Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.


THE ALTERNATIVE DETECTIVE by Robert Sheckley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/22/2015]

THE ALTERNATIVE DETECTIVE by Robert Sheckley (ISBN 978-0-312-85381-5) is a humorous hard-boiled detective story, not a science fiction or fantasy novel. The "alternative" aspect of Hob Draconian's detective agency is not that it deals with werewolves (though clearly his name is supposed to evoke the supernatural), or even with alternate histories, but that it works mostly with people who are not in the mainstream of life. Hob's clients are not rich businessmen or movie stars, but people living at the edges of society. Rachel Starr is looking for her boyfriend, who played in a rock band and had taken a job with a very avant-garde film director. And Hob's nephew wants him to collect payment for a half dozen sailboards he sold to someone in Spain. Not exactly General Sternwood or Derace Kingsley--and although Sam Spade is explicitly mentioned, the sub-genre is more Philip Marlowe, with Istanbul as Bay City.

To order The Alternative Detective from amazon.com, click here.


CITIZEN IN SPACE by Robert Sheckley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/27/2011]

CITIZEN IN SPACE by Robert Sheckley (Ballantine, 1962, no ISBN) was Mark's choice for this month's science fiction discussion group. Mark is a fan of the "Golden Age" of science fiction, particularly Robert Sheckley, and though this collection has long been out of print, luckily there were copies available on the used market. (It has also been put on-line illegally on a server in Russia that seems to be working at putting a lot of works on-line.)

The first story, "The Mountain Without a Name" seems like it is going to be just another "Earthmen invade another planet and get their come-uppance from the 'backward' natives." It isn't.

"The Accountant" is one of those "reversal" stories. Usually the parents want the child to follow some practical career and the child wants something off the wall. Here the parents want the child to be a wizard, but the child wants to be an accountant. Move along, nothing to see here.

"Hunting Problem" is yet another reversal, with an alien "Scouter" hunting "mirashes", which we find out very early on are humans. And because we find this out early, we are expecting some other twist at the end of the story.

"A Thief in Time" might almost be the inspiration for "Paycheck"--the protagonist in "A Thief in Time" is told by a time traveler that he will invent a time machine. He ends up traveling to the future and discovering that (on a previous trip?) he has stolen an odd assortment of items: lifebelts, shark repellant, micro-copies of world literature, hand mirrors, carrot seeds, .... Naturally, as the story progresses, we (and he) discover why these items were necessary.

"The Luckiest Man in the World" is another fairly predictable story, and as such seems to go on much longer than it needs to.

"Hands Off" is a combination "first-contact" and slapstick story. Humans try to operate an alien craft they have found (well, stolen) with somewhat less success--but more realistically--than the Americans had with U-571 in the movie of the same name.

"Something for Nothing" is a story about the dangers involved in relying on credit and a good credit rating to acquire what you want. Alas, the main character cannot just declare bankruptcy and start over.

At forty pages,"Ticket to Tranai" is the longest of the stories. While there is much to like in its depiction of a "utopia" with no crime, no poverty, and hardly any government, I cannot help but note that the characterization of women in it leaves a lot to be desired. I can understand how the rationale Sheckley gives for their attitude might seem reasonable, but only based on 1950s assumptions. The theory is that a woman would prefer to be kept in stasis most of the time, taken out only for parties and such. There are two problems with this. First, what about reproduction? There is no indication of artificial wombs, so even if one assumes that robots raise the children--which seems unlikely--the woman has to be out of stasis for nine months, and popping in and out cannot be good for a pregnant women. But second, it assumes that a women is willing to live as a pampered plaything for a man for some unspecified subjective time in return for a wealthy widowhood, apparently spent in idleness. The idea that she might want something more out of life does not seem to occur to anyone.

And as you might suspect, the "no crime, no poverty, and hardly any government" aspects of Tranai turn out to be not what Goodman expects.

Sheckley seems a bit prescient regarding the current decline of public services, and the concurrent enrichment of the few:

"Marvin Goodman had lived most of his life in Seakirk, New Jersey, a town controlled by one political boss or another for close to fifty years. Most of Seakirk's inhabitants were indifferent to the spectacle of corruption in high places and low, the gambling, the gang wars, the teen-age drinking. They were used to the sight of their roads crumbling, their ancient water mains bursting, their power plants breaking down, their decrepit old buildings falling apart, while the bosses built bigger homes, longer swimming pools and warmer stables. People were used to it."

I really liked "The Battle", but I have a fondness for theological science fiction: science fiction where the "what if?" is "what if Christianity [or some other religion, but it is usually Christianity] is literally true?" In this case, the question is, what will happen during the Final Battle between humanity and the minions of Satan, particularly if humanity brings its advanced technology to bear? It's not what you think.

