Book Review: Store of Infinity, Robert Sheckley (1960)

(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 Prize 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 Prize 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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22 thoughts on “Book Review: Store of Infinity, Robert Sheckley (1960)”

  1. Yeah, pretty friggin’ sweet collection, right? We can finally agree on something! (P.S. Maybe another review in about… 2-3 weeks time. Burning the wick at both ends here).

  2. Haven’t read as much Sheckley as I’d like—I bought the new Store of Worlds collection months ago just to rectify that, but I haven’t had time to crack the covers 😦

    Everything I’ve read by him has been very strong so far. Project Gutenberg has a nice selection of Sheckley, including some of his standouts like “Watchbird.”

    1. Yeah, I definitely plan on procuring all the old editions of his stories. Up there with Kornbluth and PKD (at least from my initial impression) as the best 50s/60s short story writers.

    2. I also picked up up the NYRB Store of the Worlds collection – very solid, with 26 stories, all but two from his glory days in the 50’s. I like reading the old editions, but I devoured this volume, because the stories were uniformly good. You can read Jonathem Lethem’s nice intro for free online (PDF).

      “Store of the Worlds” has got to be the most poignant post-apocalyptic short stories of all time.

    1. Other brilliant 50s proponents of the short story form: William Tenn, C. M. Kornbluth, PKD, Robert Sheckley, and Fritz Leiber (sometimes more fantasy)… I’ve reviewed collections of all of them 🙂

      1. Thanks. I’ve heard of Fritz Leiber as a fantasy writer, but mostly have not touched on much from this era. A few here and there. Next author I plan to read is Alastair Reynolds. I hear good things about Chasm city (standalone) and his Revelation Space trilogy. Don’t know if you’re read him at all…

      2. Well, post-1980s SF has never been my cup of tea. I generally stay away from Space Opera and Hard SF. At one point I read post-1980s SF but stopped a few years back after the painful experience of slogging through Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky (2003).

      3. Yes, I like new SF for sure. As technology progresses, I like to see that reflected in the writing, and estimates of a future revised accordingly. Though I admit there is a certain charm to the ideas of what the “far off” year 2000 would look like in the SF of the 60s. I would say just be more selective about what you read of current SF, as you are missing out on some great work otherwise. I am currently interested to read The Circle by Dave Eggers which was published this year and is set in a dystopian Silicon Valley. Stuff like the Wool trilogy is also wonderful contemporary writing, though perhaps not really something you’d define as SF. But back to your point, I think what you’re doing with your blog is brilliant and should help people exploring SF of that era.

      4. See, I’m uninterested in technology. Also, I do not believe that SF authors were always trying to “predict” the future. Rather they were trying to write good stories in the future in fascinating worlds irrespective if they might come about or not. Also, their visions of the future are often so much more commentaries on their present. If they did “predict” something correctly it is often pure coincidence…. So, these “far off years of 2000” are meant to be good stories! Not realistic imaginations… Of course, some authors — for example Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy — are more “realistic” in this regard. But 40s authors are certainly not — they have a 14 year old fan base to appease with high adventures….

        Wool = nope. I have different tastes — if it’s new I want more allegorical, literary….. Inventive.

      5. Great comments and absolutely agree. After all, stories are first and foremost about people, “the human heart in conflict with itself” and all that, and the best SF does that as well as any genre, just in another setting. Also, you certainly make a good point that they were commenting on their own situations at the time (and is still the case of course). I suppose you are right in that it is better to enjoy their world for what it is, rather than how likely it is the align with any given real world future outcome.

      6. For example, take a dystopia — any dystopia. Do we think that this dystopia will happen? Some are so utterly fantastic and contrived that they are clearly impossible. Rather, they extrapolate on some issue — some dystopic strand from our own current existence — and blow it out of proportion (on purpose of course). But they can still be good! They can still be though-provoking and intelligently written, literary etc…

        I think a LOT of readers dismiss older SF because things “didn’t turn out how they predicted.” I call that utter BS — someone utterly missing the point of writing (and SF)…. I simply do not care that a story set in the year 3000 written in 1950 still has not imagined personal computers…

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