Robert Sheckley

Kafkaesque science-fiction writer

Robert Sheckley, writer: born New York 16 July 1928; married first Barbara Scadron (one son; marriage dissolved), secondly Ziva Kwitney (one daughter; marriage dissolved), thirdly Abby Schulman (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), fourthly Jay Rothbell (marriage dissolved), fifthly Gail Dana; died Poughkeepsie, New York 9 December 2005.

The death of Robert Sheckley, even after a year of dramatic health crises in Ukraine and America, is somehow out of character. He was a trickster, a survivor. In his life, and in his hundreds of darkly hilarious science-fiction stories, he always seemed one step ahead of the worst the world could offer.

Sheckley was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, and raised in New Jersey; wherever a peripatetic career took him, he remained a deeply urban figure. After serving in the US Army for two years, he returned home, graduating from New York University in 1951. Within a few months his literary career began, with a short story called "Final Examination", and within a few years he had published several dozen of the finest and funniest science-fiction satires of the 1950s, a time when many writers felt an irresistible urge to puncture the tail-finned complacency of the Eisenhower years. Among these writers, Sheckley - along with Philip K. Dick, C.M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl and Kurt Vonnegut - stood supreme.

In the meantime, his personal life began to show signs of the wily turbulence that marked him to the end. He was married five times (he and his fifth wife had recently separated). From early in his career, he spent much of his time abroad.

But it was the United States that he took as his main satiric target, and it seems clear that, in his imagination, he never genuinely left 1950s/1960s America. There is a general consensus that his greatest tales were written during these years, and that collections like Untouched by Human Hands (1954) or Citizen in Space (1955) or Pilgrimage to Earth (1957) contain a high proportion of his very best work, tales in which he used the distancing perspectives of magazine science fiction to disguise in "zany" humour and slick plot-turns a remarkably grim and accurate vision of the costs of high consumer culture. His deluded milquetoast heroes, and the grotesque consequences they call down upon themselves whenever they speak out, make up a sustained composite portrait of the vulnerabilities of contemporary civilisation.

His work has often been likened to that of Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was clearly influenced by Sheckley. But Sheckley himself declared more than once that he would prefer to be compared to Franz Kafka. Certainly the story idea to which Sheckley returned throughout his working life - tales in which society is shaped and controlled through the institution of the legal hunt to the death - had a Kafkaesque ring. Sheckley's most famous single story, "Seventh Victim" (1953), lays out the allure and dread of such an idea with perfect, melancholy clarity.

As an irresistibly deft vision of humans in society as potential predators - for anyone may be officially hunted, and one's hunter may be anyone in disguise - "Seventh Victim" is close to word perfect. The film version, bulked up as The Tenth Victim (1965) with Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, did not capture Sheckley's precise light touch.

It is of course extremely difficult for any writer to survive financially on stories alone, and Sheckley - though he was one of the two or three most highly respected short-story writers in a field where the short story is very highly respected - was no exception. Some of his early novels, like The Status Civilization (1960) or Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962) or Mindswap (1966), are successful through sheer exuberance of invention, carrying their vulnerable, good-hearted protagonists through picaresque odysseys, often through societies on other planets whose organisation is a topsy-turvy version of life back on Earth. The Status Civilization, for instance, is set on a prison planet where all values are reversed, to be "wicked" is to be "good"; where in short - it is a lesson enforced on the reader - to conform is to surrender.

Lessons in anxiety like this, however ingeniously varied in dozens of tales and several novels, do not necessarily make for sustained popularity, and in his later career Sheckley shifted his attention to less demanding work. Tenth Victim (1966), his novelisation of the film, was followed by two indifferent sequels, Victim Prime (1986) and Hunter/Victim (1987). The inner-space explorations of Mindswap gave way to the lassitudinous experimentalism of The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton (1978).

Sheckley's career burgeoned in other ways. He served as the fiction editor of Omni, 1980-82; he did a stint at MIT in 1982. Though he was thoroughly American in his subject matter, the structure and tone and fable-like sharpness of his work were increasingly recognised as allying him not only with Kafka but with a range of European writers, especially those, from behind the Iron Curtain, who had used the motifs of science fiction to convey their subversive messages and cultural pessimism in secret, rather the way Aesop did. Sheckley found himself more popular in Europe than back home; and spent much of his time on the Continent.

He was granted one late honour by the American science-fiction community, a Nebula "Author Emeritus" award in 2001. As he had not in fact stopped working - Uncanny Tales (2003) collects some late stories - this award was seen by some as condescending. He did not seem to mind. Two huge compilations followed - Dimensions of Sheckley (2002) and The Masque of Manana (2005). In his last years, spindly, skeleton-thin, cigarette clutched between his fingers, eyes bright and impish, he still seemed ready to tell another joke about the world.

John Clute