"Skulking Permit" is almost the flip side of "A Ticket to Tranai": there is a utopia which has been out of contact with Earth for generations, and now that contact has been re-established the colonists want to do their best to prove how normal and conformist they are, including creating a jail and a criminal. The story is just a bit too twee, though, and the ending is just too convenient and unbelievable

The title story, "Citizen in Space", is about ubiquitous government surveillance. Written during the McCarthy era, it still (or perhaps again) has relevance in a world where the FBI attaches GPS units to people's cars and you need to have a full body scan to fly to Grandma's house.

And the final story, "Ask a Foolish Question", is not even really a story at all, but a philosophical musing on the function of background in illocutionary acts. If you don't understand what that means, well, that's the point.

To order Citizen in Space from amazon.com, click here.


DIMENSION OF MIRACLES/B> by Robert Sheckley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/04/2014]

DIMENSION OF MIRACLES by Robert Sheckley (no ISBN, available in DIMENSIONS OF SHECKLEY, ISBN 978-1-8867-7829-0) was this month's discussion book. A summary (to give my comments context) with comments follows:

Part I: The Departure from Earth

Chapter 1: Tom Carmody is a schlub who suddenly has a being materialize in his apartment and tell him he has just won the Intergalactic Sweepstakes. (When this book was written in 1968, the only sweepstakes anyone had ever heard of was the Irish Sweepstakes, so is it coincidence that the initial trumpet music to announce the messenger is replaced by a "skirling of bagpipes", as if that is the only way Carmody could relate to it?) Carmody is transported to the Galactic Center to claim his price.

Chapter 2: The architecture here is "Neo-Cyclopean" (an allusion to Lovecraft?) and based on the rectangle, which it turns out the Messenger invented. Carmody is delivered to the Office of the Sweepstakes.

Chapter 3: Or at least he is after he is accidently sent to the Office of Petty Crime, with which it has been combined. As soon as he finishes the paperwork and claims his prize, though, Karmod (for whom the prize *was* intended) shows up.

Chapter 4: The Computer explains that since a perfect machine would be impossible and immoral, he must spontaneously create errors. (This reminds me of the rug-weavers who always put some mistake or imperfection in their rugs to avoid challenging the perfection of God. It is also similar to the rule (or perhaps just custom or tradition) that someone who is converting to Judaism, but has not completed the process, must break each Sabbath at least once until the conversion is complete.) The Computer convinces Karmod to renounce his claim.

Part II: Where Is Earth?

Chapter 5: Now Carmody wants to go home. But because he comes from a backward, primitive planet (which up until now did not even know about interstellar travel), he does not know Earth's coordinates (where, when, and which). The coordinates the Messenger used are useless, because Earth has moved considerably in the interim. (This is usually just ignored in teleportation and interstellar travel stories.)

Chapter 6: So they take him to Lursis, planet of Melichrone, and the Prize (which appears to be sentient and talkative, explains that Carmody needs to get help from Melichrone. After giving Carmody a couple of cryptic warnings, the Prize vanishes.

Chapter 7: Melichrone turns out to be God (or perhaps just a god, though one with all the characteristics of God). But now he is bored because, as he says, "I am doubtless as vain as the next God; but the endless fulsome praise finally bored me to distraction. Why in God's name should a God be praised if he is only performing his Godly function? You might as well praise an ant for doing his blind antly duties." So Melichrone wants Carmody to explain what his function should be.

Chapter 8: Carmody tells Melichrone that he has to find within himself "an indwelling functionalism which will have reference to an exterior reality," even though he tells Melichrone, "you yourself are reality and therefore cannot posit yourself exterior to reality." He elaborates on this well enough to convince Melichrone to help him.

Chapter 9: Melichrone explains the Law of Predation to Carmody, and then sends him to Maudsley for help.

Chapter 10: The Prize takes a break to turn into a cauldron in order to eat some orithi, which he says are like giant mushrooms, delicious poached in their own juices, and oh, by the way, they are also very good poets. There is some discussion of how everyone has a somewhat solipsistic view of alien races, never thinking of them needing food, rest, exercise, bowel movements, and so on, but more as "solid all through and bowelless." The Prize tells Carmody to "be sure to get [Maudsley's] his attention and impress him with your humanity--and then Maudsley shows up and Carmody fails at both.

Chapter 11: Maudsley berates his assistents on the poor job they have done constructing the planet they are all on, mostly because of their extravagance in materials. This reminds me of parts of "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe", where Slartibartfast talks about the "little fiddly bits" that are the Norwegian fjords. Carmody finally gets his attention.

Chapter 12: Maudsley relates his invention of science, which sounds less like science and more like gobbledygook (especially the part about entropy).

Chapter 13: Maudsley describes his building of Earth for God, and then he and Carmody have a discussion of free will. The closing lines ("Why should I go to a place [any church] that a God would not enter?") sound like Groucho Marx's comment that he would not join any club that would have him as a member.

