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Close To My Heart

Many of us have made simple decisions which changed our lives. It could be as simple as turning right instead of left at an intersection or saying "Yes" rather than "No" to an invitiation. For many of us, that change happened after reading a book. Things weren't quite the same. We saw things differently, we found ourselves wondering different thoughts, we made decisions for different reasons. We were imbued with a sense of wonder. This series takes a look at the books that had such an impact.

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other titles in the Close To My Heart series.

The Scherezade Machine
Robert Sheckley
 
Robert Sheckley

The Scherezade Machine
Robert Sheckley was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in New Jersey. He went into the U.S. Army after high school and served in Korea. After discharge he attended New York University, graduating with an arts degree. He began to sell stories to all the science-fiction magazines soon after his graduation, producing several hundred stories over the next several years. During this time, he also wrote 15 episodes for the television series, Captain Video. He wrote 60 short-short stories that were read aloud by Basil Rathbone on Monitor Radio. His first novel, Immortality, Inc., was produced as the movie Freejack, starring Emilio Esteban, Mick Jagger and Renee Russo. He has produced about 65 books to date, including 40 novels and 9 collections of his short fiction. Robert Sheckley is currently married to the writer Gail Dana and lives in Portland, Oregon.

ISFDB Bibliography

A review by Trent Walters

The Tinmen and the Lost Verdant Valley of Robert Sheckley's Dys/Utopia

The book that changed my life (not to mention the world's) was Robert Sheckley's The Scherezade Machine -- what they later called a "sleeper."

I hadn't heard about it myself when I found it in the Barnes and Noble bargain bin. There were a few enthusiastic quotes on the back that interested me:
"I'd trade all my toy ray gun collection to have written this book myself. Pure genius."
-- Albert Goldbarth, two-time winner of the National Book Critic Award.

"I hope the world is listening when I say that this book proves that Sheckley is still at the top of his form -- if not at times stunningly better than ever."
-- James Gunn, author of The Listeners

...and so forth. I only half-believe blurbs, but I respected these guys, so I bought it.

The foreword was written by David G. Hartwell about how an enthusiastic fan had driven all the way from Watering Hole, Nebraska just to meet Hartwell and Goldbarth at a poetry reading in a Chicago public library. The fan tried to sell an unfinished Sheckley novel/collection in the vein of Bradbury's The Illustrated Man except with more connections. At first Hartwell dismissed the fan's enthusiasm. After all, Tor had tried to rekindle Sheckley's career in both the mystery and SF fields to no public sensation. But the fan persisted, offering to buy Hartwell a grape soda at a nearby pub for five minutes more of his time. Hartwell couldn't resist.

The fan went on to explain how the novel intertwined intrinsically with Sheckley's greatest works from throughout his career. Feeling a little dubious but catching the fan boy's excitement, Hartwell asked to see the m.s. within the next month.

The fan boy contacted Sheckley, and through discussions Hartwell was not privy to, Sheckley turned in a gem, the greatest single volume of his entire career. Hartwell was proud to bring the American reading public what would surely be the biggest publishing event since Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five or maybe even Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

Sadly, the publishing event was greeted by the chirrup of crickets. Serious reviewers didn't actually read the book since it looked like the 50s Sheckley repackaged and warmed over -- although it sampled heavily from throughout his career -- or worse, the reviewers called it another failed fix-up; or worst yet, they quoted Damon Knight's criticism of Sheckley's dim-witted protagonists so that the reviewers could dim-wittedly avoid thinking for themselves. Fan boys glowed as usual and, as usual, were ignored. The blogosphere blathered on about the new new because the old is inexplicably gross. The bastion of the old that gathered in chatrooms and forums made the old SF tepid through proponents who never read the new and practitioners who failed to see the old anew and simply constructed increasingly inferior simulacra of simulacra trying to recapture that old-time religion. (Researchers later discovered that readers always spurn genre work published before their "Golden Age" of twelve and later read nothing but that "Golden Age"; hence, the ever-present divide in genre readerships.)

Foreign sales of The Scherezade Machine brought in a steady trickle of income. When it topped the bestselling lists of Poland, Lithuania, Transylvania, Romania, Czechoslovakia, no one paid much attention. Not even Sheckley noticed the extra dollar or two added to his bank account. He just hacked out a few more stories for themed anthologies, perhaps pondering what happened to that fan boy who had conned him into nailing permanently shut the coffin of Sheckley's future book publications.

Then something strange happened. The Eastern bloc countries united to form the E.E.U. since the western European countries were loathe to join until the E.E.U. suddenly surpassed the productivity of Germany, Japan, America and nearly China as well. Meanwhile, Muslims in the E.E.U. had translated The Scherezade Machine into Arabic, which seemed a likely enough event at the time, since it referenced that classic of Arabic literature, the one where the character had to tell stories just to survive.

Not long after, dissidents in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly and almost quietly overthrew their repressive dictators. Strangely, conservatives expressed consternation. Muslim Sudanese embraced their Christian countrymen. Chechnya worked out a peaceful accord with the Russians. A new Palestine formed.

