November 30, 2006


The Masque of Maňana. By Robert Sheckley. NESFA Press. $29.

     Science fiction is such a doggoned serious field.  It started with all those worried projections about where the world was going (H.G. Wells) and all those concerns about the interaction between human nature and technology (Jules Verne).  During the 20th century, it moved through periods of optimism and pessimism, but always with an underlying serious mien.  SF readers could be forgiven if they wanted a writer who would occasionally make them smile rather than scowl.

     Isaac Asimov did just that periodically, but the writer who did it more consistently than any other was Robert Sheckley.  Sheckley was essentially a short-story writer, although he also wrote some darned good novels – after realizing that he couldn’t make much of a living with the shorter form.  NESFA Press collected five of the novels as Dimensions of Sheckley, and they have some wonderful parts, from the bizarre intensity of Immortality Inc., to the strange-and-stranger scenes in Dimension of Miracles (which looks directly ahead toward Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), to the marvelous turning-in-on-itself plot complexities of Minotaur Maze.  But in truth, all the novels also have parts that drag, and their endings tend to be less than satisfactory.

     Not so the short stories, which NESFA Press collected because of the honors being given to Sheckley at the World Science Fiction Convention last year.  It proved to be the last such convention during Sheckley’s lifetime: he died in December 2005 at the age of 77, after a career spanning more than half a century.

     Many of the best productions of that career are in The Masque of Maňana.  Sheckley’s short stories were influential in a number of ways, most of them odd: “Seventh Victim” was filmed as The Tenth Victim, including a memorable scene of Ursula Andress (the first Bond girl) firing a gun through her bra; the story also inspired the RPG (role-playing game) “Assassin.”  “The Prize of Peril” predicted the advent of today’s television reality shows (it was written in 1958!) – and was made into two separate movies, one in Germany and one in France.  And so on.

     Much of what made Sheckley unique was the humorous slant he took on SF conventions in general and the specific requirements of the field in particular.  Among the 41 stories in The Masque of Maňana are “The Language of Love,” which turns out to be a language you don’t want to learn; “A Ticket to Tranai,” which suggests what might happen if Utopia were created for humans as they are, not as utopian idealists believe they should be; “The Accountant,” in which black wizards and demons are confronted by the even-more-terrifying prospect of numbers; “Fool’s Mate,” in which the traditional heroic idea of Earth winning a battle in space is turned on its head by relying entirely on being illogical; “Pilgrimage to Earth,” a genuinely disturbing story whose alternative title, “Love, Incorporated,” gives a better idea of just what the visitor to Earth finds ultimately hollow; “All the Things You Are,” in which it turns out that the greatest barrier to successful contact between humans and aliens is the fact that humans are, well, human; “A Wind Is Rising,” in which humans on a distant planet heroically confront a raging weather system and barely, but triumphantly, survive – only to find out that they haven’t seen anything yet; and many other similarly clever, engaging, offbeat and unusual tales.  There are enough wonderful Sheckley short stories not collected here to allow NESFA Press to put out another book, if it so wishes – perhaps a Sheckley memorial edition.  That one should definitely contain such gems as “Protection,” in which a man is warned of deadly danger unless he avoids doing something – but the “something” is never explained to him.

     Robert Sheckley’s short stories, in general, require little explanation, and that is a major reason for their enduring charm.  Sheckley’s humor is almost always good-natured – there was very little that was sarcastic or cutting about him – and for that reason, his works are fun to read even when the amusing elements conceal some fairly serious critiques of society.  The Masque of Maňana is a fine introduction to Sheckley for those who do not yet know his work, and a wonderful remembrance of him for those who do.

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