And there he was, flip-flop-wearing international traveler and Zen commentator, master of the absurd, creator of galactic humor, struck by enough beams of morning sunlight to easily qualify as satirically brilliant, calmly shuffling towards me through the early-morning airport arrival throngs. I met Robert Sheckley in Madrid, Spain, on July 5th, during the eternally science-fictional 2000. I imagine those words might have caused my younger self to quiver at the prospect. If I'd only known back then: You will meet Robert Sheckley in the year 2000. It almost sounds like a prophecy, doesn't it? (Though far from foreboding—
My family, a friend and myself spent the day with this generous writer, speaking of music, books, films, relationships, travels, attitudes, work-habits, philosophy, walking for a few delightful hours through Madrid's sunny "El Retiro," exchanging stories and getting to know one another all through the evening.
The next day Sheckley would set out for Gijon, to partake in the cultural Semana Negra; and he had vague plans to eventually visit Ibiza again, the place where he had spent several years in the 1970s, living among a "colony of artists." I'm not sure that he ever made it back there. When he departed on July 6th, it was the last time I saw him.
We corresponded, more sporadically perhaps than either of us would have liked, throughout the next few years; the last message I have from him is from September 2004. He was travelling a lot at the time, visiting fans and making friends in Bulgaria, where he was Guest of Honor in Eurocon, and in the Ukraine the following year. After complications of a brain aneurysm he died in 2005, in Poughkeepsie, NY. Based on the time I spent with him, I can attest that the following is certainly true: "A shambling, stammering man, always genial, endlessly kind, he made friends in every country he visited" (Priest). I'm fortunate to count myself among them.
Sheckley once described his life as a never-ending plummet:
Life to me is like falling down stairs; you keep falling through situations; you put out your hand to keep from banging against the wall . . . (Platt 24)
If anyone could discover a way to bend spacetime so that he might continue to fall through the abyss forever—
Sheckley gave it to me in the airport, before we had gotten underway and met his group of fellow travelers and hotel guests. A slim trade paperback, elegantly printed, sturdily bound: Dimension of Miracles Revisited, a sequel to one of his most famous novels, Dimension of Miracles.
Thirty-two years after the original, Sheckley returned to the story of Tom Carmody and the Galactic Center. He had traveled a long way during those three decades (passing through enough continents, marriages, contracts, awards, and opinions to wallpaper over several lifetimes). Why did he choose to re-examine one of his most dazzling, philosophical, sly and witty novels, a staple work from 1968? What new things did he have to say about the old, and what flashes of the old might still be gleaned in the new?
When Dimension of Miracles (DoM) appeared in 1968, it did not go unnoticed. Sheckley had forged his reputation primarily as a short-story writer of extraordinary elegance and bite over the previous two decades. His first story, "Final Examination," appeared in the May 1952 issue of Imagination, and the immensely prolific writer sold about seventy more stories by the time he published his first collection, Untouched by Human Hands, two years later. By the time of DoM we can conservatively estimate he had published one hundred and fifty short stories (and perhaps droves more under pseudonyms). Many of these short works which elicited strong favorable responses from the audience and reviewers appeared in Galaxy magazine. The techniques Sheckley employed to great success in his short fiction, however, were not always well-suited to longer works.
In 1956, Anthony Boucher had declared that "no-one [...] is so deft as Sheckley in using interplanetary fiction as a vehicle for Gilbertian satire, topsy-turvy, shrewd, and wholly captivating" (Boucher). More recently, this short work has been assessed as being "urbane and clever and witty with a veneer of sophisticated, as if Sheckley were trying to imitate P. G. Wodehouse (though his fiction was more like Henry Kuttner's), but Sheckley's strength was his sheer lack of sophistication—
Sheckley had published six SF novels prior to DoM, and an equal number that could be described as "espionage" or "mystery" thrillers. This is significant, for it demonstrates from the outset that while Sheckley had envisioned SF as the perfect forum for polished excursions into the oft-visited theme that "man's worst enemy is himself" (Ashley 3, 109), he did not esteem the potential of the genre for longer works in the same way. It could be argued that Sheckley's non-SF novels were merely part of a commercial enterprise, exercises in rent payment, but reading works like The Game of X at once reveals that this is not the case. While we may not be sure as to Sheckley's primary motivation in writing this type of fiction (and Sheckley himself did not appear to be able to articulate a simple answer to the question), we can say with certainty that there is much to recommend in it, and that it cannot be dismissed as facile hackwork. In a sense, the plotting in some of these non-SF works almost seems to be integrated more smoothly into the narrative than in their SF counterparts, as though by unburdening himself from the task of having to hold up a critical mirror to society and humanity, Sheckley relaxed enough to be able to engage in more naturalist—
We now have an understanding of Sheckley's early trajectory prior to DoM, and therefore of the context into which it was born: a plethora of stories which had garnered him high praise and which have become canonical in the history of SF, and a dozen novels, spread evenly between the genres of SF and mystery/adventure. DoM occupies a curious position in Sheckley's career, poised as it is on the brink of his seven year novelistic silence (he would not publish another novel until the disappointing Options of 1975), and arriving at the end of a decade of dramatic cultural and social change and experimentation.
