Other Dimensions: An Afternoon With Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley speaks to Bob Urell.

This recent interview originally appeared at Singularity. Now that site has gone 'tits up' Bob Urell has kindly allowed the piece to appear here.

Bob Sheckley doesn't look like one of Science Fiction's Elder Gods, author of some sixty books, contemporary of Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss, master of his satirical science fantasy domain. In fact, he looks very much like any other seventy-plus year old man. His hair is wispy, his walk just slightly cautious.

But those eyes are still clear and bright, sharply inquisitive and full of the spark that has fueled a fifty-one year career as one of science fantasy's best and brightest performers.

When I first see him, stepping away from his desk and coming into his living room to shake my hand, it's a moment of pure, mind-bending reality check. How can this old man be the Bob Sheckley?

Because, even as a writer of science fiction, as one who's seen the dirty backside of the industry and knows all too well that writers are just people -- gifted people, to be sure, and therefore more, rather than less, human -- even I expect to see perhaps just a trace of deity in the man who’s had a career as monumental as Robert Sheckley's.

I’d sent Bob an e-mail:

I live just outside the Portland Metro area and was wondering if you might be interested in allowing me to buy you a lunch sometime -- perhaps at Rocco's or Rose's -- and interview you?

Clumsy, but ultimately affective, Bob is gracious and quick to accept. I‘m sure he was thinking it might be good to get out for an easy afternoon with a fan. Poor guy forgot TANSTAAFL.

I pick him up at his Southeast Portland home and, considering what I’m about to put him through, I let him pick the restaurant.

Strike one.

Bob is exceedingly considerate, we banter back and forth for a good five minutes about where to eat, neither wanting to disregard the other’s preference.

We finally settle on a Spanish restaurant Bob says serves good tapas, and we head across the Willamette and into downtown Portland. Bob is trying to remember how to get to the restaurant and I’m doing my best to interpret his directions into legal driving maneuvers -- not generally successfully, as several rattled pedestrians could attest.

I lob a softball, the old 'What were your influences?' lead-in, and Bob nails me with a pitcher-killer, "I was just remembering the huge influence that radio shows had on me. For years, more perhaps than the influence of books on me, was the influence of people as diverse as Jack Benny, Cid Caesar, Fred Coe's radio theater, and above all, the adventures of Jack, Doc and Reggie in E. Carlton Phillips' "I Love a Mystery". And there were others. As an even younger kid I had loved daytime soaps, from Ma Perkins to Mert and Marge. I listened to them whenever I could stay home from school, which wasn't often enough. There was a world of magic there and in the pulp magazines. I find little or no magic around now. But perhaps that's because I've turned into a grinch."

We do a wide circle around several blocks, while I try and think of a comeback, and we end up where we started. Bob tells me to make a right so I do...and I find myself staring traffic in the face on a one way street. I manage to pull into a parking lot, avoiding a hideous death -- or at least a scraped bumper or two -- by a scant fifty yards, and decide perhaps it would be best if we walked.

Strike two.

Bob points us South and we walk several blocks. He’s chatting in that uncomfortable he’s-a-stranger-but-he’s-also-my-ride-home kind of way. And we’re lost. Again. Still.

I notice a change has come over Bob; he walks with his hands in his coat pockets and he leans forward with his head down as if against a strong wind. He brushes by the occasional pedestrian, never making eye contact, never acknowledging anyone else other than to move to one side or the other as necessary to avoid a head-on collision. He looks at home on the streets of Portland. I remember he lived in New York -- the West Village, as a matter of fact. And then it really hits me: This guy, this wizened old man with the shuffling walk and the gentle demeanor, this guy was there! He was part of the scene.

The West Village, in the 50's, was a haven for writers and writing. They came in groups and alone, shacking up with each other, sleeping on floors or in cars. But not for long. Never before or since has science fiction had such a concentrated bundle of raw talent gathered in one place. And Bob Sheckley was right there in the thick of it.

"Yeah. I miss the camaraderie I had when I was growing up in the field. There were always people to talk ideas with and story stuff and all that. It was a very good means of stimulation. So what I really miss -- what I regret -- is the isolation I’m in now."

