Robert Sheckley is one of the major names of Silver Age science fiction that has not held the spotlight as well as Heinlein or Asimov. I understand the reasons why: Asimov and Heinlein were writing simple entertainment whereas Sheckley was mostly writing more sophisticated humanist satire, which, unfortunately, doesn’t sell as well. A prolific writer nevertheless, Sheckley churned out more than forty short stories in the first two years he was published, the best of which are collected in Untouched by Human Hands (1954).
In that incredible two-year span of creativity, Sheckley covered a lot of ground. Highly interested in presenting modern civilization from completely wild and different perspectives, his stories almost always utilize common tropes—aliens, planetary adventure, robots, etc.—but always with sub-texts so sharp they cut.
Starting off Untouched by Human Hands is a darkly humorous perspective. “The Monsters” is the brief tale of humanity’s arrival on a strange planet—from the aliens’ view. A reptilian-esque species, they kill their wives every 25 days due to an extreme overabundance of female eggs. They get indignant with the idea that the extraterrestrials might be sentient beings, and thus truth tellers. Qualified hilarity ensues. “Cost of Living” was meant to be satire in Sheckley’s time, but given the debt crisis that set off the mini-depression shortly after the turn of the second millennium, it has proven more prescient than sarcastic. About a man interested in keeping up with the Jones, the agreements he’ll sign to remain a consumer are not as shocking as they might have been in the ‘50s. “The Altar,” escalating from urban New Jersey to the paranormal in the smoothest gradient, is the next story.
“Shape” is about a group of shapeshifters sent to Earth to “displace” it. Set up in a caste system, the aliens discover more about Earth then they knew before they came. Opening with affected correspondence between a galaxy builder and the owner of his most recent project, “The Impacted Man” moves on to examine a slight flaw in the design from the perspective of one of the people living in the galaxy. Perhaps due to the profound tone, “Untouched by Human Hands” is the title story. About two space explorers stranded on a planet without food or water, stumbling across an alien cache leads to some pretty bizarre experimentation. What is edible and what not becomes delicious satire on the language of advertizing.
Keeping the tone bizarre, “The King’s Wishes” is about a husband and wife duo who own an appliance store. The strangest of burglars raiding their shop each night, they decide to confront the situation, and learn more than they ever bargained. Putting modern conveniences in a much broader picture of time, the duo shift from angry to empathetic. In another bizarre story, “Warm,” a man prepares to tell his girlfriend he loves her when a strange voice speaks to him in the room. In “The Demons,” an insurance salesman steps off the curb of a New York sidewalk and is whisked away to… a chalk diagram presided over by a devil. Not a horror story, it’s instead a take on insurance itself—when you rob Peter to pay Paul.
“The Specialist” is another alternate perspective on humanity. A group of aliens, each with their own specific talent, arrive on Earth to complete a task. When one of their members goes missing, however, they recruit—or try to recruit—from the native population to surprising results. Perhaps the most famous of the stories in the collection as it would later be adapted into a film, “Seventh Victim” follows the footsteps of a man hunting a woman—legally. Manhunts legalized in order to curb violence in society and forestall further world wars, the man and woman, like many others in society, have entered legal contracts—one the hunter, the other the victim. But who is who? I could be very, very wrong given how abstract the story is, but “Ritual” could be a satire on business culture, and the entertaining/ineffective practices and etiquette they hold to negotiating and making deals. It could also just be a bizarre vision of an alien culture… Easing the collection gently to sleep, “Beside Still Waters” is a short but effective piece about a man living alone on an alien planet and the robot he buys to work around his farm.
Untouched by Human Hands is a collection that indicates science fiction in the US was capable of more than just laser blasters and aliens in the 50s. Sheckley treating the devices like tools, he achieves something beyond entertainment through the darkly humorous usage of said devices, arriving at something more empathetic, more understandable, and ultimately more relevant in humanity. Where Asimov and Heinlein’s stories have faded in relevancy, Sheckley’s continue to shine, as evidenced by this collection.
Published in 1952 and 1953, the following are the thirteen stories collected in Untouched by Human Hands:
Cost of Living
The Impacted Man
Untouched by Human Hands
The King's Wishes
Beside Still Waters