It is not surprising, therefore, that DoM received attention. It was the only Sheckley novel that Brian Aldiss mentioned by name in his commentary on his work in Billion Year Spree, in which he quoted several paragraphs of it: it received a three-page entry in the four-volume Survey of Science-Fiction Literature, again the only Sheckley piece to do so: and it was reviewed widely, including by Publisher's Weekly and Times Literary Supplement.
Jump forward to the year 2000. The contrast of the above with the world which saw the birth of Sheckley's sequel, Dimension of Miracles Revisted (DoMR), could not be more dramatic. During 1995 to 1999 Sheckley had published three media tie-ins; the more "authentic" elements that followers of his work might enjoy sit uneasily with the shared Universes they supposedly inhabit (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Laertian Gamble, in particular, violates not only consistency with the established characters but with the feel of the Star Trek mythos), and they are on the whole unremarkable. Outside of these tie-ins and several collaborations (one with Harry Harrison, and the Millennial Contest trilogy with Roger Zelazny), he also published a series of three mystery novels, perhaps his most consistent and enjoyable work during this phase of his career. (And there was, at least vicariously through these fictions, a return to Ibiza after all, through the character of Hob Draconian). When one considers our genre, the decade of the 1990s saw one legitimate new title, published in 1997: Godshome. This absurdist, fantastical novel, contains many of the by-now "trademark" motifs of the best of Sheckley's earlier work and achieves genuine hilarity during several scenes, but it appears to undo itself structurally in the second half, with a dizzying cast of cipher-like characters (gods) and a parade of visual spectacles that feel desultory, despite the purported wonder: not all the jokes land. Gerald Jonas described it as "a whimsical fantasy with scientific trappings" but went on to warn that "in places the whimsy gets as thick as week-old goulash" (Jonas). Another review was equally on-point: "Afflicted with adolescent-style cynicism, jerky pacing and a good deal of silliness, Sheckley's latest (The Alternative Detective) fails to measure up to his usual standard" (PW).
The context here is therefore one of moderate success and at least in part an attempt to recapture the enchantment of the past (Sheckley was more successful on this front in his short work, producing a string of stories as accomplished as those from any earlier years, and in some cases more touching). According to one tribute website (DoS), there was one additional novel, The Grand Guignol of the Surrealists, that was never published in English, though it may have been made available in Italy, Russia and Poland. Whatever resistance Sheckley may have encountered to publishing this work in English may have also been at large when he wrote DoMR, a self-published novel. (Publishers, according to at least one source, were not interested in it because of its length; the non-commercial nature of the story may have also been responsible.) It received almost no recognition and Sheckley probably never printed more than fifty copies, which he sold through his website and at conventions.
Where is Earth?
On the surface, DoM tells a straightforward story. Everyman Tom Carmody wins an intergalactic Prize, and upon claiming it finds himself unable to return to his native Earth. The novel is divided into five parts: Departure from Earth, Where is Earth?, When is Earth?, Which is Earth?, The Return to Earth. The second through fourth form the core, and this arrangement of the material, bracketed by a departure and a return, presents a certain symmetry of structure that contributes to its overall aesthetic and to the notion that, no matter how far we may think we're veering off any conventional narrative course, we are traveling safely in the hands of a storyteller who is navigating us to a destination.
