Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley

Journey Beyond Tomorrow… Journey of Joenes… something that happens today on far, far fewer occasions, it was, however, relatively normal that back in the day, before Google et al, publishers sometimes had second thoughts, or wanted to try to inject new life into a novel whose initial sales didn’t go as planned, and therefore changed a book’s title for another print run. Such was Robert Sheckley’s 1962 sci-fi inspired (or peyote inspired?) counter-culture satire of those names. Journey of Joenes is the more applicable title, and will be used for the remainder of this review.

Interestingly utilizing the Pacific island region, Journey of Joenes is the fragmented biography of the eponymous Polynesian. Framed in 3000 AD, the book purports itself to be a history of a man whose beliefs and philosophies came to dominate what was left of the world. The purported history opens with Joenes arriving in hippy-ville San Franscisco. Ingesting psychedelics, giving an impromptu speech, and ending up on the run from the law in a matter of moments, Joenes goes on a journey of epic (read: political, satirical, and mythical) proportions. From robot oracles to fake map makers, disgruntled truck drivers to uncertified academia, and more, it’s a wild, surreal journey—always with one, often subtle tongue in cheek.

If Sheckley were ever to have written a beatnik novel, I would guess Journey of Joenes is as close as it gets. Thus, while I personally find Dimension of Miracles the more philosophical and imaginative novel, I would guess pure, literary-minded readers would find Journey of Joenes to be the most “sophisticated” of his works. The satire delicate, the political counter-points relevant, and the classical grounding fundamental, the 162 page novels packs an understated punch that firmly addresses the concerns of the time, and beyond—meta-beatnik.

Sheckley a prolific short story writer, Journey of Joenes plays to his strengths. Joenes’ story fragmentary, the setup allows Sheckley to start and stop as he needs. As Joachim Boaz deftly states in his review: the fragments “range from first person accounts that read as if they are straightforward narratives to finely wrought Borgesian allegories in highly metaphoric environments.” By doing so, the narrative skips and jumps from spotlight to spotlight, and is thus able to maintain a very tight focus on Sheckley’s thematic concerns, and the human condition that underlies it all, i.e. perennial wisdom may in fact be cyclical itself.

It’s clear Journey Beyond Tomorrow is the poorer title. Sounding either like prophecy or some variety of vanilla sf the likes of Asimov, Heinlein, etc. would write, Journey of Joenes at least makes the book appear somewhat singular, though perhaps not remarkable. But what is certainly remarkable is the novel itself. Arguably Sheckley’s best, it’s only that the majority of science fiction readers today read in the genre for reasons predominantly other than politics and counter-culture that it has largely been lost to time. Many of the issues the book deftly exposes having repeated themselves in the time since, it remains awkwardly relevant.

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