Robert Sheckley - The Robot Who Looked Like Me (1982)
Robert Sheckley has written some of my favorite stories of all time. He was a science fiction author (sadly, no longer with us) who started publishing in the 1950s, but who (unlike most science fiction writers) tended to write HILARIOUS stories. His logic is unassailable, and the topics he covers would suggest that he’s just your standard pulp sci-fi writer (robots with feelings, alien invasions, time travel, World War Three…), but for each classic trope that Sheckley tackles, he invokes a powerful twist that turns the topic on its head. His stories are clever, thought provoking, and sometimes extremely weird, like if Alice in Wonderland took place in a Post-Apocalyptic Theme Park.
I should be clear about one thing, Sheckley gets dark. His death toll is high. His characters can be deeply flawed. There are even bad words and naughty situations that creep up from time to time. (A quick look at WHERE these stories were originally published: Penthouse, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, etc…---real sick magazines---and one begins to understand the tone.) These are not children’s stories. For instance, in the disturbing but hilarious post-WW3 tale, “I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair is Biting His Leg,” a man contracts a fatal, mind-altering illness, so he decides to retire to an underground city (which makes Vegas seem like Disneyland) where he can spend his remaining time gambling, fighting, and satisfying every sickening lustful appetite he can imagine. It’s dark. VERY dark, but somehow not as depressing as your average Philip K. Dick tale. Sheckley’s magic is his ability to make a sick, disturbing, fatal illness FUNNY!
If you’ve never read anything by Sheckley, this book would be a great place to start. The stories are fun, and he actually manages to hit some real high points in this collection. I loved the entertainment-gone-bad themed “The Never-Ending Western Movie,” and I think the dream-like story, “Zirn Left Unguarded, The Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead,” which is told is short, disturbing fragments, is among the finest, most poetic tales Sheckley ever told. However, if you’ve read some of his older stories from the 50s or 60s, or any of his crazy novels, like Dimension of Miracles or Status Civilization, this book will seem a bit tame. This collection is certainly entertaining and fun, but nothing here will completely destroy your brain like Sheckley’s wildest work can.
Like I said, this would be a great place to start if you’re new to mind-altering sci-fi comedy, and if you’re amused and want more, I recommend moving on to Status Civilization or the collection, Citizen in Space, which has my favorite Sheckley tale of all time, “Skulking Permit.” Really, if you can FIND anything by Robert Sheckley, grab it. He’s always worth reading!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)