Robert Sheckley was the master of dark, funny sci-fi

Robert Sheckley was the master of dark, funny sci-fi

Robert Sheckley, author of classic stories such as “Is That What People Do?” and “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?”, was one of the best sci-fi authors of the 1950s. humor writer manage Tom corresponded regularly with Sheckley for nearly a decade.

“He was so open to talking to me, this nobody who just liked him, and answered my questions about writing and about his job,” says Gerencer in episode 475 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcasting. “He was just an amazing man, an amazing talent, but also just an incredibly nice, gracious person.”

Sheckley’s caustic cynicism helped pave the way for writers like Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and JG Ballard, and his novels Dimension of miracles and The price of Peril pre-programmed genre classics such as such The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The running man.

“A lot of his ideas are so far-sighted,” Gerencer says. “He was just extrapolating, basically looking at problems and saying, ‘Well, if that keeps going in that direction, it will be like that in 50 years.’ And you look at it and say, “Yeah, we’re getting closer to that now. It’s even worse now.” So I think in that sense they are such classics.”

Sheckley is often remembered as a writer whose talents have waned over the years, but Gerencer thinks the reality is more complicated and Sheckley never really lost his knack for funny sci-fi. “I don’t think he couldn’t do things like that later, I just think he didn’t want to,” Gerencer says. “He thought that was kind of frivolous, and he wanted to write about things that matter to a 70-plus-year-old man that aren’t the same things that matter to a 20-something or a 30-something-year-old man, and sadly, those aren’t the things a science fiction readership will be so concerned about.”

Sheckley’s work has seen a minor renaissance in recent years. Many of his best stories have been collected in the 2012 book Shop of the Worlds, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich, and an audiobook version from Dimension of miracles was released in 2013, read by John Hodgman. Gerencer says Sheckley was a consistently inventive writer and that everything he wrote is worth reading.

“I read somewhere that he wrote over 400 stories, and I feel like I may have read 150 of them and loved them,” Gerencer says. “And I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s 250 more?’ I would like to discover the rest.”

Listen to the full interview with Tom Gerencer in episode 475 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Tom Gerencer on discovering Robert Sheckley:

“While I became a fan of Douglas Adams, I read some interview excerpts with him; I think it was in Neil Gaiman’s book Do not panic, which contains some interviews with Douglas Adams. But in there he asks Douglas Adams about Robert Sheckley – this controversy about ‘people say you copied Robert Sheckley’, and Douglas Adams says, ‘Well I had never read his stuff, but when I did I had like, ‘Wow, it really looks like my stuff.” And so I thought, ‘Oh, does it really look like Douglas Adams? Let’s see.’ I used to go to old bookstores and just look in the science fiction section, and I found a Robert Sheckley collection of short stories and loved it, and I’ve been looking for more ever since.”

Tom Gerencer on correspondence with Robert Sheckley:

“In 1998 I thought, ‘I’m going to see if this guy is still around. Because I know his stories were written in the 50s and 60s, but I want to see if he’s still there.’ So I googled “Robert Sheckley email address” and an email address came up – an address – so I emailed him…I struck up a conversation with him that lasted for years, and I asked him, ‘Hey, can we ever work together on a short story?’ And he said, yes, he would love to. And it grew and grew and grew. We went back and forth with notes, and it became a novel, and at some point it got a little overwhelming for both of us. I know not if I was a good enough writer, and I also think he had a crisis of faith about himself where he thought, ‘I don’t know if I can make this happen.’ We just fell off it, and tragically, I think it was in 2005, he died. It was very sad.”

Tom Gerencer on Robert Sheckley’s reputation:

“In other countries – in Russia, in Italy, all over Europe, in China, around the world, outside the US – he went through this renaissance of his work, which I think is now starting to happen here, maybe. I’m starting to feel like it is, and more power to him – if anyone deserves it, it’s him. He’s just brilliant. But then he told me, ‘I’m going to Venice. It’s vacation, but I’m going to talk about my stories. I am being interviewed by this person in Italy, I am traveling to Russia for a book tour.’ … And he loved it, you know, I think he ate it. He was like, ‘This is so much fun. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it’s fun.’ That happened for him, and I was really happy that it happened.”

Tom Gerencer on writers and alcohol:

“I don’t know where that stereotype came from, but it’s such a shame because it’s so untrue that you have to experience pain before you can write. Don’t worry, life will give you a lot of pain, you don’t have to go out and look for it through a bottle. But that’s what I thought when I was little. I remember buying bottles of whiskey and thinking, ‘I’m a writer. I must have a bottle of whiskey in my apartment.’ And then thank goodness I stopped, and got rid of it. And now that I’m older and know some successful authors, they don’t anymore. … It’s the ones who are disciplined and who understand that that stereotype is just a stereotype that I think they’re going to make it up eventually.”

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