Killing Time (Robert Sheckley’s Timekiller; 12-06-1958)

Regular readers of this column know that I am unreserved in my praise of Robert Sheckley.  Since bursting on the scene early this decade, he and his alter-ego, Finn O’Donnovan, have graced the pages of Astounding and Galaxy and probably more magazines.  If you haven’t read his three short-story anthologies, you need to plunk down the $1.05 and expand your library.

I’m not quite so enthusiastic about Sheckley’s first novel, serialized in Galaxy as Timekiller.  It’s not bad; it just doesn’t rise to the standard set by his shorter work.

Timekiller is the story of the bland Thomas Blaine, a junior yacht designer from 1958.  He lives a pleasant but uninteresting life as the dogsbody of an East Coast boatwright.  Blaine is charming-enough, but he’s never really scored with ladies, work or life.  On the way home one night, his car swerves out of control causing a fatal collision with an oncoming driver.

Yet Blaine awakens—in 2110!  It turns out that some time in-between Blaine’s death and rebirth, it is discovered that each person has a soul distinct from his/her body, and about one in ten thousand make it through the death trauma with the soul intact.  The soul hovers about in a transition between Here and the Hereafter, occasionally causing unrest on Earth.  Hence the stories of ghosts and poltergeists.

Not long after the discovery that one’s persona survives death, a company is founded to insure that everyone with enough cash on hand can safely navigate death and journey to the Hereafter.  The company is fittingly called “Immortality, Inc.” Unfortunately, the work of this company has played havoc with the world’s religions, who are staunchly against Immortality, Inc.  This is why they tried to save the soul of a 1958 religious leader, who could serve as a spokesman for the company after his resurrection.

Unfortunately for Immortality, Inc., they got Blaine instead.

I commented in an earlier piece that science fiction authors tend to incorporate only one or two truly revolutionary changes into their stories, either for fear of alienating their audiences or for inability to envision more (or both).  Sheckley’s future is not that different, technologically, except for the flying cars that we all expect to be driving.  Instead, Sheckley focuses on the social and medical implications of resurrection.  People sell their bodies in exchange for Hereafter insurance to rich people who want to stay on Earth for another lifetime.  Others transplant their souls to other bodies for kicks or more-nefarious purposes.  Imperfectly transplanted souls never synchronize properly with their host bodies, which become zombies and eventually decay to uselessness. 

In a story about independent souls, the consuming questions to my mind are (1) does a transplant body retain any vestiges of the old soul inhabitant? and (2) what is the Hereafter like?  The first is answered pretty well.  The second isn’t touched upon.  I suppose that makes sense, but it is hardly satisfying.

My issue isn’t with set-up but rather the execution, which is a bit lacking.  Much of this can be attributed to the format.  The novel began serialization way back in the October 1958 issue of Galaxy, and it was spread over an unprecedented four installments.  As a result, the story reads a lot like four connected novellas.  The first primarily deals with Blaine’s arrival, in which Blaine narrowly escapes death at the hands of a body peddler.  In part two, Blaine is a “hunter,” an assassin hired for an elaborate suicide game in which the quarry expects to die in a blaze of combat.  Part three, perhaps the most interesting, reveals a sinister plot against Blaine’s life and introduces us to the subterranean zombie community.  Part four wraps things up in an exciting escape from the country and finishes off with a good (though not unguessable) twist.

Because of the format, Timekiller feels a bit padded and uncoordinated.  I had a similar problem with Heinlein’s latest serial, Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Part 2 of that novel was largely filled with an exciting but rather pointless escape attempt that ended in frustration. 

The characters in Timekiller aren’t terribly exciting either.  Most prominent besides Blaine is Marie Thorne, the scientist in charge of Blaine’s recovery; she ends up largely a love interest.  The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, though I did like Ray Melhill, a fellow target of the aforementioned body peddler, who provides Blaine a lot of assistance despite being dead most of the story.  Smith, a zombie, probably has the most interesting story to tell, and his thread runs from beginning to end.

So what’s the final verdict?  I’m afraid this review makes me sound a bit harsh.  Timekiller is thoroughly readable, and the world it portrays does capture the imagination.  I could see the novel being improved in editing for book publication, which I understand is forthcoming.  As is, however, it is merely competent.

For Bob Sheckley, that’s damned faint praise indeed.

3 stars out of 5.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Please comment here or there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.