Sheckley's depiction of Carmody is short, particular enough so that Carmody anchors the stupendous events to follow, but not sufficiently deep so that his emotional reactions dominate over the philosophical play. Carmody will display precisely the right combination of ingenuity, ignorance and openness to new ideas to deflate and surpass all the travails he encounters. At the novel's opening, the characters around him are described as sardonic and unperceptive –- as readers we therefore don't feel overly anguished by Carmody's extraction from his life, and are able to appreciate the proceedings from a detached perspective.
Throughout the novel Carmody's encounters "miracles," or events so advanced they are indistinguishable from magic, as will fulfill the title. But there is at least one additional miracle mentioned early on that bears elaboration: "He shared the common human hallmark: he was simultaneously predictable and unfathomable—
A Messenger from the Intergalactic Sweepstakes appears (the Biblical imagery is explicit: "thunder and lightning" [DoM 5]) to announce Carmody's win, and by the end of the first section, Sheckley has deployed a number of clever metaphors and philosophical observations (these will often take the form of Theorems or Laws, invoking and parodying scientific knowledge) that make his strategy clear. Consider the following, which deconstruct habitual novelistic conventions: "Very few humans (except the insane ones) accept the premise of insanity in favor of a startling new hypothesis" (DoM 9), and "he noticed other things, which, for lack of analogizing referents, failed to register" (DoM 11).
An argument may also be made that from this initial section emerge the novel's main considerations (themes may be too strong a term, considering the relativism on display). Indeed, Sheckley excels in being non-committal and admonishing a kind of decentralization of ideas. "I could and would argue any side of any question," he once said. "But that was because it was a game of words. I've never had strong convictions about things because I see how fast they change, and there is something to be said on all sides of any topic" (Platt 21). One consideration appears in the shape of Holgee's Theorem: "Order is merely a primitive and arbitrary relational grouping of objects in the chaos of the universe, and that, if a being's intelligence and power approached maximum, his coefficient of control (considered as the product of intelligence and power, and expressed by the symbol ing) would approach minimum—
When is Earth?
Thematic and philosophical highlights of Carmody's tour in this section include:
- The question of whether there is any sense in worshipping a deity. "Why in God's name should a God be praised if he is only performing his Godly function?" (DoM 49).
- Predation is a universal phenomenon, and escaping one's natural habitat will in fact invoke the creation of a new, custom-designed predator. "The Law of Predation, which can be stated as follows: any given species, no matter how high or how low, feeds upon one or more species and is fed upon by one or more species" (DoM 60). Death itself, then, may be viewed as nothing more than such a predator, "a personification and solidification of the universal law" (DoM 61).
Possibly one of the most memorable of Sheckley's inventions is the dilemma of Melichrone, an autochtonous godlike being whose challenge to Carmody is to explain the function of itself to itself. In understanding all of Melichrone's failed attempts to imbue his existence with meaning, we again get the sense that apprehending reality-as-is leads to a reduction of emotion and art. Melichrone undergoes an intellectual phase, which he ultimately rejects because it is too "dry," and an artistic phase, which is also abandoned: "My grasp of the actual is too complete to allow me to bother seriously with the representational" (DoM 53-54). Omnipotence renders art meaningless. The solution to Melichrone's conundrum of purpose turns out to be unexpectedly humanistic: "Use all of your great gifts [...] in the service of others, since this is your deepest desire" (DoM 56).
If Sheckley attacks religious worship, he doesn't leave atheism, determinism, empiricism, free will, and the manipulative power of language untouched. ("[Covenant] was the word he always used for 'contract.' It meant the same thing, but sounded better" [DoM 83].) Carmody encounters Maudsley, who turns out to be the architect of Earth and inventor of science. This creator is described as "moody, peevish and subtle" (DoM 90) and pontificates on the ability to narrow his worker's understanding of the Universe by focusing their attentions on its empirical mechanism—
The characteristics of human beings, then, seem to be small; it's only natural that as a result we should not be able to fully grasp the wonders around us. This can be read as a criticism of SF's promise, as well, a disillusion with its squandered possibilities: "One's sense of wonder, he realized, is only capable of a small amount of appreciation" (DoM 97) By imposing high expectations on life—
When is Earth? Which is Earth? The Return to Earth
The following three sections, though still containing plenty of fanciful thought-experiments, outlandish scenarios, witticisms, and leading up to a character-driven conclusion, aren't as sharp or as tightly packed as the preceding. In fact, the last chapter of the second section presages these technical blemishes, by duplicating exposition regarding the necessity of a predator. Redundancy in a long novel can often be overlooked and may even be helpful; in a balancing act as delicate as the one Sheckley proposes, it feels like a misdemeanor. The third section contains a surreal but rather dull set of conversations with dinosaurs. But one still finds deft touches, sparkling reminders of the unpredictability and fickleness of the novel's foundations, like the implicit suggestion of nihilism as a successful strategy in adapting to new ideas ("Carmody had no difficulty in adjusting to this concept; he never even tried" [DoM 130].) or the unification of reality with fantasy. ("'Strictly speaking,' Seethwright went on, 'there is no important difference between imaginary and real events. The opposition you create between them is entirely verbal'" [DoM 146].) The third section also contains what may well be the most explicit prescription of the perceptual detachment we have alluded to previously:
"You want me to tell you why reality is the way it is," Seethwright said. "But there is no explanation for that. You must simply learn to fit your preconceptions to what you find. You must not expect reality to adapt itself to you, except very infrequently" (DoM 147).
