Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review of Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? by Robert Sheckley

Stop, stop right here.  Don’t bother with this review.  Just go read a Robert Sheckley novel or collection.  Unless your expectations are so narrow as to want formulaic genre material, the man’s writing cannot disappoint.  The wit, the humor, the wrestling with human nature, all in classic science fictional settings and situations, is inimitable.  Sheckley seeming to forever hover on the fringes of reader awareness, his 1972 collection Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is as good a place as any to jump right in, wallow in the goodness, and become aware.

Humorous speculation on the nature of machine intelligence, the title story opens the collection.  About an ordinary housewife who one day receives a mail-order robot vacuum cleaner, Sheckley’s keen sense of humor tells a funny ‘romance’ that makes the reader question the possibilities of AI.  An absolutely hilarious story that channels the style of Jack Vance in dialogue but with Sheckley’s cosmopolitan side informing the backstory and plot movement, “Cordle to Onion to Carrot” tells of an easily bullied man who finds his stride among stronger men after imbibing some ‘wine of the gods’.  Just hilarious.  Going from borderline outrageous to quite subdued, “The Petrified World” tells of a man concerned about his dreams.  Visiting a psychologist, his metaphysical questions are unanswerable, save for a procedure that gives him an entirely new perspective on life.

A measure of indolence, in “Game: First Schematic” a man plays a game on a court with a ball—a game he seems to master, if his words can be believed.  But only if he wants to.  In “Doctor Zombie and His Little Furry Friends”, a man the locals call Dr. Zombie attempts to maintain normal appearances while secretly concocting his answer to the world's ills in a small house tucked away on the outskirts of Mexico City. While outwardly nihilistic, beneath that dark facade lies a truth we are all participant to, well intended or otherwise.  Seeming a take on the Tom Godwin story, “The Cruel Equations” is the humorous encounter between a spaceship captain and the robot he set to guard the spaceship while he went for a stroll on an alien planet.  Having forgotten the password, the robot does not allow the captain to enter the spaceship, that is, until...  Very humorous story about the limitations and dependence on machines, as well as the human expectation for something more.  One of the few positive stories in the collection, “The Same to You Doubled” is about a deal with the devil when everday man Joe Goldstein is offered three wishes, on the conditions his worst enemy will get double whatever he asks for.  In the process, Goldstein learns who his worst enemy is, and eventually how to set things up juuuust right…  .

A quick, one-off, “Starting from Scratch” tells of an alien visting a human and describing the destruction wrecked upon his homeworld by a mighty pillar descending from the sky and sliding along the ground, annihilating cities and towns in its path.  What the pillar turns out to be is the point of the story.  Mild dystopia, “The Mnemone” tells of a post-war future and the strange man who comes to town one day.  Able to recite prose and verse from memory, he is one of the only remaining links to classic literature, all written work having been destroyed in the war.  The townfolk at first hesitant of his arrival, a change nevertheless comes.  Condensed diversity education, “Notes on the Perception of Imaginary Differences” tells of two prisoners, a German and a Frenchman, who contrive to escape an unwitting guard by changing their appearances.  Their ploy eventually successful, a problem arises after: who is who?   Flash fiction, “Down the Digestive Tract and into the Cosmos with Mantra, Tantra, and Specklebang” tells of a man’s first LSD trip, but to where?

A very laid back story compared to LSD-alien antics, “Pas De Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer” is about a chef in a small Spanish town with only one customer.  Slowly honing in on the customer’s preferred dishes, he finds, much to his chagrin, unintended results.  The waiter is not innocent in his role toward the man’s demise, but it’s only upon hearing the customer’s side that everythying coalesces.  In “Plague Circuit”, a time traveler visits New York City, offering the cure to a plague epidemic sweeping the city.  The biggest problem is not that New Yorkers dismiss him for a crackpot, rather that there may not be a plague.  Perhaps the most straight forward science fiction story in the collection, “Tailpipe to Disaster” is about a first officer of a military starship and his demanding captain.  The first officer considered the best pilot in the fleet, his talents are put to the test one day against an alien vessel.  As nearly always, Sheckley saves his point for the final page, which in this story at least amounts to a slight chuckle.

In the end, Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is another high quality collection from one of the unheralded masters of science fiction.  Dripping with existential wit, singular imagination, and bouts of humorously couched nihilism, the collection is representative of Sheckley’s larger oeuvre as well as being highly enjoyable in its own right.  For readers looking to engage with Sheckley, this may even be a better starting point than his more often cited debut collection Untouched by Human Hands given that a more confident, focused, and mature Sheckley can be found.  Personal favorites include “Cordle to Onion to Carrot”, “Pas De Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer”, “Game: First Schematic”, and the title story.  But given the variety, it’s highly possible you, dear reader, may have your own.  Just go read Sheckley.

Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? has been re-printed multiple times, each seemingly with its own set and order of stories. The following are the sixteen collected in the version I read:

Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?
Cordle to Onion to Carrot
The Petrified World
Game: First Schematic
Doctor Zombie and His Little Furry Friends
The Cruel Equations
The Same to You Doubled
Starting from Scratch
The Mnemone
Notes on the Perception of Imaginary Differences
Down the Digestive Tract and Into the Cosmos with Mantra, Tantra, and Specklebang
Pas De Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer
Aspects of Langranak
Plague Circuit
Tailpipe to Disaster

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