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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Robert Sheckley: Revisiting sci-fi's neglected hero and others

Just as writing and rewriting are essentially separate acts, calling upon different faculties, switching brain hemispheres — different pilots installed up there in the cockpit — so, I suspect, are reading and rereading.

In an earlier column here I detailed my affection for George R. Stewart's Earth Abides and how that book has changed for me, grown ever deeper as, during these past forty years, I've come back to it again and again. Other books and authors to which I regularly return include James Joyce's Ulysses, Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, all of Raymond Chandler, Thomas McGuane's Panama, Patricia Highsmith, Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Kate Wilhelm, Boris Vian's L'Écume des jours, Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, Julio Cortazar's short stories, Candide.

Each time I go back to the well the water's different.

In conversation with a friend recently, I found myself talking about the three film versions of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The first, from 1956, directed by the great Don Siegel and featuring Kevin McCarthy and King Donovan, is a hands-down classic, easily the finest fantasy movie of the decade. The subtext here, never explicit (Siegel is too much an artist for that), is fear of communism with its subjugation of personality, the very sensibilities that led to McCarthyism — with a healthy dose of general Fifties paranoia thrown in.

Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake features Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. It moves the action from a small town to San Francisco. Distinctive use of shadows and light, odd camera angles and special effects replace the stark psychological load of the original. True to Seventies paranoia (as opposed to the Fifties variety) the government is implicated in the plot. Visually, it's a stunning film.

Abel Ferrara's 1994 version, told from the point-of-view of a teenage army brat, is very much of the "me" decade, largely forfeiting the social message at the tale's heart, revving up strands of subplot (such as Forrest Whitaker's role) only to back off the gas. Were we all so confused and out of focus in the Nineties, so self-taken? Had our lives become so discontinuous?

The point I was trying to make with my friend is that each time we go back to a work of art — any work of art, but especially one as rich in implication as Invasion of the Body Snatchers — we bring with us not only the many ways in which we have changed since our last visit, but also the ways in which society has reshaped itself around us.

Rereading is the same.

That twenty-year-old, newly arrived from the rural South and innocent of all politics, sitting in the rathskeller at Tulane with Pale Fire; and that fifty-year-old, having lived in New York, Boston and London and written a few books of his own, sitting with Pale Fire at an outdoor Paris café — these are different people. They and the book exist in a different world.

Of late I've been rereading Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, both of them writers I grew up on.

Bradbury, of course, as author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes and dozens of other books, is well known. He's an acknowledged master, one we take for granted.

Robert Sheckley's another matter. Revered by science fiction readers and writers, author of sixty-plus books, he never broke out of the field as did Bradbury and among general readers, I suspect, remains poorly known.

Sheckley's forte is humor, satire and general wackiness. He's the original wild man of science fiction. (Telling you that Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series was modeled on Sheckley's books should give you some idea.) He's fascinated by our inability to communicate, by the shoddy conventions and shabby pretentions of social order, by the infinite mutability of the universe and our perceptions of it.

A major attraction of fantastic literature to me as a young reader was its insistence that things are not as they seem, that there are realities behind and just to the side of the visible, assumed one. Reality, for Sheckley, is never more than a skein over something else. And whatever reality there is, is likely to change dramatically with the next sentence.

Though most highly regarded for his short stories, Sheckley has written at least forty novels. Several of these were made into movies, including his first, Immortality, Inc. (as Freejack) and The Tenth Victim (starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress), but the best of them, the wildest romps — Dimension of Miracles, Journey of Joenes, Mindswap — are unfilmable.

With Roger Zelazny in the early Nineties he wrote three novels with wonderful titles: Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming, If at Faust You Don't Succeed, and A Farce to Be Reckoned With. Around the same time he launched a series of comic novels about Hob Draconian, a detective who lives in Spain and is forever scrambling after a place to stay, a new case, and the appearance of success: The Alternative Detective, Draconian New York and Soma Blues.

Sheckley is shamefully neglected — as so often are the true originals. In book after book, Untouched by Human Hands, Mindswap, Store of Infinity, Shards of Space, Notions:Unlimited, like a fine chef he's thrown into the stewpot the best ingredients available, humor worthy of Mark Twain or Fritz Leiber, social satire on a par with William Tenn, extrapolative scenarios such as "The People Trap" and "Something for Nothing," stories of space travel fully as comic and relevant as Stanislaw Lem's, picaresques like Journey of Joenes carrying Fielding and the like (the very origins of the English-language novel) into the future.

Has Sheckley's work changed for me over all these years? Absolutely. As an adolescent and young adult I was much taken with the ideas of his work, with its cleverness. Years later that cleverness came to seem to me a burden, a freight that sometimes set the story to groaning on its supports; but at the same time I'd reached a perspective from which I was able to appreciate the surety and subtlety of the writing, to admire the abandon, the absolute freedom, of it. Nowadays I tend to perceive him as our Voltaire.

Long before the New Wave of the Sixties broke free both of the conventions of genre science fiction and conventional thought, Robert Sheckley had leapt the barricades and gone into the streets: a solo mission. It's been a hard life — years of laboring for five cents a word, the censure and neglect of oblivious time, confinement to the Bastille of genre writing — but it's a life that has immeasurably enhanced many of our own.

Thank you, Mr. Sheckley.

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