China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea smelled the rat before anyone else in the world had and tried to ban The Scherezade Machine, which served only to whet appetites, and the books got in, anyway. Suddenly, the bans lifted; they talked openly of human rights, nuclear disarmament, and free speech. They remained communist to the consternation of capitalists, but new fair trade policies tickled everyone pink.

French book critic Francois Pinochle raised a number of crazy theories why the book was a success overseas (purportedly subconscious subversive content although no one ever found any political content that didn't apply to the other half). Pinochle, like all French critics since American critics never seem to know what they've got 'til it's gone, let Americans know they had a literary treasure on their hands. Alan Cheuse was the first to review the book on NPR with resonant accolades. Tor went to press for a second edition faster than you can say, "Schmerp," including brand new quotes from Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers. Hartwell and Sheckley went on the talk show circuit. Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club -- what book club didn't?

Slowly, as the public at large began reading, a new theory of Sheckley's transformative genius emerged.

I never heard it, however. I'd read my copy before the world changed. My life had fallen to its nadir. Crapptown (pronounced like "crepe"-town) Univer$itĄ Medi˘aŁ had ejected me for a treatable medical condition; my former medical colleagues and housemates suddenly glared and locked doors when I passed through the hall, now that I was no longer one of them -- among a multitude of real-life ironies that would never have happened in this presently perfect universe, free of dim-wits.

The treatable medical condition worsened before it improved, but my tattered copy of The Scherezade Machine never left my side, poking out of my coat pocket in job interviews to pull out while waiting in the lobby to buck up my spirits. "Yes," Sheckley's oeuvre said, "people are buttcheesers, but at least you can laugh about it."

At some point, I passed through a green door in the wall or down a rabbit hole because when I offered to do a review for SF Site, Rodger Turner politely turned me down. He said no such book existed.

Nonplussed, I turned on the boob tube and found wars and rumors of war. Bush was taking us to Iraq, Pakistan and India pointed missiles at one another, North Korea threatened missiles, and Palestine and Israel traded mushroom cloud demonstrations. I couldn't even find my copy of The Scherezade Machine. With a little legwork, I discovered the manuscript existed only in a little magazine known as Pulphouse. I ordered copies.

The work was quite similar to my memory of it though the magazine had stopped carrying the serial. I wrote the author and found that the master had never completed his masterwork. It was his not-so-famous unfinished symphony, he said. With a burst of creative energy I hadn't felt in years, I roughly outlined his masterpiece as I remembered it and the author agreed he was a near-genius to have almost finished what he hadn't written in this alternate reality.

A few computer and car breakdowns later, I was destitute and halted progress on recovering my memory of Scherezade. Besides, I contacted Sheckley and he seemed not to recall our conversation in this reality. The only thing left to do was to find an editor fond of Sheckley. As luck would have it, Albert Goldbarth was giving a reading in Chicago along with David Hartwell. I drove.

But Hartwell politely said, more or less, that Sheckley's readership had been dropping off. A fen survey said that Sheckley was more relevant before people became cyborgs, so they made him author emeritus as if he'd ceased writing around the Vietnam War.

On the drive home, I slapped my forehead. Of course, like a dimwit, I forgot to bribe Hartwell with grape soda. I could have taken time to explain how the stories would rub off on the main thread of the novel and vice versa, how a section might speak of itself, life, and the metaphorical process of making fiction with, for instance, parts that are "well-oiled" and demonstrate that very function through a story called "Lubrication." And beautifully, where Sheckley had mentioned in a 1978 interview of a novel that ended in consuming itself, The Scherezade Machine ends with that same concept: The consuming of self becomes consummation within the reader. Like the marriage of Scherezade at the end of Arabian Nights, so too does the reader become one with the text, both active consuming participant and observer of consummation, for it was the reader that made the text come alive.

My last hope was a story I workshopped, a tribute to the great man.... and I was asked where the hell I thought I would get this published. Nobody reads this stuff any more. It was almost as if there was a government conspiracy....

As it turns out, there was a government conspiracy. During the Vietnam war, the American government began systematically irradiating its citizens' frontal lobes because they discovered that was where we interpreted satire and, while we slept, they replaced the satire lobe with cogs. This theory coincides quite neatly with the downward slope on the Sheckley appreciation curve.

How was this accomplished? Every year the government mails out forms to be licked and mailed in by April 15th. The adhesives contained trace amounts of fissionable atoms attached to organic molecules that target the lobe.

But maybe that's how Philip K. Dick would have finished it. Sheckley would have pointed his poignant ironies at our hearts, and if our society weren't so perfect, we'd have laughed and said, "Isn't that the truth?" Instead, thank god(s), this alternate universe is flawless. The already perfect cannot be perfected. Certainly, we're not afraid his irony might open our hearts to the smudge of imperfection within the gears of our clockwork.

Copyright © 2005 Trent Walters

Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."


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