Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Review: "Store of the Worlds" by Robert Sheckley

Store of the Worlds: 
The Stories of Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley (1928-2005)

266 pages

Robert Sheckley explores mankind’s weaknesses and inconsistencies, and imagines the dark potential extremes of our political and social behaviors, in this engaging collection of short stories. Written mostly in the 1950’s, many of these stories appeared in the popular science fiction magazines of the day, though the science fiction aspect is actually secondary of the stories; Sheckley uses it as a form within which to reveal human idiosyncrasies.

Sheckley builds each story around a particular personal or cultural characteristic, which he then extends to humans on a future earth, or traveling to distant planets. Often his stories come with a surprise ending, a twist to spice up his plot. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), despite having been written over fifty years ago the stories do not seem dated; if anything many of the topics could be pulled from today’s news.

An example of this topicality is the story Morning After. In it the main character, like most of his fellow citizens of the near future, is ‘a fully accredited voter, respectably unemployed, moderately well off.’ The earth’s population stabilized, war and poverty eliminated, life on earth had become comfortable and easy. Those with ambition enter politics --- and vie for votes by providing free food, goods and entertainment to any ‘fully accredited voter’ in their district; the politicians who offer the most free services have the most success in the elections. But the loss of ambition worries the leaders of earth, and they search for ways to counter-act it, as the main character discovers to his surprise.

Only a day after reading this story, I read a newspaper commentary which, if it had appeared 55 years ago could easily have served as the trigger for Sheckley’s plot (A Congress for the Many, or the Few? by Fred A. Bernstein, New York Times, 9 September 2012).

In Shall We Have a Little Talk? the government of a future earth sends out space travelers who have an aptitude for learning alien languages. Each traveler goes out alone to seek inhabitable planets, and when they come across one, they befriend the natives and learn their language. But they do not come in peace; once having learned the alien language, they try to buy property on the newfound planet, and, when they are refused for some reason, or have purchased the property and then are disadvantaged in some way, laws passed on earth are used to justify the invasion of earth’s armed forces to right the wrong. Thus the fig leaf of legal rectitude is provided for the take-over of new planets. To simply invade with no justification would be morally suspect: ‘[the majority back on earth] were idealists, and they believed fervently in concepts such as truth, justice, mercy, and the like … and they also let these noble concepts guide their actions --- except when it would be inconvenient or unprofitable.’

Sheckley takes a light tone with the stories; most are only ten to fifteen pages long, and he follows a similar approach in each one, combining the personal, cultural or political trait he wants to dramatize with a bits science fiction color and comedic spice.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

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