Asked why he left, why step away from a good thing, Bob frowns slightly and says, "Well it’s true I had a high output. And there were about ten years there where I was going really good. But then the magazine field changed. Horace Gold quit, or was asked to quit. The new Galaxy wasn’t the same under Fred Pohl. A lot of editors quit. And I think I got a little bored with the general situation. I was growing disenchanted with New York and with the self-congratulatory nature of intellectual life there."

We have no better luck finding Bob's restaurant on foot, none of the eateries we manage to locate -- and I'm not at all sure any were the places Bob was looking for -- are serving lunch.

"I know this place that serves comfort food. It's called ‘Mothers‘. You like comfort food?" Bob asks.

We walk North a couple of blocks, then East...then South the same couple of blocks. Bob seems to be waffling between heading back to the car and going North again.

"I've changed my mind," he says. "I know a nice place on Belmont."

Belmont is only a couple of blocks from Bob's house.

We head back toward the car, hoping it's still in the place we think we remember parking....

One block North and West of the car is, you guessed it, our restaurant.

Mother's is one of those hip places I've never felt comfortable in. The waitress is über cool in her in her studded leather dog collar and pleasantly tight hip-huggers. The furniture is sparse, and what's there is fragile and uncomfortable. But the music's good, jazz fusion with a little Ella Fitzgerald mixed in for texture, and the food is fantastic and the servings generous.

Bob explains his philosophy on contemporary science fiction between bites, "There's more detailing, I think, of certain kinds now. In the past, the nearest you could get to that was Van Vogt, you know in the planned outlook or in the world of LA. Now the research -- the works about the research -- seem a bit serious. I don’t know if that’s better."

I mention the pendulum swing back toward science fantasy much of the current literature seems to be taking, and China Miéville's revival of the term, Weird Fiction, and Bob says, "Yes. It's a little racier, a little sexier, and he's right, that's what it is, Lovecraftian Weird Fiction. You know, authors are very restricted as to what they can put out. So in a way, if you grew up in the science fantasy world, it’s hard to get yourself beyond that. Except with stylistic tricks, as it were, which in some sense, all of us do. We try and put a different spin on an idea."

Bob doesn’t read much contemporary fiction, "I’ve read China. He’s very, very good. I read part of Perdido Street Station, before I lost it. I read The Scar, and can see where he’s grown up a bit, stylistically. Otherwise, it’s awfully hard to get a real handle on the field now without reading through endless stuff one doesn’t really want to read through.

"There are a lot of very bright ideas going around. Writers like Blaylock, among others, whose ideas are very interesting. Greg Benford who’s not as stylish, in the same way, is doing interesting work with the science."

I wonder what it was like seeing the New Wave, spearheaded by Michael Moorcock, rolling in, demanding radical changes in the way science fiction was approached. "New Wave... I was vaguely aware of it, chiefly through the work of Jim Ballard, which I loved. I never thought much if anything about it as a movement within science fiction.”

Asked whether he’d ever considered writing something else, Bob shakes his head. "Other than science fiction? Well, I've always liked the genre. I wrote 5 thrillers for Bantam books. But I was never morally serious about the thriller in the way that Graham Greene and others were. I thought SF was more important, whatever that means."

Regrets? "You know, it’s been worth it for me. I don’t think, given my personality, what I could have done that would have been a better thing for me."

But writing humor during a period of science fiction history where most writers were scientists or engineers writing highly technical pieces, wasn't that an added complication? "It was not a conscious choice. Humor was there in my outlook, in the way I put together language. As this attitude -- whatever it is -- is a characteristic part of my outlook now. And there were other guys doing it too. William Tenn, A. J. Budrys. There were a lot of guys who didn’t do much in the way of hard science, but were more into the sensibilities."

A persistent beeping sound interjects. Bob rummages in his pocket, and comes up with a portable clock, something like a medication timer you might find in a drugstore.

"I do a lot of work with a timer. I set myself to work for 25 minutes. I try to keep my fingers moving."

