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Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley (2012)

by Robert Sheckley

Other authors: Alex Abramovich (Editor), Jonathan Lethem (Editor)

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For the first several stories in this collection I was unpleasantly surprised. Usually nyrb publishes interesting things, and I expect there are a plethora of sci-fi writers worth reminding the world about, but for the first five stories it seemed as though Sheckley was merely a pulp writer who wrote nothing but the most cliché and predictable stories you could imagine. Seriously, the first story is about how aliens might perceive US as monsters, what with our different beliefs and behavior. The second is about how in the future the government will condone people murdering each other as a way to drain the desire for bloodshed that leads to war. The lack of originality isn't limited to the overall concept, but even the actions within the story are predictable.

Luckily the first few stories are the worst in the collection. Most of the remaining stories aren't particularly impressive, and just as often as not you can see the end coming after just the first few pages, but at least they don't feel so painfully derivative. Often I was reminded of superior takes on the same topic by other sci-fi writers: Watchbird starts strong but devolves into a cut-rate Asimov story, Protection feels like a Lovecraft story with the horror replaced by mere annoyance, A Wind is Rising is basically all the most boring parts of Cordwainer Smith's On the Storm Planet, many stories that evoke PKD without ever matching his sense of an off-kilter world, etc. There's a sci-fi take on Catch 22 called If The Red Slayer, but credit where credit is due, Sheckley's story predates the publication of Heller's classic book. The point remains that most of the ideas Sheckley explores have been explored to better effect elsewhere.

It's obvious Sheckley belonged to the school of science fiction writers that didn't require a story to have a message, but just wrote up any ideas he had that he thought were interesting. One early story deals with an alien race that can change shapes but that has a strict hierarchy of roles: they go to Earth and realize that instead of sticking to their assigned roles they can be free and take whatever shapes and roles they want. The story immediately after that deals with a spaceship formed by a collective effort of different aliens who need to recruit a human to fulfill a necessary role. People are meant to be part of a collective and fulfill a certain role, but we've missed the opportunity and that's the source of all our unhappiness. The messages of these stories are diametrically opposed, with one arguing against predetermined roles and the other promoting doing your predetermined roll as the path to fulfillment. It's clear Sheckley wasn't interested in the message as much as he was the idea of "aliens that can change shape" or "a spaceship made out of different kinds of aliens." When he does try to write a story with a message, the results are painful. In Holdout Sheckley writes the story of a man who refuses to serve on a spaceship with a certain race, and then it's revealed that the race being discriminated against is WHITE. Dun dun DUN! It's slightly (very slightly) more complicated than that, but the idea is still unoriginal and thoroughly unsubtle.

There are a few stories in this collection worth reading, however, and that's what saves this book from a two star rating. Paradise II manages to be decently creepy, despite the slightly nonsensical explanation at the end. The Language of Love is pretty good, as is Morning After, despite both ending predictably. The Native Problem proves that Sheckley was capable of writing an interesting first contact story by putting an interesting spin on things. Is That What People Do would have made a great Twilight Zone episode. Finally, Pilgrimage to Earth and Beside Still Waters are both excellent, though quite different. Choosing to end the collection with Beside Still Waters is a commendable move by editors Abramovich and Lethem that almost makes up for them including the horrible first few stories- almost.

Read Store of the Worlds if you're a pulp science fiction fan looking for some typical fare. Even if you are such a fan I'd recommend skipping the first few stories and starting at Watchbird, and even then having some patience. The stories I listed above I think are worth reading for sci-fi fans, and even if you decide to skip this collection I believe Pilgrimage to Earth and Beside Still Waters are worth looking up for anyone except those who really hate science fiction. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
I knew Robert Sheckley's work from one story I'd previously read, Warm, which is included in this anthology. It's a claustrophobic, existentialist tale, beautifully written and quite dark. By and large most of the other stories in 'Store of the Worlds' are light hearted and comical in comparison, some of them actually rather funny and one or two just a bit too light and 'throwaway'. These were my favourites:

Shape: referencing, mockingly, Stanilsaw Lem's Pirx the Pilot, Pid the Pilot, is on a mission to colonise another world. It's a classic tale of shapeshifting invaders but rather amusing and with a nice twist.

Warm: as mentioned above.

The Native Problem: nicely written story of invading settlers from Earth who mistake a self-exiled misfit, also from Earth, for an alien. Interesting temporal issues to do with technology and speed of travel.

Double Indemnity: very good time travel yarn about a greedy man on a self-serving search for his ancestors.

If the Red Slayer: a poetic and dark tale about a soldier, written in the first person, with a strong message about the value of human life.

Shall We Have a Little Talk: very funny study on language, translation and understanding between alien envoys - this was probably my favourite story in the book.

Beside Still Waters: short, poignant and beautifully written end piece to the collection, in the manner of Bradbury.

Most of the rest of the tales are also pretty good, some more simplistic than others, some adventures in the vein of Heinlein, some downright silly but fun. It's quite easy to see the social message in most of them and Sheckley's interest in people foremost, rather than technology or setting, is evident. There are, however, a couple of stories that, for me, are not up to the standard of the others:

Pilgrimage to Earth is a very dated and very silly tale about love; Watchbird is an interesting premise but extrapolated to ridiculous levels; Dawn Invader was also dated, and amusing for the wrong reasons; Holdout is a very poor bit of tat about race relations and by far my least favourite story in the book. - That said, even these are worth reading to some extent.

Robert Sheckley had a way with humour in SF and this certainly comes across strongly in most of the stories here, yet at times he could also stir powerful emotions on the futility or the delicacy of human life. I think he must have been a really interesting guy and this is a great collection for those into 50s and 60s short stories. ( )
2 vote ropie | Dec 21, 2013 |
An excellent retrospective of Sheckley - an incredibly underrated and underknown early sci-fi writer - and his short fiction. Funny, moving, and incredibly prescient, he had a pulse on not the fantastic sci-fi of those who came after (although plenty of stories are indeed quite fantastic) but on the human side of the sci-fi equation. The people who go off to those planets, who create those machines, who do those things. There's real heart here and quite a lot of smart serious intense thought. Well worth your time if you're even remotely interested in the genre.

More about it at RB: http://wp.me/pGVzJ-n5 ( )
1 vote drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert Sheckleyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abramovich, AlexEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lethem, JonathanEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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