July 16, 1928|
New York City
|Died||December 9, 2005
Poughkeepsie, New York
Robert Sheckley (July 16, 1928 – December 9, 2005) was a Hugo- and Nebula-nominated American author. First published in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s, his numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist, and broadly comical.
Robert Sheckley was born to an assimilated Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. In 1931 the family moved to Maplewood, New Jersey. Sheckley attended Columbia High School, where he discovered science fiction. He graduated in 1946 and hitchhiked to California the same year, where he tried numerous jobs: landscape gardener, pretzel salesman, barman, milkman, warehouseman, and general laborer "board man" in a hand-painted necktie studio. Finally, still in 1946, he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea. During his time in the army he served as a guard, an army newspaper editor, a payroll clerk, and guitarist in an army band. He left the service in 1948.
Sheckley then attended New York University, where he received an undergraduate degree in 1951. The same year he married for the first time, to Barbara Scadron. The couple had one son, Jason. Sheckley worked in an aircraft factory and as an assistant metallurgist for a short time, but his breakthrough came quickly: in late 1951 he sold his first story, Final Examination, to Imagination magazine. He quickly gained prominence as a writer, publishing stories in Imagination, Galaxy, and other science fiction magazines. The 1950s saw the publication of Sheckley's first four books: short story collections Untouched by Human Hands (Ballantine, 1954), Citizen in Space (1955), and Pilgrimage to Earth (Bantam, 1957), and a novel, Immortality, Inc. (first published as a serial in Galaxy, 1958).
Sheckley and Scadron divorced in 1956. The writer married journalist Ziva Kwitney in 1957. The newly married couple lived in Greenwich Village. Their daughter, Alisa Kwitney, born in 1964, would herself become a successful writer. Applauded by critic Kingsley Amis, Sheckley was now selling many of his deft, satiric stories to mainstream magazines such as Playboy. In addition to his science fiction stories, in 1960s Sheckley started writing suspense fiction. More short story collections and novels appeared in the 1960s, and a film adaptation of an early story by Sheckley, The 10th Victim, was released in 1965.
Sheckley spent much of 1970s living on Ibiza. He and Kwitney divorced in 1972 and the same year Sheckley married Abby Schulman, whom he had met in Ibiza. The couple had two children, Anya and Jed. The couple separated while living in London. In 1980, the writer returned to the United States and became fiction editor of the newly established OMNI magazine. Sheckley left OMNI in 1981 with his fourth wife, writer Jay Rothbell a.k.a. Jay Sheckley, and they subsequently traveled widely in Europe, finally ending up in Portland, Oregon, where they separated. He married Gail Dana of Portland in 1990. Sheckley continued publishing further science fiction and espionage/mystery stories, and collaborated with other writers such as Roger Zelazny and Harry Harrison.
During a 2005 visit to Ukraine for the Ukrainian Sci-Fi Computer Week, an international event for science fiction writers, Sheckley fell ill and had to be hospitalized in Kiev on April 27. His condition was very serious for one week, but he appeared to be slowly recovering. Sheckley's official website ran a fundraising campaign to help cover Sheckley's treatment and his return to the United States. Sheckley settled in Red Hook, in northern Dutchess County, New York, to be near his daughters Anya and Alisa. On November 20 he had surgery for a brain aneurysm; he died in a Poughkeepsie hospital on December 9, 2005.
Sheckley was a prolific and versatile writer. His works include not only original short stories and novels, but also TV series episodes (Captain Video and His Video Rangers), novelizations of works by others (Babylon 5: A Call to Arms, after the film), stories in shared universes such as Heroes in Hell, and collaborations with other writers. He was best known for his several hundreds of short stories, which he published in book form as well as individually. Typical Sheckley stories include "Bad Medicine" (in which a man is mistakenly treated by a psychotherapy machine intended for Martians), "Protection" (whose protagonist is warned of deadly danger unless he avoids the common activity of "lesnerizing", a word whose meaning is not explained), and "The Accountant" (in which a family of wizards learns that their son has been taken from them by a more sinister trade—accountancy). In many stories Sheckley speculates about alternative (and usually sinister) social orders, of which a good example is the story "A Ticket to Tranai" (that tells of a sort of Utopia designed for human nature as it actually is, which turns out to have terrible drawbacks).
