Book Review: Citizen in Space, Robert Sheckley (1955)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1955 edition

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Robert Sheckley’s easily one of the best SF satirists in the short story form.  The collection Citizen in Space (1955), although not as uniformly brilliant as the collection Store of Infinity (1960), is chock full of gems including “The Luckiest Man in the World” (1955), “Something for Nothing” (1954), “Ask a Foolish Question” (1953), and “Skulking Permit” (1954).  Sheckley exposes in all their glory the vast variety of humankind’s follies and utopic delusions.

Later in the 50s and in the span of 6os his visions would become increasingly searing and metafictional.  This early collection is more on the lighthearted side although the more allegorical stories hint at the heights Sheckley would reach later in his career.

Highly recommended for all fans of classic SF, especially works of a witty/satirical bent.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“The Mountain Without a Name” (1955) 3.5/5 (Good):  Sheckley’s weaves a witty, and unnervingly deadpan, satire of colonialism.  Morrison’s in charge of leveling an inhabited planet to make way for settlement: “For great Morrison has come to drain the sea and make of it a placid pond, to level the hills and build upon them twelve-lave super highways, complete with restrooms for trees, picnic tables for shrubs, diners for rocks […]” (5).  Each character rambles about how far they have come from the “jellyfish days” (5) to justify their brutalization of a world.  But, when they approach The Mountain Without a Name, and hear the drums of the natives who have had enough, accidents happen…

“The Accountant” (1954) 3/5 (Average):  Imagine a world where declaring your heartfelt love for accounting is considered blasphemy!  An act of rebellion!  Morton, a nine-year-old boy, wants to be an accountant.  His family have are from a long line of wizards and Morton’s father has dreams that Morton will resurrect the glory of more their distant wizard ancestors.  But Morton wants to be an accountant and sneaks accounting books into his room: “there was Money, by Rimraamer, Bank Accounting Practice, by Johnson and Calhoun, Ellman’s Studies for the CPA, and a dozen others” (20).  A genuinely funny and silly fantasy…

“Hunting Problem” (1955) 3/5 (Average):  Alien boy scouts of “the Soaring Falcon Patrol” (27) in order to acquire scout badges take solid form (from their normal gaseous form fueled by cosmic radiation) and practice the skills of their “pioneering ancestors” (27).  This thrusts them in direct confrontation with humankind.  In order to acquire the hunting badge all they need is a human pelt!  The situation creates a rather hilarious narrative in which Sheckley cannot help but level numerous barbs at the rhetoric and traditions of the boy scouts.

“A Thief in Time” (1954) 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good):  A fun but slight time travel caper…  Thomas Eldridge is apprehended without knowledge of his crime or that he would invent time travel in the future.  The list of the items stolen makes little sense: “4 Megacharge Hand pistols, 10000 credits, 3 Lifebelts, Inflatable, 100 credits, 5 Cans, Ollen’s shark Repellant, 400 credits” and “4 dozen potatoes” and “5 dozen mirrors” (48).  As the pieces slowly come together and Thomas’ knowledge of the three time Sectors and Uncivilized Sectors grows the reason for his crime crystalizes.  And you know, even primitive women desperately want mirrors (*wince*)!

“The Luckiest Man in the World” (1955) 4.5/5 (Very Good) is easily one of the best stories in the collection.  Our main character, a hilariously unreliable narrator, recounts how “amazingly well off” his life is alone at a weather station in Patagonia.  Soon, the reader discovers the reality of the post-apocalyptical landscape.  Sheckley excels at the flash SF form — this one clocks in at a mere three pages but packs a punch.

“Hands Off” (1954) 3.75/5 (Good):  An enjoyable story of rapacious Earthmen deluded by their own “greatness” encountering more civilized aliens paradigm.  Captain Barnett encounters a spaceship which he desperately wants to steal because it is bigger and cooler looking than his own (insert, there are two giant metal phalluses in a field which one do you want type situation).  The Mabogonian alien who owns the spaceship eats special nuts and washes himself in corrosive acid to keep his skin from turning stone-like.  Little to the humans know when they transfer their supplies to the alien ship with the Mabog is away that the biological differences between the species will prove a particularly difficult challenge to overcome.