In the fourth section, Carmody's experiences with the approbation-seeking intelligent city of Bellwether feel dragged out, and not as intensely imagined as earlier events. "Depersonalization" is used to describe the age (DoM 163), and the inherent instability of relativism leads to notes of ultimate alienation from the universe: "This was his home, insofar as he had a home anywhere" (DoM 189). Other comments on society ("Laissez-faire becomes a doctrine of the emotions, you know, and leads nonstop to anomie" [DoM 164].) seem less inspired than usual. Even the revelations of a self-depredating Prize and an alternative Earth in which human use advertising slogans as part of everyday speech feel too pat and contrived to deliver knock-out punches.
The final section, however, more than compensates for these sags. In search of his native Earth, Carmody visits several alternative realities which provide parodies of the hippie culture and of celebrities. Sheckley very specifically identifies that Carmody "moved in a direction best characterized as 'down,' through the myriad potentialities of Earth, and into the clustered improbabilities, and finally into the serried ranges of the constructed impossibilities" (DoM 202). This downward movement has several connotations, not least of which is its implied contrast with an ascension or elevation of the spirit or mind to higher realms of knowledge or experience. Carmody, perhaps, is moving contrariwise, finally un-learning what the conventional world has taught him by taking stock of his experiences of the farcical; rather than getting closer and closer to his point of origin, he is becoming more and more distant from it. (Recall also Sheckley's own professed sense of life being like "falling down stairs.") This is the perfect stage for the ending of internal realization that Sheckley will deliver, which feels neither narrowed by the conventional expectations of a quest tale (Carmody finds home and all is well) nor overly loosened by the possibilities of an intellectual game (Carmody is unchanged and the narrative stops, perhaps relishing some final contention). Instead, Carmody's search for Earth (meaning, interpretation, a mode of existence) continues, but only after a personal re-invention which makes this kind of sustained metaphysical endeavor possible. For Carmody is so transformed by his final insight that his continuing search now becomes necessary, indeed existentially inevitable—
The King of Infinite Space
In 1954, Sheckley wrote: "I particularly enjoy working in the fantasy-science-fiction vein. No other category can offer so much scope to a writer. The field can, and does, embrace everything from wildly romantic adventure to satire and social-commentary techniques and approaches. This freedom from a rigid formula is one of the best things about science fiction. I hope it stays that way" (Sheckley, Untouched 170). It's interesting to observe how this cautious optimism was reevaluated over the years. In an online video interview from 2000, the year in which DoMR was published, Sheckley comments that:
I may have used up my own response to a great deal of science fiction. I need to search for new things to say. [...] When I was young it seemed a new and wonderful world and I would give anything to be a part of it. Now I'm a part of it—
and what happens next? (RSMIF)
This sense of exhaustion with the vernacular of SF makes itself abundantly clear in DoMR, which is SF only by its referential relationship to the conventions of many SF stories, which it often sidesteps and mocks. Before examining the sequel's possible merits, one item should be disclosed for anyone who seeks out the text: the novel, as it stands, contains typographical errors, logical inconsistencies, confusing scene transitions, expository redundancies and stylistic repetitions. Clearly, it would have benefited from further revision, either at the hands of a professional editor or by Sheckley himself. Nonetheless, one may gather from the text at least the raw materials (and in a few scenes the fully polished product) of DoMR.
