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Robert Sheckley
Orb, 216 pages

Robert Sheckley
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 died in a Poughkeepsie hospital on December 9, 2005 following surgery for a brain aneurysm in late November.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

The nature of reality, and the consequences of living in a universe where reality seems to depend to some extent on our own perceptions and expectations is one of those topics that inspires writers to deep and serious discussions packed with insight into the human condition and its place in a hostile universe. Thank goodness, then, that Robert Sheckley came along to skewer all those pretentious and serious discussions with a series of novels that took serious subjects like philosophy, cosmology, and the nature of reality and mixed them all up into one hilarious concoction that left his readers certain that even if the nature of reality is not readily comprehensible, it sure is funny.

Mindswap ostensibly chronicles the adventures of one Marvin Flynn, a young man who longs to travel the galaxy but can't afford to go anywhere off Earth. The alternative is mind-swapping, a process by which one being swaps bodies with another being from a different planet, thus allowing for the pleasure of travel much less expensively. Mind-swapping is reputed to be dangerous, but Marvin goes against his friend's advice and tries it anyway. His adventures begin on Mars, and when Marvin discovers that the Martian with whom he has swapped bodies is a criminal who has stolen Marvin's body, things quickly get progressively weirder and funnier.

Sheckley's brand of humor is based on parody, allusion, satire, and word-play with ideas from all walks of popular culture and history, but especially from the conventions and traditions of science fiction and related genres. Some readers may feel they've wandered into a Douglas Adams novel, but with the ideas-per-page quotient turned way up and the laughs more dependent on what's being said than on who's saying it. Adams is, in truth, a descendant of Sheckley's brand of humor and few of Sheckley's science fiction contemporaries in the 60s could match him for his combination of absurd wit and penetrating satire. Philip K. Dick shared Sheckley's appreciation for the fluidity of reality, but while Dick used humor as on opening to help get at the moral and philosophical issues he was interested in, Sheckley seems to find the concept of a variable reality funny in and of itself. His jokes, quips, and pastiches have no ulterior motives or hidden messages, unless that message is simply that the universe and the way we perceive it is the funniest thing that there could ever be.

That feeling that the universe is at its most basic an absurd and funny place gives Sheckley's humor a distinguished place in the annals of science fiction humor. Douglas Adams came close at times, Keith Laumer found it in some of the Retief stories, R.A. Lafferty could mix folk humor and SF to much the same affect, but, at his best, no one else has matched Robert Sheckley in sheer number of laughs per page. If you've never experienced Sheckley's particular take on the absurdity of reality and life in it, Mindswap, one of his most consistently funny books, is a perfect place to start.

Copyright © 2006 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson longs for the days when hip teen-agers conversed in Pidgin Spanish-Afrikaans and read James Joyce Comics. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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