There is nothing that satisfies like a good collection of short stories. And there is nobody who consistently releases good collections of short stories like Robert Sheckley.
A fellow lanzmann, Bob Sheckley emerged onto the science fiction magazine scene early in this decade, and he has elevated the standards of every digest for which he’s written (Galaxy seems to be his primary literary residence). His first compilation, 1954’s Untouched by Human Hands, was a masterpiece right out of the gate. I am especially partial to his second collection, Citizen of the Galaxy, perhaps because it is the first one I read. It was published in 1955.
Somehow, I missed his third, Pilgrimage to Earth, even though it was published last year (1957). It’s good, though perhaps not quite as good as the previous two. It does deliver the qualities I’ve come to expect from Mr. Sheckley–whimsy, comedy, satire, horror. The collection also has several stories I had missed when they were first published.
Standouts include the AAA Ace stories, Milk Run and Lifeboat Mutiny, featuring the unlucky yet plucky interstellar hustlers, Gregor and Arnold. Bad Medicine, in which the protagonist receives psychiatric aid from a machine tuned to the Martian brain, is quite good. I enjoyed All the Things You Are, a tale of a disastrous first contact between humanity and an alien race, but with an unexpectedly happy coda. Protection is a cautionary tale regarding guardian angels–sometimes we’re better off without their help!
There are a few stories in this collection that miss the mark, to my mind. These are stories that betray a certain degree of misogyny or at least resentment toward the female (I understand Mr. Sheckley divorced a few years back, and this may have colored his views; he is recently re-married, mazel tov.) We saw a bit of this attitude in last collection’s Ticket to Tranai and it is quite evident in the titular Pilgrimage to Earth. In the latter story, a hayseed colonist travels to Earth, where he purchases a very convincing love affair. The unsatisfactory ending leaves him bitter and soon a customer of another Earth commercial specialty–shooting galleries with live women as targets.
Also unpleasant was Fear in the Night. I won’t spoil the story, but it highly disturbed my wife when she read it.
On the other hand, Human Man’s Burden features a mail-order settler’s bride, but the execution and the twist make the story surprisingly good. There is a bit of male fantasy and wish-fulfillment in it, but I thought the bride was well-developed and a strong, self-reliant character.
In short, this collection is worth getting despite being more of a mixed bag than the previous two. I am not too worried. Anyone as prolific as Sheckley is bound to dash out a few clunkers, and perhaps his second try at marital bliss will improve his outlook on women. Moreover, I’ve enjoyed Sheckley’s (and his alter-ego, Finn Donnovan’s) recent, as-yet unanthologized stories, and that’s a good sign.
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