Bob is famous for his decades long battle with writer's block. "I was pretty blocked. I think a lot of that was because, for years, I’d had a very upset life. I didn’t know what was what, where I’d stay, who I was with. Also, it was not easy for me to change over to a computer. There were also bad results when I moved myself over to Ibiza; what I thought of as a magical island, where I could just live on what came in. It took me out of competition in U.S. markets. There just didn’t seem a need to work and it became harder not to just live life."

I just can't stop myself from going off on a diatribe about the vagaries of fate that placed Douglas Adams upon a pedestal writing what Brian Aldiss called 'Sheckleyan' science fiction, while forcing Bob himself to scratch out a living writing shorts for the digests. Bob scratches his face and regards me, a somewhat vague smile softening the sharpness of his eyes. "No, I never begrudged him his success. I liked him. He was a very personable guy. He found his own thing and he worked away at it." What was the difference? "Adams was bigger. And richer (Laughs)."

But the money. Wouldn't it be nice.... "I had my chance at money. I had my chance to be a Hollywood writer, and I turned away from that."

I can't help but wonder why. "I didn’t like the people I’d be associating with. I guess it was mainly that. And the work seemed sort of soulless. Also I didn’t like Hollywood."

Considering how unkind filmmakers have been to Bob’s stories -- Immortality, Inc -- was a decent piece of satire that got mauled into the embarrassing Emilio Estevez/Mick Jagger debacle, Freejack -- it's not surprising that Bob eschewed the glitz of Hollywood.

But what about television? There are several science fiction shows on T.V. right now. I tell Bob The Twilight Zone seems something he could definitely write episodes for.

"Yes, there are these shows. But I don't watch most of them, or at best only see them occasionally. Star Trek is a franchise. It can feel a little demeaning to work there. As for Twilight Zone, it sounds like it and I were meant for each other. But I'm a simple man, and getting anything to it and even to a consideration stage are not known to me, and I doubt I'll get around to finding out. And nothing replaces a sympathetic editor."

Getting back to the subject of books, I ask Bob about his collaborative novels, three with Roger Zelazny, and one with Harry Harrison. "Well, I tell you, at the time I was working on these, I saw very little of those guys. I used to see Harry a lot back in the old days. But when I did Bill (the Galactic Hero) it was just a paragraph I got from his publisher. I had no interaction at all with Harry on that."

That's a rather impersonal way to work. "Yes it is. With Roger, once I said, 'Okay, I can work with this outline.' Then he didn’t really hear from me until I handed him the typescript."

Zelazny said, when interviewed for Absolute Magnitude, that Bob didn't outline, so he had to outline all three books. "Yes. It was lovely having him do the whole layout and also, it was quite a straightforward story."

Zelazny has quite a following. As do authors like China and Neil Gaiman. Some of them are more akin to rock stars than literary figures. "I don't think I'd want it much for myself. Talking with fans can be very ego enhancing, but it comes at the expense of stuff I'd rather think about. What is that stuff? A part of it is finding stuff to think about."

But the Internet has made interaction with the fans so much simpler, and perhaps safer as well, considering Harlan Ellison's Xenogenisis, and the horrific stories some authors offered of their fans' adoration. "Yes, email is producing something like community. It's a little ghostly, though. Sometimes no substitute quite suffices. Having friends like one used to have was one of the things that permitted you to live in the world. But back then, the world was less intrusive than it is now. Now you can't help but be polarized by world-level questions--like will the U.S. make war on Iraq, and what about Iran and North Korea after that. We're entering an apocalyptic time. Our masters insist that we pay attention to what they are doing. This is not so good for an artist."

In 2000, the SFWA tapped Bob as Author Emeritus. I thought it was a somewhat dubious award, considering Bob's ongoing career. "I knew they were trying to recognize me for something. I didn’t think highly of it because ‘emeritus’ sounds like retirement. So I didn’t like that. Because I’ve always been active, in fact I’m writing more now than I have in some years. I would have liked to have gotten a Grandmaster Award -- in fact Harlan is pushing for that for me."

As if they were saying, he was good, no need to keep at it. Bob stares off into space for a second, perhaps recalling better times, days in the West Village tinged with hope and promise.

I ask him if he has any last words on the subject.

Bob nods his head, "I'm still here. I'm not done yet."