One of the most famous of Sheckley's stories was the AAA Ace Series involving two partners in the far future encountering various unusual problems.
In the 1990s Sheckley wrote a series of three mystery novels featuring detective Hob Draconian, as well as novels set in the worlds of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Alien. Before his death Sheckley had been commissioned to write an original novel based upon the TV series The Prisoner for Powys Media, but died before completing the manuscript.
His novel Dimension of Miracles is often cited as an influence on Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, although in an interview for Neil Gaiman's book Don't Panic: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion, Adams said he had not read it until after writing the Guide.
Film and TV adaptations
One of Sheckley's early works, the 1953 Galaxy short story "Seventh Victim", was the basis for the film The 10th Victim, also known by the original Italian title La decima vittima. The film starred Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress. A novelization of the film, also written by Sheckley, was published in 1966. The story may also have been the inspiration for the role-playing game Assassin. The Japanese novel and film Battle Royale and the series of best-selling novels The Hunger Games also have the same premise as Sheckley's story. The satirical premise, invented by Sheckley, is that in the future killings are legal and televised, and that potential victims or hunters can get corporate sponsors and extra perks to assist them in succeeding as a professional, corporate-sponsored, celebrity killer.
Sheckley's novel Immortality, Inc.—about a world in which the afterlife could be obtained via a scientific process—was very loosely adapted into a film, the 1992 Freejack, starring Mick Jagger, Emilio Estevez, Rene Russo, and Anthony Hopkins.
The 1958 short story "The Prize of Peril" was adapted in 1970 as the German TV movie Das Millionenspiel, and again in 1983 as the French movie Le Prix du Danger. Written about a man who goes on a TV show in which he must evade people out to kill him for a week in order to win a large cash prize, it is perhaps the first-ever published work predicting the advent of reality television. There are many similarities between Sheckley's story and Stephen King's novel, The Running Man, published in 1982, of which a film adaptation was later made.
The short story "Watchbird" was adapted for the short-lived TV series Masters of Science Fiction. It did not initially air in the US, but on February 12, 2012, the Science Channel began airing the episodes, under the title Stephen Hawking's Sci-Fi Masters, beginning with the first domestic airing of the episode "Watchbirds". It was included on the DVD set for the series.
A number of Sheckley's works, both as Sheckley and as Finn O'Donnevan, were also adapted for the radio show X Minus One in the late 1950s, including the above-mentioned "Seventh Victim", "Bad Medicine", and "Protection". The radio show Tales of Tomorrow also in the late 1950s did a version of "Watchbird" and South Africa radio did their version of "Watchbird" on the series SF68.
