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Aldiss on Sheckley

This passionate piece comes from "Trillion Year Spree" (1986) by Brian Aldiss with David Wingrove.
Sheckley at his best is Voltaire-and-soda. His fizzing nihilism expresses itself most pungently at short-story length. His stories poured into Galaxy in the fifties, when he could never write too much.

Sheckley has a wry inventiveness which skates him over profound depths, and a sense of playfulness even in his darkest moments. The "science" in Sheckley's work is not physics but metaphysics and his protagonists are wide-eyed innocents sent on journeys designed to disillusion the widest-eyed idealist. Thomas Blaine in "Immortality Inc." (1959) and Joenes in "Journey Beyond Tommorow" (1963) are typical of this Candide archetype. Religion and the existence/non-existence of God fashioned and perhaps obsessed Sheckley (in the way it did the later Phil Dick), but it was the modern life and its absurdities which excited Sheckley's greatest interest and provoked his sharpest, wittiest responses.

Echoes of Orwell's "We Are the Dead" aside, "Journey Beyond Tommorow" is a novel which anticipated all that was to happen in America in the sixties and early seventies, a social fable.

As unlike it as could possibly be - bar the infectious wit - was "Dimension of Miracles" (1968), Sheckley's best novel in the sixties. In that work Thomas Carmody finds himself - in true Simak fashion - involved in the wider galaxy of intelligent aliens, having won the Intergalactic Sweepstakes. But as it transpires, he is the wrong Thomas Carmody, the prize itself is sentient - has wants and needs and berates Carmody for not satisfying them - and there is a special carnivore designed to hunt down Carmodys. Insanely logical as it is, it puts the Big Questions as perhaps they ought to be put - comically. Some of us grieved when Douglas Adams came along with his "Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and grew rich doing the Sheckleyan things which appeared to keep Sheckley poor.

Sheckley's charm is his irreverance, his iconoclastic shiftiness, his refusal to state an opinion and stick to it dogmatically. Everything is up for grabs, even God. In this he IS the premier gadfly that Kingsley Amis termed him in "New Maps of Hell". Sheckley is forever using phenomena for fun, so that science fiction's range of exaggerated metaphors are at their wildest in works like "Mindswap" (1966).

The later Sheckley was to publish less often, "Options" in 1975, "The Alchemical Marriage of Alastair Crompton" (also as "Crompton Divided" in the States) in 1978 and "Dramocles" in 1983. Something of the effervescence of his earlier writings has vanished; besides, the galaxy of the eighties is less amusing. Overhead, without any fizz, the stars are going out. Sheckley is still, these days, wearing his Borges mask with its false tongue stuck firmly in its false cheek. Like P. G. Wodehouse's butler, Sheckley forms a procession of one.