A few years ago, I had to downsize from a substantial quasi-semi to a pokey little Council flat where space is at a premium. I had to cull things like my book collection, and a large part of it is still bagged up and stacked in unobtrusive corners, where it isn’t easily accessible. Periodically, I shift things around: looking for books I haven’t read in some time, reminding myself of things I have, checking to see if the length of time they’ve been put away without me missing them means I should get rid.
My most recent trawl has brought Robert Sheckley’s Options to light again, and I’ve re-read it with my usual enjoyment: that is not a book that’s ever in danger of being moved on.
Sheckley’s another one of those SF writers who used to be in every bookshop, represented by a title or two, but who’s slipped from sight, and publication and is now being forgotten. Yet he used to be known as one of the funniest SF writers, a master of absurdity, purveyor of slapstick and satire. Indeed, after the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, most SF fans assumed Douglas Adams was a fan of Sheck, though it turned out Adams had never heard of him (and when he did read Sheckley, was gracious enough to say that he had no idea the competition was so terrifyingly good).
I became a Sheckley fan in February 1977, with three books in the same day. I had a job interview in Cambridge which would involve three trains each way and over six hours travelling. To keep myself occupied, at Piccadilly I bought two cheap paperbacks (all paperbacks were cheap in those days). One was a novelisation of a recent series of The Good Life, and for the other I took a punt on Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles, attracted by its blurb and the first few pages.
The book was about an ordinary, unassuming human, Thomas Carmody, who wins a prize in an inter-galactic lottery and is taken to Lottery Headquarters to collect it. It turns out the award is a mistake, the Prize – which is of no use to him – should have gone to another alien, but he stubbornly refuses to release it. And that by leaving his own sphere, he has caused the Universe to create a new predator, one whose prey is Carmodys. Then he finds it’s up to him to make his own way home…
I read, I enjoyed, I laughed. However, between them the two books only got me to Cambridge so, on the way back to the station, I went into a big bookshop, found the SF section and came out with two more Sheckley’s, for the return journey.
These were Mindswap, a similarly episodic comic quest, this time about a human who can only achieve his dream of visiting Mars by effectively babysitting the body of a Martian who needs to visit Earth, only for the Martian to run off, stranding him in a Martian body, and The Same to you, Doubled, a collection of short stories.
So I became a Sheckley fan, for at least the next decade, picking up whatever books I could, including a couple of new novels which showed an increasing willingness to breach the Fourth Wall (one such story featured a Royal Family whose regal power was to expel uppity characters who tried to force their way to the centre of the story…).
But, as with so many writers, time and tastes changed as I grew older, and I moved on my collection, except for Options.
It’s a book about which I have always found it difficult to find other opinions, and those I have come across have been universally negative, and negative in a manner that suggests to me that the writers have completely missed the point of the book, which is a deliberate, cosmic shambles, an explosion or disintegration of story logic, a comedy of clichés and crossed lines and a joke on the very act of story-telling. I think it’s brilliant, I think it works perfectly, I think it’s a great goof. Everybody else seems to take it seriously, at which it is an abject, confusing failure.
It’s also next to unreviewable, which is another part of its strange charm.
Let’s establish what the story is, ostensibly, about. In it’s beginnings, it’s apparently a Hard SF story, of spaceships, alien planets and robots. Tom Mishkin is a spaceship pilot, piloting a supplies rocket to a distant colony: in short, an interstellar truck-driver. When a small but vital engine part fails due to metal fatigue, the ship is threatened with destruction.
However, mankind has established caches of spare parts on various planets, against such instances, and Mishkin directs his ship to the nearest one, on Harmonia II. However, with typical bureaucratic logic, to avoid the disaster of a crippled ship landing on the (supermarket-like) stores cache and wiping everything out, the parts have been distributed in various decentralised locations. Mishkin’s part is twenty miles away.
To assist him in combating the dangers of an alien planet, Mishkin is equipped with an SPER, or Special Purpose Environmental Response robot, to guard him against local dangers. Mishkin and the robot set off. Unfortunately, the robot is programmed for the surface of Darbis IV, not Harmonia II. The two press on.
That’s about as far as it’s possible to go in describing Options as a sequential, logically constructed tale, because from this point on, any semblance of story logic breaks down, with increasingly wide effects. Characters and settings appear and disappear with no relation to the supposed story, reality changes over and over again. Things happen and don’t happen.
Sometimes, the ‘plot’ asserts itself again: Mishkin orders the missing part from a businessman who appears out of nowhere, complete with reviews in the Village Voice, and pays by credit card. An hour later, a motorcycle despatch rider comes weaving through the trees, carrying the engine part. Fifty yards from Mishkin, he drives over a land-mine and is blown up.
Others are just simply surreal. The Duke and Duchess of Melba both enter the story, but she says she doesn’t believe in him, and he disappears. He then reappears alongside Mishkin and the robot, complaining about the castrating effect of his wife’s actions. He then transforms himself physically, into a terribly handsome figure. She reappears, transforms herself into a sexpot, and the two go off together, never to be seen again.
Then there’s the bit with the magician, who is literally doing it with mirrors, very prominently placed mirrors. Mishkin is naively fascinated, the robot utterly sceptical, even though what the magician is doing is truly spectacularly – including sawing a woman in half with a chainsaw and a team of surgeons busily repairing her in the wake of each cut.
It’s not like Sheckley doesn’t warn us. Before the book even starts there is a notice that the rules of normalcy are being suspended and maybe the author can take the reader for a ride. And we’re given notice very early on as to what that may mean: the book is written in numbered sections of wildly varying lengths and whilst sections 1 and 3 are pretty straight SF, setting up the supposed story, in between is an hallucinatory, surreal section as reality breaks down, the controls talk to themselves and Mishkin goes off into what is evidently a drugs trip. It’s a warning.
As the logical structure of the story breaks down, the author tries ever more feverishly to negotiate Mishkin and the engine part together. The author appears in his own book, sacking Mishkin and replacing him with the New Hero, who isn’t interested in the story and doesn’t work out.
He evens brings ‘Part 1’ to an end, three-quarters of the way through the book, and starts again in a completely different place on Earth, with a brand new set of characters who have no seeming resemblance to anything that has gone before but who, eventually, turn out to be trying to organise the delivery of that damned engine part, except that the guy contracts cholera and loses interest..
This brings things to an end: exhausted and bereft of ideas, the author apologises to Mishkin and gives up, leaving him forever stranded.
If, that is, he actually ever existed.
I love this book. It’s impossible to properly describe, it can only be experienced by being read, but it needs to be read as what it is. Don’t go into this expecting a beginning, middle and end, in any order! Just go with the flow, accept the fun Sheckley is having, and don’t try to impose an order on it. What does it say about you that you so desperately want Mishkin to find that engine part? Shouldn’t you be more concerned with your own trip, whatever that is?