HOW A TRIP TO THRIFTY DRUG CHANGED MY LIFE
I was fifteen when I got bitten, smacked upside the head and knocked flat on my backside.
It was 1968, and my family was headed for another long vacation. I can't remember if it was to Georgia to see relatives or Twin Lakes to go camping, all I remember is that it was a long enough car trip to necessitate a trip to the local Thrifty Drug to buy paperbacks. Buying books for a vacation trip was one of my favorite things to do. In all the years and in all the books, I only got carsick once, and I hold my roadside lunch responsible for that unpleasantness. My younger brother Gary practically got sick reading road signs, and either slept or looked out the window. I always felt a bit sorry for him being unable to read on a car trip.
Me? I loved nature and scenery, but I loved science fiction more.
Back then, I only read SF. Fantasy seemed too silly or overly-complicated and horror had not gone through the resurgence that would come with Stephen King and books like Salem's Lot (seems everyone had a copy of that one back in the mid-seventies).
In those days, there weren't many bookstores close by, and the internet was something out of science fiction. I did all my shopping at Thrifty and a small department store called Cal Store. Cal Store had more books, but it was easier to get to Thrifty on my bike.
At Thrifty, each check stand had a small book rack at its end, all those bright covers vying for your attention as you entered the store. This was in the days when stores like Thrifty also had a tube tester, so your Dad could check the tubes on the Magnavox and see why you couldn't get a decent picture on Laugh-In. Come to think of it, I probably accompanied my Dad on one of his TV tube forays when this Mark-shaking event occurred.
After watching my Dad test tubes (the set-up and gauges of the machine looked like something out of Flash Gordon), I went over to check to see if there were any new books I might take on our trip.
A very colorful cover caught my eye, orange and yellow, black and purple.
Across the top, black lower case letters proclaimed,
death stalked him
through the galaxiesOkay, they had my attention! Next came the title, larger, upper and lower case yellow.
Below that, the author, some fellow named Robert Sheckley, who had also (according to the book cover, written Mindswap and The People Trap.Below that was a egg with planets and stars inside it, and tiny people on the ground below it. The cover was by Paul Lehr, and if you haven't seen at least a half dozen of his wonderful illustrations, you weren't reading SF in the 60's and 70's.
It was a 50¢ Dell.
So, it looked like a pretty cool book, but fifty cents wasn't something to just toss away... I always had to check the blurb on the back. Flipping it over, I read:
It had to be somewhere, Carmody knew that
much. It was waiting for him, just as he had left it.
He only knew he was in the center of a galaxy
in a universe of galaxies. Within them lay end-
less varieties of the planet Earth. And there
was only one way to find his Earth again.
He would have to visit each one. And he would
have to hurry. Because his search for home
had turned into a race with death...
I loved stories with an individual pitted against impossible odds, surviving by their wits and a few skills. I took the book, paid my fifty cents plus tax, and waited for our car trip.
Somewhere between Mission Hills, California and Albany, Georgia I read my first Robert Sheckley book. I had expected spacefaring adventure and derring-do, and there was certainly some of that.
But it was so absurd! The story concerns Carmody, an everyman who is whisked away to a distant galaxy because he has won a prize. My first clue that things were about to get very, very odd was that the judges assumed Carmody would know the coordinates to his home world. Of course, he doesn't, so they don't know which Earth to send him back to. Their solution? Let him try every variant of Earth, until he finds home or one close enough. Up to this point, my only notion of parallel Earths came from Earth II in DC Comics, where all the heroes of the WWII era resided.
But Sheckley had a way of making the mundane science fiction/fantasy concept fresh. (Read "Gun Without a Bang" to see his take on the disintegrator pistol, or "Ghost V" to see how he deals with that monster under your bed or in your closet.)
My second clue was that Carmody's prize while being a pot, was sentient, and a smart-ass. This was no brave robot or android ally, no alien pal, this was a cynical and tactless thorn in Carmody's side.
It wasn't just inventive, it was funny.
And it was more than funny, it was satirical, wry. (Sheckley wasn't called the Jonathan Swift of science fiction for nothing.) A universe where God is a contractor and planets are built to spec, sometimes using substandard materials? An Earth where advertising overshadows every aspect of life (and wasn't that prescient)?
I had never read anything quite like it - and I loved it.
These stories were so fresh, so inventive, I had to have more. Mind you, I was a voracious reader of SF and Sheckly did not diminish my love for Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and Bradbury, among others.
But, with that one book, I was hooked. I found every Sheckley title in the bookstores I could. Once I had secured those (this was pre-internet, remember), I would scour used bookstores... Oh, the triumph of finding a new title or two!
Sheckley was a true master of the short story - every word counts, every word paints the world and tells you his tale. I rarely see so vividly as when reading his work. And novels? Immortality, Inc. is a favorite. It is similar to Dimension of Miracles in that a character named Blaine is plucked from a fatal car wreck just before impact and transported to the future... as part of an advertising gimmick. The campaign is abandoned and so is Blaine, left to fend for himself in a future world far, far different from his own. I love this book, and have recommended it to friends and read it many times. (Side note: You can imagine how excited I was to hear that Immortality, Inc. would be made into a movie in 1992. Sadly, it was a loathsome piece of dreck called FREEJACK with Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger. The film bears little resemblance to the original novel, which is a real pity.)
People credit Douglas Adams with practically inventing satirical and absurdist SF. Sheckley never had a blockbuster like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and many think he came later. Not so - Sheckley was making his first sales to Imagination, Galaxy and other titles in 1951... Adams was born in 1952. I admit I rankle a bit when Adams wrote, "I had no idea the competition was so frightfully good." Humph.
No matter. Comparing the two is non-productive. Happily, Sheckley is again available in e-books, and you'd do well to sample some of his stories. Any collection will do, and then you might try his novels. He wrote some spy novels, too, but it was SF where his light was brightest.
I was fortunate enough to meet Bob when I worked at Dangerous Visions Bookstore back in the 80's. He signed several of my books and was friendly and kind. We corresponded a bit, and my last purchase of a Sheckley book was his self-published sequel to Dimension of Miracles, called Dimension of Miracles Revisited. I've kept it sealed for twelve years, because Bob passed away in 2005 and there will be no more trips inside his wild, wonderful and inventive mind. But it's calling to me, and I suppose I will read the original first, then the sequel.