Chapter 14: Carmody tours an atom-making factory, but feels the way he does in a museum: it's impressive for about five minutes, but then it just gets repetitive and boring. Later he sees a forest being constructed and it in discovers two Earth people who have apparently come to rescue him, but talk like people out of a low-budget 1950s science-fiction movie.

Chapter 15: There is more 1950s-style dialogue, including a description of one character who ancestors all were irradiated. (Actually, Sheckley seems to make a slip here. Aelill Maddoxe (described as Maddox's great-grandfather) worked in a coal mine right next to rich uranium deposits until 1739. In 1801 Thomas Madoxxe was one of the two survivors of the strike of a radioactive meteorite on his ranch. Ernest Maddox (described as Maddox's grandfather) demonstrated an X-ray machine twice weekly for ten years in the 1930s. Ernest's son went to Japan and became a Zen monk living eight miles from the Hiroshima epicenter. Overlooking the extremely long time spans for the first two generational gaps (61 years and 120 years), it is not clear how Thomas fits between a great-grandfather and a grandfather. All this distracts Carmody for a while, but suddenly he realizes that what he has been seeing has been an illusion, e.g. "[He] saw that Aviva's lovely eyes were stylized and suggestive rather than functional--like the design of eyes on the wings of a moth." The description of the transformation that Carmody sees--from illusion to reality--makes it very easy to visualize. As Carmody is about to be eaten by the Predator, he loses consciousness ...

Chapter 16: ... and wakes up to discover that the Prize has gotten a doctor, who first goes through a discussion of medical ethics, which he admits is irrelevant to Carmody's condition, but hopes might help justify his high fees. He then describes what he plans to do to cure Carmody, which involves completely dissecting him into his constituent parts and then re-assembling him. At this point, Carmody screams, "No operation!" and the doctor observes that the verbal description of the operating procedure is often enough to cure the patient.

Chapter 17: After a long discussion of predators, and of eating and being eaten, Maudsley says he can send Carmody to Earth, but only the correct spatial coordinates ("Where"); the "When" and "Which" will still need to be addressed.

Part III: When Is Earth?

Chapter 18: Carmody and the Prize land in a swamp. The prize figures out which geologic eon, era, and period they are (Late Cretaceous) in by observing the flora and fauna. This fits in so perfectly with the last Teaching Company lecture we listened to (one which described the geologic time scale in "Major Transitions in Evolution") that it cannot be pure coincidence; there must be an intelligence behind it all. (That's a joke, folks.) Anyway, Sheckley has the Prize mention the brontosaurus. But what was originally dubbed a Brontosaurus was an Apatosaurus skeleton with a Camarasaurus head. The current status of the word "Brontosaurus" is somewhere being considered a synonym for Apatosaurus, and being just plain wrong. (Sheckley also writes it in lower-case, when technically it should be capitalized.) Just as the Prize finishes his determination of when they are, a Tyrannosaurus heads for them.

Chapter 19: It turns out the Tyrannosaurus can talk (English, presumably, though that makes even less sense than just talking), and wonders what they are. It talks about the various species it has met. Now, Tyrannosaurus was from the Late Cretaceous (75-66 MYA), as was Stutiomimus and Scolosaurus, but dimetrodons were from the Early Permian (295-272 MYA), so his meeting with a dimetrodon seems like another error. The Tyrannosaur (a juvenile named Emie) takes them to "Dinosaurville".

Chapter 20: Carmody has a difficult time answering the dinosaurs' questions about their role in the future, resorting to such ambiguities as "everybody likes a dinosaur" and that the dinosaurs are "doing every bit as well as could be expected." Then Borg (Emie's father) explains that the only other intelligent species on the planet, besides Tyrannosaurus, are the Hadrosaurs. But he goes on to say:

"They're lazy. Also sullen and surly. I know what I'm talking about: I've employed hadrosaurs as servants. They have no ambition, no drive, no stick-to-it-iveness. Half the time they don't know who hatched them, and they don't seem to care. They don't look you forthrightly in the eye when they speak to you. ... They [do] sing well. Some of our best entertainers are hadrosaurs. They also do well at heavy construction, if given supervision. Their appearance works against them, of course, that duckbilled look."

And when he hears that the hadrosaurs are extinct in the future, his response is, "Perhaps it's best that way. Yes, I really think it's best."

Sheckley is not exactly subtle here.

Then someone from the Bureau of Internal Revenue shows up and insists Carmody accompany him. But Carmody recognizes him as the Predator again, and refuses to go.

