Robert Sheckley was one of the giants of science fiction in the 1950s and 60s and wrote about 400 short stories and a bunch of books, but nobody remembers him now. A shame, because his work is very entertaining and witty, and easy to read. I greatly enjoyed his novel Dimension of Miracles (1968) which is regarded as a predecessor to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sheckley’s prose isn’t exactly like Adams’, but like Adams he was a master of comedic storytelling. Untouched by Human Hands is Sheckley’s first short story collection and shows Sheckley as he was finding his way as a starting writer and was discovering his style.
Sheckley’s approach is to take oft-used science fiction tropes and look at them from a new, fresh angle. Either by twisting things around or inside out or through exaggeration. Think, for example, of a first-contact situation seen through the eyes of the aliens, or of the commodification of life to the point that people only have to push buttons all day. It makes sense that Sheckley himself felt that he “wasn’t really writing science fiction. I was in some way writing a commentary on science fiction…” His stories are distortions of not only reality but also of the science fiction genre itself. At least, in the shape it existed in the 1950s.
Now, most of Sheckley’s subversions of tropes don’t smell so fresh anymore, to the point that the subversions have become tropes in their own right, and his approach has been copied by a small army of writers over the century. But his stories are still a joy to read because you never know what kind of story you’re going to get. Each story keeps its secrets close and you’ll still need to walk through all the funny situations to understand where it is going. The journey of discovery is still great fun. In this way, reading Sheckley is similar to reading R.A. Lafferty, but Sheckley’s writing is much more accessible. He’s Lafferty-lite.
I would recommend a collection like this as a palate cleanser between longer, heavier tomes. Or as dessert; meringue after a full meal of space opera. I can’t really see this collection as a masterwork in its own right, as the stories feel a bit shallow sometimes. The clues never really take you by surprise and are not as subversive as they once were, but they are entertaining. They flow well. Dialogues are sharp and get to the point, and are used to create some funny people and funny situations. But then a story like Warm or Specialist comes along and proves that Sheckley can do more than superficial satire. He can tackle abstract speculative weirdness and realistic characterisation too.
Interesting too that some of these stories, like The Impacted Man, feature companies that create planets and galaxies. Sheckley would reuse this idea in Dimension of Miracles a decade later, and this was still decades before Douglas Adams wrote his books. Seventh Victim reads like it was an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Running Man, and some scenes in Alastair Reynolds’s Chasm City. I’m getting the impression that Sheckley was an important link in the development of the genre.
There are 10 short stories in the Penguin Classics edition (the one displayed above), but there is a confusion about how many stories should belong in this collection, as older versions of this collection seem to have two or three extra stories. And one of the stories, Watchbird, isn’t even present in older editions. I’ve no idea what Penguin has been doing. It’s like they’re using frog DNA to resurrect a dinosaur. So get an older edition if you can find one, but regardless your experience with this book will be roughly the same no matter the edition.