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Robert Sheckley: Still Laughing September 2003

Robert Sheckley, born in 1928, grew up in New Jersey and served in Korea before selling his first story in 1951. A master of satire and irony whose work has been called "galactic humor," Sheckley was one of the first to portray gadgets that think for humans, such as intelligent refrigerators. Among his classic stories are "Shape", "Specialist", "Seventh Victim", and "Warm" (all 1953), "The Prize of Peril" (1958), "The Store of the Worlds" (1959), "The People Trap" (1968), and "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" (1969); "Shall We Have a Little Talk?" (1965) and "What Is Life?" (1976) were Nebula and World Fantasy award nominees respectively. Early story collections Untouched by Human Hands (1954), Citizen in Space (1955), and Pilgrimage to Earth (1957) were followed by others in the '60s and '70s, with retrospective The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley published in 5 volumes in 1991.    
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Sheckley's first novel Immortality Inc. (1959) was an expanded version of Hugo-nominated Galaxy serial "Time Killer". Following novels include Mindswap (1966), The Status Civilization (1960), Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962), The Tenth Victim (1966), and many others, most recently Godshome (1999). Sheckley has also written for TV and film, including 15 episodes in 1953 of the Captain Video TV series. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Excerpts from the interview:

ďIíve been called Ďthe first SF absurdist.í I donít know if itís true, but itís certainly a title I love. Some of my work fell into that area, but I donít claim it was my best work or anything of that sort. Iíve always thought of absurdism as a French fad Iíd like to belong to. There was a time when some people in France thought of me as a Pataphysician like Alfred Jarry, author of PŤre Ubu, and Pataphysics is one of those doctrines that came out of Surrealism and Dada, both of which Iíve been very interested in. I would like to do a novel where some curse turns that into how the world really is - a blessing or a curse, I donít know which.

ďThe absurdist stuff wasnít terribly popular at the time I was doing it. It didnít open me up to a larger field (I had worldly ambitions then). When I traveled around, I became awfully interested in certain European models among French, Italian, and Russian writers. For the US, thatís also a dead end. For some years I was very big in France. I sell well now in Russia. I remember one signing in Russia some years ago where the bookstore had two strongmen to hold the crowds back. The ranks of the crowd were only about four people thick, but still I was very pleased. Even if I wasnít the May Day Parade, it would do very well. Traveling in Russia, I was aware of the look of St. Petersburg, the feel of the people, and my own surprise that the sort of thing I wrote was able to reach them. Iím not sure how the traveling has influenced my writing in other ways. It takes me a long time to get with a landscape. It took me 20 years before I wrote anything about Ibiza, and I havenít written about Oregon yet, although Iíve been there 20 years - possibly Iím almost due.

ďOnce you find you canít walk as far and as fast as you were able, life becomes more complicated. Also, once you find out the problems of the world you saw as a young man are not about to be solved in your lifetime (if ever), you start to ask, ĎWell, what can be done?í Of course thereís always this doctrine of almost infinite improvability, but thatís an old one. Now itís made even more complicated by all the scenarios of doom we have on all sides, from big things like asteroids to small things like anthrax. Yet somehow it doesnít look quite hopeless. That may be built into our condition. A lot of us donít want to be quite that serious about world problems. Our life is there to enjoy, not to be an eternal dissident, eternally unhappy with how things are and with the state of mankind. Thatís not a terribly attractive pose. I thought that was a humorous pose: ĎThere should be a university course on this.í I was trying not to take things too seriously.Ē


ďIím not too fond of the hard work and the constant battle with self-doubt that goes on when I write, but I figure thatís part of the territory. Feeling ĎI canít write thisí is taking myself a little too seriously. I try to follow what I think of as normal writing rules, which also involve the rules for the care of your own head. So I try to stick with the structure, make the sentences work, and not to follow one sentence of 114 words with another of the same length. Thereís no sense going crazy over this stuff. Short stories help me with that, since you can do a story in anywhere from one day to a week. A novel is often a longer process in handling self-doubt. Itís harder not to say, ĎI didnít get it right here,í and throw it all out. I donít finish every story, but I probably write and send out three out of five of them. Also, itís not that hard getting ideas. I get them all the time - except occasionally when I really need one!Ē


ďI still keep with my journal writing. I get a lot of ideas as I write, and if I donít have anything specific to start out with, something may often turn up out of that without the added problem of ĎIím writing a story now.í Itís become sort of a lifetime in a work. Iím quite influenced in this by one of my heroes, Montaigne, who thought a manís real task was to render as honest an account of himself as he could. I donít much like to look back with the idea that I was doing it wrong then or Iím doing it wrong now. Itís not an optimistic attitude. I think, ĎWas this a good writing experience for me? Did I live vividly at that time?í I had a great deal of fun doing The Tenth Victim, and I also enjoyed Mind≠swap and Dimension of Miracles. I sort of think of these things as races that went well. If Montaigne could see me, I think heíd say, ĎWrite on.í

ďToday the field takes itself quite seriously, and it names an enormous amount of books as being Ďprofoundí and Ďthe best thing ever done.í I suspect thereís a kind of inflation value. I liked it when science fiction was an outsiderís field, when you didnít have to think about book awards and all that, when you could basically write and sell and know a handful or two of guys and youíd have almost all the pros in the world at a convention. Now itís very big, a little cumbersome for my tiny grasp and scant social skills. I donít go to many conventions aside from OryCon, though last year I did go to Boskone. The previous year I went to the Nebulas, where they told me I was a Ďretired writer.í What can you say? Youíre dead but they canít bury you because youíre still writing. Saroyan said comedy is when youíre dead but they canít bury you because youíre still laughing. I feel closer to that statement now than I have for some time, though Iíve been quoting that for years because itís so dire yet also funny. Iím not planning to retire. I want to go out slumped over the keyboard (or whatever Iím writing on) - to go out still working.Ē

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the September 2003 issue of Locus Magazine.

You may purchase this issue for $7.95 by sending a check to Locus, PO Box 13305, Oakland CA 94661; or for $10 via credit card submitted by mail, e-mail, or phone at (510) 339-9198. (Or, Subscribe.)


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