Every article that I can find online about this book starts with one of the following questions: “how similar is Dimension of Miracles to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”, and “was Adams inspired by Dimension of Miracles to write his series?” This by itself should give you a pretty good idea already about what kind of book this is. For the record, Adams hadn’t read Sheckley’s book, but he agreed that the similarities were eerie, but a coincidence. But Sheckley was there ten years before Adams.
On the face of it, this is a silly story about a Mr. Carmody, a regular office clerk, who is informed one day by an alien that he is the winner of the Intergalactic Sweepstakes and he is whisked off to the Galactic Centre to receive his prize. What that Prize is, isn’t clear, but it talks. The rest of the book chronicles his efforts to return to planet Earth. On the way, he encounters parallel worlds, incompetent bureaucrats, a guy who designs planets and lots and lots of the absurd and the unexpected.
Now I am the first to say that stories like these do not always make for good writing or entertaining books. I thought that Adams’s final Hitchhiker book, Mostly Harmless (1992) was depressing and its main character Arthur tedious and boring. And the recent Adams knockoff Space Opera (2018) by Catherynne M. Valente was simply overdoing it – it was exhausting and lacked story. But Sheckley’s version, yes, it works. Written a decade before Adams, Sheckley is working from his own inspiration and, unlike Adams and Valente, is not trying to recapture the magic of an earlier book. And Sheckley has his own style, his own authorial voice.
‘It’s a heavy responsibility,’ the Messenger said.
‘It certainly is,’ the Clerk agreed. ‘What do you say we kill him and forget the whole thing?’
‘Hey!’ Carmody cried.
‘It’s OK with me,’ the Messenger said.
‘If it’s OK with you fellows,’ the Computer said, ‘then it’s OK with me.’
Carmody made several vehement statements to the effect that he did not want to die and ought not to be killed. He appealed to their better instincts and sense of fair play. These remarks were judged tendentious and were struck from the record.
What stood out to me was that Sheckley, although he stuffed the book full of the absurd, is very philosophical about it. He invents the wildest motivations for all the strange characters in the story. Mr Carmody may have to deal with a faulty computer, but the computer might have a religion for which it piously commits errors in celebration of life and free will. Mr Carmody might solicit the help of a local God, but has to argue with the sulking God that its natural Indwellingness makes it unhappy and should therefore applaud the arrival of Carmody as an external reality. In what is probably a homage to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965), we meet inventors of basic laws of nature – including some laws that Sheckley comes up with himself.
The plot – for lack of a better word – is mostly just a series of set-pieces as Mr Carmody is sent from one place to the next. My impression is that Sheckley is foremost a short-story writer and this novel is a string of short stories stitched together. This approach can get stale fairly quickly but the book is quite short and a quick read. Its best qualities therefore do not lie in character or plot development, but in individual scenes and how they play out – in witty dialogues, wordplay, sudden unexpected circumstances and clever concepts.
I liked it, but it is not as good as the first few Hitchhiker novels. Maybe there’s a point to be made about British vs American comedy, because Sheckley’s wacky characters don’t have that dry quality or social awkwardness, but that’s all a matter of taste. I admired Sheckley’s cleverness and want to explore more of this author’s work.