Saturday, December 10, 2005

Robert Sheckley

December 10, 2005

Robert Sheckley, 77, Writer of Satirical Science Fiction, Is Dead


Robert Sheckley, a writer of science fiction whose disarmingly playful stories pack a nihilistic subtext, died yesterday in Poughkeepsie. He was 77 and lived in Red Hook, N.Y.

The cause was complications of a brain aneurysm, said his former wife, Ziva Kwitney. Mr. Sheckley wrote more than 15 novels and around 400 short stories; the actual total is uncertain since he was so prolific in his heyday, the 1950's and 60's, that magazine editors insisted he publish some stories under pseudonyms to avoid having his byline appear more than once in an issue.

Four of his stories were made into films; the best known, "The Tenth Victim" (1965), starred Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Maplewood, N.J., Robert Sheckley joined the Army in 1946 after graduating from high school, and served in Korea. In 1951 he received an undergraduate degree from New York University and sold his first short story.

Over the next two decades, he was a major force in the development of modern science fiction. His first collection of stories, published in 1954, was hailed as one of the finest debut volumes in the field. In the 1960's he found a wider market for his science fiction in magazines like Playboy.

Many of his novels were well received, among them "Journey Beyond Tomorrow"(1962) and "Dimension of Miracles" (1968), but Mr. Sheckley was best known for his short stories. At a time when science fiction was just starting to grapple with the social implications of technology - from atomic bombs to missile-carrying rockets - Mr. Sheckley turned a satirist's eye on the genre and its concerns.

Like Ray Bradbury, he was interested in the scientific apparatus of science fiction - space travel, time travel, extrapolated futures - only so far as it served his purpose. While Mr. Bradbury poetically mourns the failure to live up to our dreams of the future, Mr. Sheckley mocked the self-delusions that lead to dreams in the first place.

He reveled in the freedom the genre afforded him to dramatize the fears and anxieties of everyday life. When he wrote about the war between the sexes, he conjured a future in which disappointed lovers had the legal option of using real bullets to express their anger. When he wrote about alienation as a state of mind, he sealed the reader in an endless loop of disaffection that reduced the outside world to a hallucination wrapped in an illusion.

Because he leavened his darkest visions with wit and absurdist plotting, he is considered one of science fiction's seminal humorists, and a precursor to Douglas Adams, whose "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (1979) seems to take place in a Sheckleyan universe. But Mr. Sheckley's work is darker than Mr. Adams's; the smiles he evokes leave a bitter taste on the lips. A better comparison might be to Kafka, a fabulist who could never understood why his friends didn't laugh when he read his stories to them.

Mr. Sheckley's fiction has been translated into German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Finnish and Lithuanian. His work is especially popular in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Mr. Sheckley's marriages to his first four wives, Barbara Scadron, Ms. Kwitney, Abby Schulman and Jay Rothbell, ended in divorce. At the time of his death he was separated from his fifth wife, Gail Dana. Other survivors include a son, Jason, from his first marriage, a daughter, Alisa Kwitney, from his second marriage; a daughter, Anya, and a son, Jed, from his third marriage; his sister Joan Klein of New York; and three grandchildren.

Copyright 2005The New York Times Company

Ed here: As much as I enjoy and admire mysteries, my first love was science fiction and for that reason I'll always be sentimental about it. Discovering Sheckley was like discovering electricity. In a field of originals, he was more original than anyone else. He made me laugh out loud, something only Henry Kuttner and Robert Bloch had ever made me do before him. He also made me question aspects of my life in ways I never had. My cousin Terry Butler and I used to discuss Sheckley the way others discussed Johnathan Swift. I don't think I had even an inkling of what hip was until I started reading him in '55 or so.

Like Roger Zelazny, he had his fall from grace and spent the rest of his post-`65 career trying various other forms and genres. He was a passing fair spy novelist and a good detective story writer, the latter being a form that allowed for his wit and saner takes on insanity. In stories such as "Prize of Peril," he demonstrated that he could write first-rate adventure and suspense without sacrificing any of his uniqueness as a writer. It is, for me, a perfectly executed story, a masterpiece of tension and steely control.

They say first impressions last. This was certainly true for me with Sheckley. From the first time I ever read him, I felt just a little bit smarter, in all senses of that word, just for being in his presence. So long, Robert.


Blogger Duane Swierczynski said...

What a loss. I didn't tune in to Sheckley's work until 1998, but when I did, I devoured everything I could find. IMMORTALITY, INC. was a huge influence. especially--a blend of wild ideas, humor and action that opened my eyes to the possibilities. Sheckley's work was just as mind-blowing as Philip K. Dick's... only funnier. Some publisher needs to bring out his backlist, stat.

5:31 AM  

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