Opinions on Sheckley's work
- "Robert Sheckley: the best short-story writer the field has produced." — Alan Dean Foster
- "I had no idea the competition was so terrifyingly good." — Douglas Adams
- "Sheckley at his best is Voltaire and Soda." — Brian W. Aldiss
- "Probably the best short-story writer during the 50s to the mid-1960s working in any field." — Neil Gaiman
- "Always he crackles with ideas." — Kingsley Amis
- "[Robert Sheckley is] witty and ingenious... a draught of pure Voltaire and tonic." — J. G. Ballard
- "If the Marx Brothers had been literary rather than thespic fantasists ... they would have been Robert Sheckley." — Harlan Ellison
- "Journey of Joenes is a mid-20th century version of Voltaire’s Candide." — James Lovelock
Science fiction and fantasy
- Immortality, Inc. (1958)
- The Status Civilization, also known as Omega (1960)
- Journey Beyond Tomorrow, also known as Journey of Joenes (1963)
- The 10th Victim (novel) (1966)
- Mindswap (featured as complete short novel in Galaxy magazine June 1965)
- Dimension of Miracles (1968)
- Options (1975)
- The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton, also known as Crompton Divided (1978)
- Dramocles (1983)
- Pop Death (1986)
- Victim Prime (1987)
- Hunter / Victim (1988)
- On The Planet of Bottled Brains (with Harry Harrison, 1990)
- Minotaur Maze (short novel, 1990)
- Xolotl (short, 1991)
- Alien Starswarm (short, 1991)
- Millennial Contest series (with Roger Zelazny):
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Laertian Gamble (1995)
- Aliens: Alien Harvest (1995)
- Godshome (1997)
- Babylon 5: A Call to Arms (1999)
- The Grand-Guignol of the Surrealists (2000)
- Dimension of Miracles Revisited (2000; self-published in English; published in France by Rivière Blanche, translated by Jean-Marc Lofficier)
Short story collections
- Untouched by Human Hands (1954)
- Citizen in Space (1955)
- Pilgrimage to Earth (1957)
- Notions: Unlimited (1960)
- Store of Infinity (1960)
- Shards of Space (1962)
- The People Trap (1968)
- Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? (also known as The Same to You Doubled) (1972)
- The Robot Who Looked Like Me (1978)
- Uncanny Tales (2003)
Short story compilations
- The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley (1979)
- The Sheckley Omnibus (1979)
- Is THAT What People Do? (1984; 23 previously published stories and 16 new)
- The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley (1991; 5 volumes, vol. 5 includes new material)
- The Masque of Mañana (2005)
- Store of the Worlds (2012)
Mystery and espionage
- The Game of X (1965) was loosely adapted as the 1981 Disney film, Condorman: Sheckley also wrote the novelization of this film.
- Stephen Dain series:
- Hob Draconian series:
- The Man in the Water (1962)
Books as editor
- After the Fall (1980)
- Maxine N. Lurie, Marc Mappen. Encyclopedia of New Jersey, p. 736. Rutgers University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8135-3325-4
- Jonas, Gerald. "Robert Sheckley, 77, Writer of Satirical Science Fiction, Is Dead", The New York Times, December 10, 2005. Accessed November 20, 2007.
- Robert Sheckley. Untouched by Human Hands, p. 170. First edition, paperback. Ballantine Books 73, 1954.
- Priest, Christopher. Obituary: Robert Sheckley.
- Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Experience: Robert Sheckley
- Video Interview with Neil Gaiman at Google campus on YouTube. Gaiman testifies to Adams' claim in a question about Sheckley, beginning 31:58. Retrieved April 15, 2009
- State Fund of Television and Radio Programs (Russian)
- Millionenspiel, Das (1970) (TV)
- "Stephen Hawking's Sci Fi Masters". Science Channel.
- BSC Interview - Alan Dean Foster | BSCreview, Jun 15, 2009
- On the cover of Hunter/Victim.
- Aldiss, Brian; Wingrove, David (1986). Trillion Year Spree. London: Paladin. ISBN 0-586-08684-6. p.411
- Video on YouTube
- Not published in English. Published in Italian under the title "Computer Grand-Guignol" by Arnoldo Mondadori ed, Milano.
- Zinos-Amaro, Alvaro. The When, Where, and Which of Robert Sheckley's Dimension of Miracles and its Sequel. The Internet Review of Science Fiction, October 2008. Available online.
- Official site: Sheckley.com
- Works by Robert Sheckley at Project Gutenberg
- Robert Sheckley at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Robert Sheckley at the Internet Movie Database
- Robert Sheckley at Memory Alpha (a Star Trek wiki)
- Obituaries at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site
- Sheckley Obituary Obituary by Edward Summer
- Sheckley Reads His Work at www.Martin-Olson.com
- Large collection of pictures of Sheckley in Europe from 1999 to 2005 - From the private collection of Roberto Quaglia