The plot, if the book can be said to possess one, involves events in the life of the King of Infinite Space who, through a dream, receives the impulse to summon Tom Carmody and thereafter abandons his kingly palace for the purpose of this encounter.
From the outset, DoMR lacks DoM's clear structural delineation, consisting instead of a succession of short chapters not grouped in any particular fashion. The narrative's point of view is also ever-shifting; unlike DoM, which was centered around Tom Carmody's journey, DoMR concerns itself at times exclusively with the King, in others moments with Tom, and in others still with secondary characters such as Robin or Baron Corvo. This makes for a less focused, less immersive experience, and though Sheckley's chapter transitions may be accompanied by jolting changes of the backdrop in DoM, they are not nearly as abrupt as those in DoMR. The novel appears to be about the King, and preoccupies itself with his situation for its first quarter; it then shifts to the story of Tom Carmody. Further and more intense storyline fragmentation ensues, chronicling multiple zigzag adventures propelled by implausible and self-parodying McGuffins; the King only re-appears ten pages before the novel's conclusion, and while there is an ending of sorts, it does not resolve its numerous plot-threads nor does it provide any kind of closure to the character's travels. In short, it is difficult to summarize DoMR as much for its lack of linear plot as for its lack of cohesive, unifying questions and approaches.
DoMR exists as a sequel in that it uses characters and settings we already know, but it exists as an independent work in that it does not causally develop them from what came before, and at times violates the consistency of the first novel's chronology (when we first meet Tom, for example, he does not remember the Galactic Center). By the mid-point this is explicit: "[...] the Caveat, known in a previous incarnation as The Prize [...]" (DoMR 105). Perhaps the most consistent feeling is one of nostalgia. In the first chapters, we are told that characters who once interacted with Tom remembered and "asked about him" (DoMR 6)—
But that is not to say that the novel lacks individual moments of interest, nor that it does not contain very funny passages and flashes of heightened attention to language. One noteworthy instance involves Sheckley's refutation of a literal reading of Delmore Schwartz's famous story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" ("The schlemiel who said that was talking through his tuckas. [...] The fact is, we don't dream, we are dreamed, and it's not our fault" [DoMR 75]) and a trivialization of Frederick Nietzsche ("[...] with his crazy Zarathustra schtick" [DoMR 75].), whom Sheckley had quoted directly in the epigraph of DoM. There are allusions to artists (such as the Surrealist Jean Cocteau) and to Norse mythology, but neither feel elegantly integrated into the story. Additional throwaway observations come dangerously close to heavy-handed social commentary ("[...] because it seemed to Tom that Galactic Central was likely to have an enlightened attitude toward chemical intoxication [...] [DoMR 108], "It is one of the ways our government keeps track of everybody. They can access anyone at any time" [DoMR 117]). Authorial intrusions, changes in tense, bizarre turns of events, inexplicable character motivations, a sub-plot in which Tom saves an alien who has arrived "by dream" at the Galatic Center and thereafter carries him inside his mind, and even a brief slip into stream-of-consciousness further weaken the novel. And the ending, though at least returning to the King and satisfying a minimal sense of symmetry, offers little new insight over the original's masterful conclusion: "What should be is a function of What Happens Next. Every man must, when he is ripe, invent for himself what happens next, and decide for himself what it means" (DoMR 213).
We have seen Sheckley excel at the development of subtle and startlingly self-consistent ideas, with bravura inversions of our customs and sociological assumptions. It has been written that "Logic taken to its most absurd conclusions is the hallmark of a Sheckley book" (Magill 540). Perhaps Sheckley's most successful ploy is to construct conceits so removed from what we are accustomed to, and to convey them with such an effortless sense of naturalness that we have no choice but to question the —
It is no great loss that DoMR is commercially unavailable, for it contributes little to the Sheckley canon or to the world of SF and ideas at large. It is most instructive, perhaps, as a work of transition, an experimental attempt to break away from the prior techniques and modes which made Sheckley so successful. It is regrettable, at the very least, that we will never see a fully-realized post-transitional work. And we may take stock in Sheckley's own words regarding the summation of his career, if only to disagree with him gently on his concluding thought: "I'm satisfied with what I've done, yes. I have no other choice, really." As readers we have all the choice in the world, and we are no less satisfied for it.