Monday, 26 May 2014

Review: The Robert Sheckley Megapack: 15 Classic Science Fiction Stories

The Robert Sheckley Megapack: 15 Classic Science Fiction Stories
The Robert Sheckley Megapack: 15 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Robert Sheckley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because I had heard that Sheckley was a master of humourous science fiction, and also of the short story form. The stories in this volume are more satirical than comedic, but they're very well written.

All of them come from the 1950s (one was published in 1960), and over and over again they skewer the conformity, consumerism and techno-optimism of that decade. Unlike in most SF of the time, if a wonderful gadget turns up in the Sheckley story it is much more likely to be the source of the problem than it is to be the solution, though there are one or two "clever solution" stories. I generally dislike technopessimism as a philosophy, but in the 1950s it was countercultural, so I give it a pass.

In "Watchbird," devices invented to prevent murder generalise their definition a bit too widely. The big fault of this story is in the common American assumption that the USA is the whole world, but it doesn't have many other faults.

"The Status Civilization" parodies conformism and statism, and the role of elites, in a prison planet for criminals and dissidents: "Without the law, there could be no privileges for those who made the law; therefore the law was absolutely necessary".

"Ask a Foolish Question" points up the limitations of our understanding of the universe, another counter to scientific optimism and hubris.

"Cost of Living" parodies consumerism and consumer debt, and the role of big corporations in government (one corporate representative speaks of "the laws we helped formulate and pass," something that actually happens in the present-day USA).

"Bad Medicine" parodies psychology in the story of a homicidal man who gets a therapy machine programmed for Martians by mistake.

"Diplomatic Immunity" is a "clever-engineer" story in a more conventional mould, though it is certainly very clever.

"Warrior Race" confronts two Earthmen with an alien race who guilt them into giving up by committing suicide at them.

"The Hour of Battle" shows the problems of confronting an alien race who are telepathic, while giving a presumably accurate picture of what it's like for men stuck together in a small space and waiting for a battle to start. (Sheckley served in the army in Korea.)

"Keep Your Shape" is told from the viewpoint of alien invaders struggling to invade Earth because of the conflict between their nature and their culture, and the opportunities that Earth offers them.

"Warm" is an odd psychological, in fact psychedelic, story about perception and alienation.

"Death Wish" is again about men stuck together in close quarters, and how they get on each other's nerves. It reads like a parody of the many "clever-engineer" stories of the time.

"Beside Still Waters" is a robot story with an odd twist ending, of a kind that Asimov probably wouldn't have attempted for ideological reasons.

"Forever" has an odd, deprotagonising ending, but gets in its dig against elitism first.

"The Leech" is a clever-engineer story gone wrong, and gone wrong because of military idiocy.

"One Man's Poison" is a problem-solving story based around the idea that alien minds are, in fact, alien.

It's interesting to see a writer who goes counter to the genre trend of the time, and whose storytelling ability allows him to get away with it. Overall, a good collection.

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