Book Review: Store of Infinity, Robert Sheckley (1960)
March 12, 2013 § 10 Comments
(Uncredited cover for the 1960 edition)
4.5/5 (collated rating: Very Good)
Robert Sheckley’s collection Store of Infinity (1960) contains eight remarkable short stories — three of which are near masterpieces. Sheckley’s visions are satirical, mordant, and replete with vivid imagery conveyed in solid prose. A few selections remind me of the lighthearted (yet thought-provoking in content) robot fairy tales by Stanislaw Lem – for example, those collected in The Cyberiad (1965) — although Sheckley’s visions are less whimsical.
‘The Price of Peril’ (1958), ’Triplication’ (1959), ’The Store of the Worlds’ (1959), and ’If the Red Slayer’ (1959) are must reads for any science fiction fan. Highly recommended.
Thank goodness that I have Sheckley’s The Status Civilization (1960), Notions Unlimited (1960), and The People Trap (1968) on the shelf waiting to be devoured.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (spoilers)
‘The Price of Peril’ (1958) (18 pages) 5/5 (Near masterpiece): By far the best story in the collection. Jim Raeder is the archetypal common man, the man whom the nation roots for… ”Six years ago, Jim, Congress passed the Voluntary Suicide Act. Those old senators talked a lot about free will and self-determinism at the time But that’s all crap. You know what the Act really means? It means that amateurs can risk their lives for the big loot, not just professionals” (6). The sport? Reality television involving dangerous stunts — untrained pilots landing planes, deep sea treasure hunts… Why the audiences are transfixed? The participants sign away any responsibility for their own deaths — the action and emotion couldn’t be any more “real”. If the participants are lucky to survive, they become heroes and receive hefty cash prizes. Jim Raeder has the people looking out for him — Good Samaritans rooting for the common man — as he runs from a murderous gang across the streets and alleys of the city with a mini-television recounting his flight on in his pocket. A fascinating extrapolation on the more sinister potentials of future media… Along with Silverberg’s ‘The Pain Peddlers’ (1963), ‘The Price of Peril’ is one of the better earlier explorations of the topic.
‘The Humours’ (1958) (42 pages) 4/5 (Good): A somewhat laborious take on future psychiatric treatment of multiple personality disorder. Alistair Crompton considers himself “a stereotype” with a monolithic personality (19). He plays his crossword puzzles every day, works as a lowly clerk, and is pathologically afraid of women…. As a youth, he was violent — only later did they discover his multiple personality disorder. The treatment: separate the other personalities and place them in Durier bodies with limited life spans. Legally, at the age of thirty-five, Alistair can choose whether to have the other personalities reintegrated into himself, creating a new person. Of course, there is a possibility that he could revert to his earlier violence…. And so he heads to Mars to find the hedonistic personality and Venus to find the psychopathic personality. Little does Alistair know that one of the personalities in a Durier body had undergone the treatment as well.
‘Triplication’ (1959) (5 pages) 4.75/5 (Very Good): A series of three short unconnected vignettes evoking Stanislaw Lem. 1] An orphanage arsonist gets away with his crime due to the alien purposes of orphanages on other planets. But, his reasons for arson aren’t altruistic, he simply enjoys burning orphanages… 2] Edmond Drichte wants to great a perfect society so he duplicates five hundred copies of himself and five hundred copies of his wife, Anna. The future looks up! The only functional utopia! Everyone, in one mind, guided by one ideology. Unfortunately, the couples don’t stay couples… And one Drichte creates a harem of Annas… 3] A robot sends distress calls from his crashed vessel. Little do the rescuers know that the robot killed his human master for lubrication. The legendary first act of rebellion in robot independence….
‘The Minimum Man’ (1958) (30 pages) 4/5 (Good): Due to intense overpopulation, mankind has had to offload surplus humans to colony planets. Although the public might believe that all astronaut explorers are of the heroic mold, rather more minimally suitable men are needed to chart out new planets. If the minimum man can survive then the average Earthling ditched on some alien world can survive as well. Anton Perceveral is one of these minimal men — unable to hold down a job, lacking in survival skills, and chronically unlucky. He’s employed to survey a new planet with the help of a robot. He finds out that as his own skills grow the robot has been programmed to keep him a minimum man…. Eventually the robot becomes a destructive force that has to be stopped.
‘If the Red Slayer’ (1959) 4.5/5 (7 pages) (Very Good): An allegorical story about a soldier who has died and been revived three times for his country. His dog tags indicate his desire to not be revived a fourth time — as stated in the law (and, the more deaths a soldier has incurred the lower moral of the men around him). Unfortunately, as technology progresses and the ways to kill and revive become more effective more soldiers are needed. And as a result three revivals are no longer the maximum required.
‘The Store of the Worlds’ (1959) 5/5 (7 pages) (Masterpiece): The second best story in the collection. In a barren post-apocalyptical wasteland Mr. Wayne visits the Store of the Worlds: “a small shack constructed of bits of lumber, parts of cars, a piece of galvanized iron and a few rows of crumbling bricks, all daubed over with watery blue paint” (104). The proprietor, Tompkins, promised escape from the decay spreading in all directions. Your mind will be separated from this reality and placed in another reality, Tompkins promises. It’s temporary of course. Mr. Wayne cannot resist despite the steep price — in goods and ten years off his life….
‘The Gun Without a Bang’ (1958) (9 pages) 3.75/5 (Good): One of the weaker installments, “The Gun Without a Bang” is a satirical take of the fetishization of technology. Dixon is a manly explorer on an alien world — he carries the Weapon — a disintegrator beam that removes the assailant from the scene without a cry or even a whimper of pain. Unfortunately, his canine enemies have no idea that their companions are dying and press on. Dixon has to resort to less powerful and more traditional means to defend himself.
‘The Deaths of Ben Baxter’ (1957) (30 pages) 3.5/5 (Good): The least satisfying story in the collection dealing with one of my least favorite sci-fi themes — time travel. I had high hopes that Sheckley’s wit would add some originality to a banal and overdone concept — alas. Some time in the future the Chief Programmer of Earth discovers that Ben Baxter, an important figure in the past, must live for ten more years than he did in order to save the forests of America and prevent millions from dying of air pollution. The plot follows a series of attempts to travel back in time and prevent his meeting with a land mogul. Of course, in typical Sheckley fashion (and in time travel stories in general) there’s an unexpected twist.
(Uncredited cover for the 1970 edition)
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