Chapter 21: Carmody finds himself in the Galactic Placement Bureau, where he gets yet more advice. For example:

Then Carmody is sent off to Earth, or rather to an Earth. If it is not the right Earth, he just needs to ask to skip to the next one, and so on, until he finds his own. This sounds like the seven wishes in the film BEDAZZLED (at least in the 1967 version): Stanley Moon wishes for a particular scenario (e.g., he is a pop star) and George Spigot (the Devil) whisks him into it. If Stanley becomes dissatisfied with it, he just has to blow a raspberry and George whisks him out again, and Stanley can make a new wish.

Chapter 22: Carmody finds himself in a city that is a combination of many different architectural styles, with "an Italian piazza, a couple Greek-type statues, a row of Tudor houses, an old-style New York tenement, a California hot dog stand shaped like a tugboat, and God knows what else." (Also a Gay Nineties saloon and a Gothic cathedral.) This immediately reminded me of Thomas Cole's painting in the Toledo Museum, "The Architect's Dream"--except I think Cole intended the juxtaposition to be a good thing, while here (and frankly in the painting as well) it just seems jarring and garish.

Chapter 23: The city also has a voice and talks to Carmody and, just as the description of the hadrosaurs has a fairly obvious stereotypical origin, so does the city. Eventually Carmody "blows his raspberry."

Chapter 24: Carmody ends up in a fairly familiar-looking New York, but when he enters the subway, he realizes that it is really just the disguised mouth of the Predator and escapes just in time.

Chapter 25: Here Carmody finds himself in what I think of as "Advertworld"--everyone talks in advertising slogans and uses brand names whenever possible. DIMENSION OF MIRACLES was written in 1968. Frederik Pohl's THE SPACE MERCHANTS was written in 1952, and "The Midas Plague" in 1954, so it is not inconceivable that Sheckley was familiar with those two works. (Actually, I would say it was inconceivable that he was *not* familiar with them.) Hence his "Advertworld" probably drew on them for inspiration. (Conversely, though, Douglas Adams has said that he never read DIMENSION OF MIRACLES before he wrote the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe" series in the 1970s.) It also reminds me of THE TRUMAN SHOW, where everyone inserts commercials into their conversation because while they all know they are on television, Truman does no--hence they cannot just cut to a commercial. (Television shows used to do this back in the beginning, e.g. Maxwell House was plugged in dialogue "The Goldbergs", "Mama", and "Father Knows Best". Later, product placement switched to relying primarily on merely being visibly present in a scene.)

Chapter 26: Carmody jumps to another Earth, but before we find out what this one is, he and the Prize have a discussion about the Prize's eating habits. The Prize claims that his principal diet is himself. Carmody tries to explain this violates some physical law of conservation but eventually gives up.

Chapter 27: The Prize's greeting of "How now, voyager?" at the beginning of the previous chapter was not accidental--on this Earth, Maplewood, New Jersey, is really a movie set as reality. Lana Turner is sipping a soda in a luncheonette (a nod to how she was "discovered" when she was drinking a Coke at the Top Hat Malt Shop), Clifton Webb is the high school principal, Burt Lancaster was the high school's most famous fullback, and so on. But Carmody does not realize there is anything odd about this until the Prize pointed out that their was symphonic music being played that was not coming from anywhere. So Carmody jumps again.

Part V: The Return to Earth

Chapter 28: Carmody finds himself on an Earth of war, commercialism, and bizarre pop art. He leaves, and then admits to the Prize that it had been his own Earth, but he did not want to stay there. "I have simply given up a longevity which I never possessed anyhow," he says. "I have turned away from the con game which the Gods run in their heavenly sideshow. I no longer care under which shell the pea of immortality might be found. I don't need it. I have my moment, which is quite enough."

To order Dimensions of Sheckley from amazon.com, click here.


"Seventh Victim" by Robert Sheckley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/16/2004]

Robert Sheckley's "Seventh Victim" (made into the film TENTH VICTIM perhaps because there was already a different film called SEVENTH VICTIM) was also somewhat predictable, and the game doesn't bear close examination (in particular the "bootstrapping" process of how it got started), but the world Sheckley describes seems at least reasonably well imagined.

"A Wind Is Rising" by Robert Sheckley:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/03/2011]

We watched the Disney film SECRETARIAT the other day, and watching the re-creation of the Belmont Stakes race, I found myself thinking of the science fiction story "The Wind Is Rising" by Robert Sheckley. In both cases the observers are sure they understand what is going on and what comes next. And in both cases (no surprise here) they are wrong.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/23/2012]

I haven't done as much reading lately, catching up with a lot of post-Sandy stuff instead. I did re-read Robert Sheckley's "A Wind Is Rising", a short story from 1957 which has been reprinted a few times, in Sheckley collections and THE THIRD GALAXY READER. It was also dramatized as an episode of "X Minus One".) The story takes place on Carella I, where a wind of 82 miles an hour is a light breeze, so you can see why I decided to read it after Sandy came through.


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