Science fiction writer Robert Sheckley was born in New York City in 1928 and died there in 2005. He lived most of the intervening years in the United States. And yet, he was never more than a moderate success in his native land.
His short stories attained some popularity, with a few being adapted into lesser movies and television episodes, but Sheckley was never a major force critically or commercially. Many well-read science fiction fans will reply to his surname with a blank “Who?”. And even those who have heard of Sheckley can be forgiven for failing to come up with a single novel he authored. He had 2 Hugo nominations but no wins, and didn’t come close to the success of two of his co-authors, Harry Harrison and Harlan Ellison. My local library had only one of his books back in 2003. Now, it has none.
And yet, in a country where Sheckley never lived, the Soviet Union, he is regarded as a legend of the genre. My parents and all their friends talked about ravenously reading anything they could find by him in 70s and 80s Moscow. Many Sheckley works practically unavailable in English are easily found in a Russian online library. Even posthumously, his reputation remains high. In a Russian-language discussion last year featuring many younger respondents, they were asked to name the three greatest science fiction writers ever. Sheckley was among the first names, and perhaps the one mentioned most often, right up there with Heinlein and Asimov. Curiously, another major discrepancy compared to any English-language list is the almost total absence of Clarke. Fittingly, one of Sheckley’s last public appearances was at a Ukrainian science fiction convention in early 2005.
What accounts for this massive difference in Sheckley’s reputation? His stories were not set in or related to the Soviet Union. The writing is imaginative and action-packed, but so is that of many other American science fiction writers. Some of Sheckley’s short fiction, with their humor and devilish twist endings, remind me of the quintessentially American O. Henry.
And that, I believe, is connected to his popularity in my birth country. Sheckley was a master of black humor. Some of his works, whose comical, adventurous style reminds me of frequent co-writer Harry Harrison, became utterly terrifying and grim in the last few paragraphs. Paragraphs completely consistent with everything else in the tale, which makes them especially horrifying and memorable. A fine example is Welcome to the Standard Nightmare, a first encounter story about a space explorer coming upon a pacifist, friendly, idealistic humanoid alien civilization. The boisterous, hilarious romp ends with a portent of certain doom based on nothing more than the last few lines.
This quality, so rare among Western writers, combined with the excitement and humor of his tales, is what makes Sheckley uniquely attractive to a Soviet audience. There is an excellent comparison to be made to The Twelve Chairs and the Czech The Good Soldier Švejk, two of the most widely read, beloved classics in the Soviet Union during the 20th century. At certain points in Soviet history, if one was unfamiliar with either work, they were either considered an illiterate idiot or a foreign, capitalist spy. Possibly both.
Those two are also masterpieces which are as brilliantly humorous as they are dark. And that, I believe, is the core of Sheckley’s appeal. If the reader wishes to see whether Sheckley is underrated in the US or overrated in countries of the former Soviet Union, Project Gutenberg has a number of his works. While the short stories are from his earlier years and don’t fully represent his powers at their peak (although all are at least decent, and Watchbird, Diplomatic Immunity, and Bad Medicine are highly recommended), there is one full novel, The Status Civilization, which I encourage every science fiction fan to read.