Robert Sheckley

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Robert Sheckley
Sheckley during the mid-1990s
Sheckley in the mid-1990s
Born(1928-07-16)July 16, 1928
New York City
DiedDecember 9, 2005(2005-12-09) (aged 77)
Poughkeepsie, New York
GenreScience fiction
Notable worksImmortality, Inc., Seventh Victim
Sheckley's first story, "Final Examination", was published in the May 1952 issue of Imagination

Robert Sheckley (July 16, 1928 – December 9, 2005)[1] was an American writer. First published in the science-fiction magazines of the 1950s, his many quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist, and broadly comical.

Nominated for Hugo and Nebula Awards, Sheckley was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2001.


Sheckley was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York City. In 1931, the family moved to Maplewood, New Jersey. Sheckley attended Columbia High School, where he discovered science fiction. He graduated in 1946[2] 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.[3] During his time in the army, he served as a guard, an army newspaper editor, a payroll clerk, and as a guitarist in the Army Band. He left the service in 1948.[4]

Sheckley graduated with an arts degree from New York University in 1951.[5] 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 the 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.[6] Sheckley left OMNI in 1981 with his fourth wife, writer Jay Rothbell: 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 or mystery stories, and collaborated with other writers such as Roger Zelazny and Harry Harrison.

During an April 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 Kyiv.[7] His condition was very serious for a week, but he appeared to be slowly recovering. Sheckley's official website ran a fundraising campaign to help cover his treatment and his return to the United States. He 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.[citation needed]


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[8][9]), stories in shared universes such as Heroes in Hell, and collaborations with other writers. He was best known for his several hundred short stories,[3] 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" (which tells of a sort of Utopia designed for human nature as it actually is, which turns out to have terrible drawbacks).

Sheckley's early stories include the far future AAA Ace detective agency series. In these tales, the two partners face unusual problems often related to human incompetence or laziness.[10]

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 on 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.[11]

Film, TV and radio adaptations[edit]

Robert Sheckley c. 1954

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.[12] The film starred Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress. A novelization of the film, also written by Sheckley, was published in 1966. The satirical premise 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. It was also adapted into the first episode of the third season of the British BBC series Out of the Unknown. This episode is lost due to the then common practice of wiping the shows after broadcast.

The 1954 story "Ghost V" and the 1955 story "The Lifeboat Mutiny" were adapted into two episodes of the USSR science fiction TV series This Fantastic World.[13] "Ghost V" was staged also by Estonian TV channel ETV in 1997.[14]

The 1958 short story "The Prize of Peril" was adapted in 1970 as the German TV movie Das Millionenspiel,[15] 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[weasel words] 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 later in 1982, of which a film adaptation was later made.

"The Game of X" (1965) was loosely adapted as the 1981 Disney film, Condorman.[16]

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 "Watchbird".[17] It was included on the DVD set for the series.

The 1958 short story "The Store of the Worlds" from the collection Store of Infinity was adapted twice as a short film, first in Hungary in 1975 with its original title translated to Hungarian ("Világok boltja").[18] The second was titled The Escape by the filmmaker Paul Franklin, starring Julian Sands, Art Malik, Olivia Williams and Ben Miller. This film had its premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

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.

In 2007, Chris Larner and David Gilbert created the radio show "The Laxian Key" based on Sheckley's short stories. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra.[19]

An upcoming film titled "Robots", starring Shailene Woodley is based on a short story by Robert Sheckley.


Science fiction and fantasy[edit]


Sheckley's novel Immortality, Inc. was serialized in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1958 as "Time Killer"

Short story collections[edit]

Short story compilations[edit]

  • The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley Bantam (1979), Sphere (1980)
  • The Sheckley Omnibus (1979)
  • Is THAT What People Do? Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1984; 23 previously published stories and 16 new)
  • The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley Pulphouse (1991; 5 volumes, vol. 5 includes new material)
  • The Masque of Mañana NESFA (2005)
  • Store of the Worlds NYRB (2012)

Mystery and espionage[edit]

Other works[edit]

Books as editor[edit]

  • After the Fall (1980)


  • "Futuropolis: Impossible Cities of Science Fiction and Fantasy" (1978, A&W Visual Library)
  • "On Working Method" (1978, Vector 1978/9. Revised version published later as "How Pro Writers Really Write — Or Try To")
  • "How Pro Writers Really Write — Or Try To" (1982, Is THAT What People Do?)
  • "Immortality and Car Chases" (1992, Dark Side 1992/7)
  • "Memories of the Fifties" (1992, New York Review of SF 1992/8)
  • "Journal of Robert Sheckley" (1998, Galaxy eZine (Internet))
  • "Philosophy & Science Fiction" (1999, Greenwich Village Gazette (Internet))
  • "My Life in Oregon" (2000, Greenwich Village Gazette (Internet))
  • "The World Out There: Muslim" (2001, BIGNews (also on Internet) 2001/12)
  • "The World Out There: An Afghanistan Frame of Mind" (2002, BIGNews (also on Internet) 2001/1)
  • "The World Out There: Rain, Melancholy, Travel" (2002, BIGNews (also on Internet) 2001/2)
  • "On Lying" (2003, BIGNews (also on Internet) 2003/4)
  • "The New Interactive Diary" (2003, BIGNews (also on Internet) 2003/10)


  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ Maxine N. Lurie, Marc Mappen. Encyclopedia of New Jersey, p. 736. Rutgers University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8135-3325-4
  3. ^ a b Jonas, Gerald. "Robert Sheckley, 77, Writer of Satirical Science Fiction, Is Dead", The New York Times, December 10, 2005. Accessed November 20, 2007.
  4. ^ Robert Sheckley. Untouched by Human Hands, p. 170. First edition, paperback. Ballantine Books 73, 1954.
  5. ^ "Sheckley Biography". Robert Sheckley's personal site.
  6. ^ Priest, Christopher. Obituary: Robert Sheckley.
  7. ^ "Sci-Fi Writer Robert Sheckley on Artificial Respiration in Ukrainian …". March 24, 2006. Archived from the original on March 24, 2006. Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  8. ^ "A Call to Arms (Babylon 5)". Retrieved April 21, 2018.
  9. ^ A Call to Arms (Babylon 5) by Robert Sheckley. Retrieved April 21, 2018.
  10. ^ "Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Experience: Robert Sheckley". Retrieved November 1, 2016.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Priest, Christopher (December 20, 2005). "Robert Sheckley". The Guardian. Retrieved November 1, 2016.
  13. ^ State Fund of Television and Radio Programs (in Russian)
  14. ^ ERR. "Üksikud saated – ERR – Digihoidla". Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  15. ^ "Das Millionenspiel". October 18, 1970. Retrieved November 1, 2016 – via IMDb.
  16. ^ 'CONDORMAN', ESPIONAGE SPOOF, in the New York Times, published August 31, 1981; retrieved March 21, 2018
  17. ^ "Stephen Hawking's Sci Fi Masters". Science Channel.
  18. ^ "Világok boltja". IMDb.
  19. ^ "BBC Radio 4 Extra - the Laxian Key".
  20. ^ "Galaxy v23n05 (1965 06)". Retrieved July 22, 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  21. ^ Not published in English. Published in Italian under the title "Computer Grand-Guignol" by Arnoldo Mondadori ed, Milano.
  22. ^ 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. Archived July 31, 2017, at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]