“Something for Nothing” (1954) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  A machine drops from nowhere deluding poor sods into thinking it will give them everything they ever wanted.  Joe Collins is one of those poor sods who had always dreamed of something amazing happening to him.  In an act of wish fulfillment he renames the Utilizer machine that appears in his room a “Wishing Machine” (96).  The real cost of his error can only be extracted if the machine grants him immortality….

“A Ticket to Tranai” (1955) 4/5 (Good):  The longest story in the collection explores yet another human foible, utopic delusions.  Marvin Goodman wants to cross the Milky Way to get to the fabled world of Tranai. Marvin’s a “natural-born crusader” who passionately devotes his all to every cause (110) but everyone around him is too apathetic to care.  While in a bar he overhears an old captain expound on the wonders of Tranai, the only “real” utopia where there is no crime, free enterprise, limited government, etc.  Marvin sets off!  Of course, Tranai is not exactly like he expected.  And when he returns with his idealism shattered, he too laments about the glories of Tranai, the only “real” utopia.  Which of course, really only a figment of the imagination, an unattainable ideal.

“The Battle” (1954) 4.25/5 (Good):  Mechanical armies controlled by humankind confront the forces of the antichrist in the Last Battle.  A priest laments pitiable, “it should be the people’s battle” (149) not mechanized war bots in battle array.  A hilarious allegory of the unintentional “dangers” of technology…

“Skulking Permit” (1954) 4.75/5 (Very Good) is the best story in the collection.  Tom Fisher lives on a forgotten Earth colony of New Delaware.  After years out of contact with the home planet, Earth finally decides to pay a visit to see if the colony is up to snuff with their requirements repressive government i.e. generals, crime, alien phobia, paranoia, are all needed to be an Earth society.  But, New Delaware is something of a utopia and Tom Fisher is by the mayor asked to skulk around and commit crimes to satisfy the inspectors.  But who is he going to murder especially since he’s not the murdering type?

“Citizen in Space” (1955) 4.25/5 (Good):  In a similar style to “The Luckiest Man in the World,” the narrator of “Citizen in Space” believes the horrible police state he lives in is normal and not all that bad.  He is even disappointed that he is not important enough to receive be allotted additional spies (one gets the sense that most of America’s population is employed to spy on everyone else).  And, his spy happens to be inept.  Clearly a satire of the American paranoia, “Citizen in Space” is easily one of the funniest stories in the collection: “I snapped off the intercom.  I should have felt wonderful.  Two full-time  Spies were watching me.  It meant I was someone, someone to be watched” (187).

“Ask a Foolish Question” (1953) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  One of Sheckley’s most endearing qualities is the ability to convey philosophical themes via finely wrought allegories.  The Answerer is a fantastic machine, built by some amazing race to answer every question.  But how do you phrase a question to a machine that knows everything?  Logically it would only understand the question if there was some basis for understanding (and we cannot approaching “knowing almost everything”) for “in order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer” (200).

Screen shot 2014-02-19 at 10.05.20 AM

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1955 edition)

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1978 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Citizen in Space, Robert Sheckley (1955)”

  1. I love Robert Sheckley. I first encountered him about a year ago when I purchased a newly revised collection of his short stories, an anthology titled, ‘Store of the Worlds’ and then I soon acquired ‘The Status Civilization’ which I read and enjoyed immensely. ‘Status’ is also available on YouTube in audio and the quality is very good.

    1. I reviewed The Status Civilization a while back (we talked about it! — hehe). But yeah, I saw the audio version as well. Would definitely listen to it if I hadn’t already read the novel.

  2. I have the ‘red’ Powers cover edition, didn’t know there was another Powers cover for this book.
    Just came across an old copy of ‘Immortality Inc.’, and bought it because of your recent review!

      1. That comment made me go and Wiki him. Did you know In 2010, Andy Partridge, former frontman of the British New wave band XTC released a limited edition CD of music inspired by Powers’ art titled POWERS?
        It’s nice to know his artwork is still affecting people so strongly…Happy Birthday Richard Powers!

  3. And I thought accountants were supposed to be such dull people! Like so many stereotypes, that turns out to be a crock, especially in Sheckley’s carefully constructed universe.

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