[June 16, 1960] Skimming the Cream (Robert Sheckley’s Notions: Unlimited)

As a rule, I don’t review anthologies.  By definition, they are composed of stories already published elsewhere, and since I cover the magazines regularly, chances are I’ve already seen most of an anthology’s contents.

I make an exception for Bob Sheckley.

Sheckley is the master of the science fiction short story.  They are sometimes humorous, sometimes terrifying, never bad.  And since the novel I’d planned on reading, Mark Clifton’s Eight Keys to Eden bored me right out of the gate, I gratefully picked up a copy of Sheckley’s new anthology Notions: Unlimited.

Here’s what I found:

Gray Flannel Armor features a young man within whom, behind his drab gray exterior, beats a heart yearning for romance.  This cute little story gives a sneak preview into the world of commercially arranged dating.  It’s a cynical story, but not so much as his earlier works dealing with romance.  This makes sense: it was published in 1957, after his marriage to his second wife.

The Leech, and Watchbird are of a kind, though their plots differ widely.  In each, a problem is presented, a solution is found, and it then turns out that the solution makes everything worse.  Both are older stories.  The former is better than the latter.

A Wind is Rising is a good, evocative piece about a colonist who gets stuck out of shelter during one of its frequent super-hurricanes.  As someone who used to live in the windy desert, where sandstorms would turn the landscape into something from Mars, I can empathize with his situation.

Morning After deals with one of my favorite subjects of science fiction: just what will we all do for a living once everything has been mechanized?  In this case, we all become freelance voters, tossing our ballot for the candidate who schmoozes us the most.  And when that ceases to be of sufficient interest, we go elsewhere…

Native Problem is a fun story in the classic silly Sheckley mold.  A social misfit decides to colonize his own planet on the frontier.  His life is a lonely paradise until a new bunch of colonists, arriving via generation ship sent out decades before, makes planetfall. 

Feeding Time is another older story, a very short piece about a young, inexperienced bibliophile who takes up gryphon-rearing.  As is well known, the gryphon feeds only on young virgins.  The results are… predictable.

I’d never read Paradise II before, about a pair of space explorers who come across a planet rendered lifeless by biological warfare, such destruction being triggered by intense resource competition, particularly squabbling over limited food stocks.  Upon investigating a station orbiting around the planet, one of them is absorbed by the structure’s brain, and the other finds himself a linchpin solving the planet’s food problem.  It’s a dark story, and rather ridiculous, a little bit like what Ellison has written late last decade.

Back to the fun ones, Double Indemnity involves an unscrupulous time traveller attempting to collect on a particular clause of his insurance that pays out when one finds oneself duplicated in the course of a chronological excursion.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it is a pleasure to read.

Almost all of these stories came out in Galaxy, Sheckley’s prefered home, so I was surprised to discover that the next one, Holdout was published in F&SF.  It involves a dramatically multi-racial crew, and the one intolerant fellow who refuses to work with a person of a particular ethnic background.  Of course, the mystery of the story, not revealed until the end, is the identity of that ethnicity. 

Dawn Invader, another F&SF story, pits a human and an alien against each other in symbolic mental combat.  It’s a bit like Ellison’s The Silver Corridor, which had been published in Infinity the year before, but with a happier ending.  I like happy endings–they are harder to write.

Finally, we have the excellent The Language of Love, in which a young suitor refuses to marry his sweetheart until he can find the exact words to express his feelings toward her.  The punchline is hilarious, and it has been much bandied about my household ever since my wife and I read it.

Of the four collections Sheckley has published to date, Notions may be my least favorite.  That is not to say it is bad; it’s just his least good.  It’s still well worth reading, and I zoomed through it quite quickly and enjoyably.

11 thoughts on “[June 16, 1960] Skimming the Cream (Robert Sheckley’s Notions: Unlimited)”

  1. You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever read any Sheckley. I suppose that’s almost as bad as you never having read Mission of Gravity. I’ll have to correct that.

    I certainly understand you giving up on Eight Keys. It’s pretty forgettable and almost a thing of an earlier era. There’s a fair amount of superscience going on, kind of Smithian. I generally like Clifton, especially his Ralph Kennedy stories, but he can be pretty awful at times. His Bossy stories are even worse, and I still can’t figure out what people were doing when they gave him the Hugo a few years ago. I think maybe no one had actually read it and just thought it must be good since they liked Clifton.

  2. I believe that an “anthology” is specifically a set of stories written by different authors, sometimes on a common theme. This book would more properly be called a “collection”. However, many people do use the two terms interchangeably.

    In my personal shelving system, I have a separate section for anthologies, which are ordered alphabetically by title. Collections, however, are shelved with other books by their author, as are anthologies based on a particular series.

  3. Sheckley is SF’s finest satirist, bar none.  I would rate “Watchbird” higher than you, because I think it’s a sharp satire of “security” in the style of Joseph McCarthy.  “Native Problem,” although lighter in tone, also has that biting satiric edge. 

    The two stories making fun of romance aren’t quite as good as “Love, Incorporated” (from “Playboy” of all places; I believe it was retitled “Pilgrimage to Earth” in the collection of the same name.) That’s another devastating look at humanity’s folly.

  4. There were a couple of stories I had not read before, so I gave them a go.

    “Gray Flannel Armor” was very nicely written, and quite enjoyable.  (For some reason I thought I had read it, and hence my comment above; but I still think “Love, Incorporated” a bit superior.)

    “The Leech” wasn’t bad, but lacked the punch I expect from this author (despite some scathing comments on the military mind.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.