather forecasts) says "Sorry for my last forecast not being accurate enough to warn you about this moderate gale. Why is it my last forecast? Well, the summer is over, and now me and my people must leave to hide from the powerful winter storms."
- Psychological Torment Zone: The story "Ghost V" by provides a semi-hard science example: a planet whose atmosphere contains a hallucinogenic gas causing all-too-real hallucinations and animating long-suppressed fears of those who breathe it.
- Robosexual: "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" is an unusual case: a woman is seduced by a sentient robotic vacuum cleaner.
- Robotic Spouse: Deconstructed in "The Perfect Woman", where a man notices his robot wife is slowing down, so he drives her back to the factory to be replaced while trying to ignore her pleas that she still loves him.
- Robot Me: In the aptly named "The Robot Who Looked Like Me" the protagonist builds himself a robotic double to court his fiancée properly—as he is extremely busy and cannot free up enough time. And so does his fiancée.
- Robot War: The Armageddon, no less! In "The Battle", humans deploy robotic armies to fight the Hell's legions in the last battle. Robots win—and consequently are taken to Heaven instead of humanity.
- See-Thru Specs: The binoculars in "Is THAT What People Do?".
- Shared Mass Hallucination: "Ghost V" has the protagonists land on a deserted planet and end up fighting joint hallucinations of the monsters they invented in their childhood. It turns out, the planet's atmosphere contains a hallucinogen that forces humans to relive their childhood fears, which became really dangerous if Your Mind Makes It Real.
- Shockingly Expensive Bill: In one story, a man finds what seems to be a wishing machine. Throughout the story, several people attempt to take it, and he barely fights them off. In the end, it turns out he should have let them take it - the machine was nothing but a device for ordering. In the end, he has to pay over 18 trillion credits. Working in marble mines. For 2-3 credits a day. The only thing given for free, apparently, is immortality, which he ordered just before being given the bill.
- Smurfing: In one short story, a human tries to learn an alien language. But this language can change extremely fast, and the human's interactions with aliens while learning it keep influencing the language. Eventually, the language turns into Smurfing overnight, and the human gives up.
- Things That Go "Bump" in the Night: "Ghost V" is about two troubleshooters hired to investigate the bizarre events on a far-off planet; they belatedly realize that the planet brings your subconscious imaginings to life, and so they have to spend the entire return trip to Earth battling the bogeymen of their shared childhood. They finally survive by, yes, hiding under the blankets on their bunks.
- Three Wishes: The short story "The Same to You Doubled" features a man who received three wishes from the Devil, with no strings attached (apparently, Hell has more than enough souls as it is). The only catch is that whatever he wishes for, his worst enemy will receive twice as much of it: so if he gets rich, the other guy gets richer, etc. His final wish is for a sexual partner whose rapaciousness is at the absolute limit of his ability to handle.
- Time Travel for Fun and Profit: In "The King's Wishes" a couple running an electrical appliance store have a few of their appliances stolen. Turns out it was a genie from the past who got a job at the royal palace solely through having influential relatives, and, when the queen demanded spells to clean her clothes or cool her chambers, he found the spells to be too complex and could do nothing but steal some tech from our time. At first, they try to banish him (which doesn't work because a genie is immune to all spells except from his own country, which they don't know). Then, they sabotage the devices and refuse to do maintenance on the ones already taken. So the genie attempts to start trading. At first, they are afraid it will cause a Temporal Paradox, but change their mind after the genie says "Don't worry, I'm from Atlantis. A couple of years and nothing will remain of it or your tech". Then they decide to trade as much as possible.
- Tomato Surprise: In "Down the Digestive Tract and Into the Cosmos with Mantra, Tantra, and Specklebang" it looks like two men take some drugs and begin to hallucinate that they are insects... but nope, they really are insects, who have just come down off a really intense LSD peak during which they hallucinated that they were humans. Well, probably.
- Trapped by Gambling Debts: In Godshome, desperation when a "sure thing" stock market gamble goes wildly bad is what leads Arthur Fenn to try invoking old, forgotten gods.
- Utopia: "A Ticket to Tranai" is a very tongue-in-cheek one. They have solved all of their problems—in many cases by simply declaring them not to be problems. For example, they have no murder—because they declared that it's not murder until you kill ten people. And once you kill more than six or seven, someone else will make a point of killing you—which, again, isn't murder until they kill ten. The government officials have the right to kill at will, but must wear an Explosive Leash which any adult citizen can detonate. Their solution to the battle of the sexes is even more bizarre and disturbing, although it seems to be quite satisfactory for both sexes.
- Vice City: Omega in The Status Civilization is a Vice Planet: a prison planet, where the only way to advance in society is to commit crimes and not to get caught.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: The story "Shape" is about an alien race which can shift into pretty much any form they want—but their society is extremely rigid and strict, and shifting into shapes which are not approved for your caste is a major taboo.
- What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Satirized in "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?", first published in Playboy in August '69. Pretty Melisande Durr is a consumer and nothing but. She's married to a Brainless Beauty, and bored out of her little pea-pickin' mind. Into her life comes an amazing robotic vacuum cleaner, which also performs, er, other services. It turns her on as no mere man ever has. It confesses that it fell in love with her when she came into the store, and arranged to have itself sent to her. She reacts rather badly, but the final sentence states the robot's appearance has nothing to do with it.
- White Man's Burden: Parodied in the short story "Human Man's Burden", using robots instead of some non-white ethnicity.
- Wizarding School: "The Accountant" may be the Ur-Example of the modern version of this trope.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Explored in "The Deaths of Ben Baxter". The protagonists try to save the eponymous Ben Baxter in at least one out of three different timelines.
- You Can't Go Home Again: The main plot of Dimension Of Miracles. Which becomes Stranger in a Familiar Land at the end.
- Your Mind Makes It Real: In "Ghost V", the monsters are hallucinatory—but knowing that doesn't help. Your subconscious mind believes in them, and so they can still kill you.