Robert Sheckley – Citizen in Space (1955) Review


Citizen in Space is Robert Sheckley’s second short story collection, published a year after the first, Untouched by Human Hands (1954). And, like its predecessor, it is a very neat collection of pleasant, comedic science fiction stories, written in an accessible, smooth, witty style. And sometimes when you’re a bit tired and commuting to or from work, that is just what you need.

Sheckley’s short stories generally don’t have very surprising twists or mind-blowing concepts underneath or sharp social subtexts. They just aim to entertain. Sheckley is a talented author in the sense that the characters that he sketches are just perfect for the stories he tells. Whether his characters are grumpy or sarcastic or world-weary, he always strikes the right tone to quickly and economically create the effect that he wants. How easy it seems for him to write these stories and how smoothly they read! These are signs of control and craftsmanship. And the feeling of being in the hands of a writer who effortlessly leads the reader down the paths he wants you to follow just makes for very pleasant reading.

Most of these stories are about humans being humans, but out in space. We still make the same mistakes, we are still greedy and stupid and lazy, even if we fly around in ships and visit other planets. There are stories here of greedy project managers, space smugglers, lazy people, macho youngsters… you know, idiots. They bump into aliens who often have a totally different view on what’s going on and don’t understand the humans. In stories like Hunting Problem and Hands Off, Sheckley alternately switches between the humans’ point of view and an alien’s point of view, with the story ending in complete miscommunication and the humans and alien walking away with totally different conclusions. It’s a favourite story format of Sheckley’s; he wrote similar stories in his previous short story collection.

The longest story in here is A Ticket to Tranai, which is Sheckley’s take on a visit to a Utopia where everything turns out to be weird. Many SF writers wrote stories like that and if you google Weirdtopia I’m sure you’ll find some lists. R.A. Lafferty probably did it best with his Camiroi stories, but Lafferty was a genius and Sheckley can’t quite match him. A Ticket to Tranai is a satire on some aspects of American culture, in particular its focus on individual initiative, which is exaggerated here of course to a ridiculous degree.

And I found another idea that Douglas Adams copied from Sheckley! I can’t believe this. Sheckley’s novel Dimension of Miracles (1968) was already brimming with similarities to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to the point where it is almost impossible to believe that Adams had not read it. In Citizen in Space, there is a story named Ask a Foolish Question, in which pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent beings create a supercomputer named the Answerer, which is a giant screen sitting on a singular planet, and the Answerer knows all the questions about life, the universe and everything. From all over the universe, beings travel to the Answerer to ask their questions, but they only ever receive cryptic answers, because they don’t ask the right questions. They have to find the question first.

Most of the stories made me chuckle, but even so I fear that I will quickly forget them. I have already forgotten most of the stories from his first collection. The ones in bold I liked the most. I would recommend a collection like this as a palate cleanser between longer, heavier tomes.

  1. The Mountain Without a Name
  2. The Accountant
  3. Hunting Problem
  4. A Thief in Time
  5. The Luckiest Man in the World
  6. Hands Off
  7. Something for Nothing
  8. A Ticket to Tranai
  9. The Battle
  10. Skulking Permit
  11. Citizen in Space
  12. Ask a Foolish Question
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4 Responses to Robert Sheckley – Citizen in Space (1955) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Wow, that does seem like Adams lifted this whole sale!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ola G says:

    Wow, well, it doesn’t bode well for Adams if you’re right! This sounds just like his Hitchhiker’s Guide…

    Liked by 1 person

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