Whenever I think of Robert Sheckley, I picture him in the living room of my one-bedroom apartment, hunched over on the futon I called a couch, elbow on one knee, hand caressing his chin. He was always a gaunt man, with wide sad eyes that seemed to see everything. That particular afternoon, he attended a writer's business meeting that I had started a few months before. We weren't part of any organization; I had just hoped to get a group of freelance writers together so that we could figure out how to plan our income (or lack of it), our time, and our projects.
This was 1988 or 1989. Bob was easily the most experienced person in the room. He offered gentle suggestions, little nuggets of experience, but mostly he listened to the rest of us flail around, trying to figure out how to survive in the strange world of publishing.
At that point, he'd survived in it for thirty-seven years. When I asked him why he came to the meetings to listen to relatively new writers talk about their projects, he said, "There's always something to learn."
There's always something to learn. That simple sentence is, I think, why he survived so long in the very difficult world of publishing. Bob's good friend, Harlan Ellison, once told me that becoming a writer is easy; remaining one is hard.
Robert Sheckley was a writer for his entire life. In a career that eventually spanned 53 years, he sold more than 40 novels and more short stories than he could count. He wrote for radio, television, and the movies. He wrote non-fiction and edited Omni magazine's short fiction for two short (too short) years before deciding that corporate life wasn't for him.
He had four children. He traveled all over the world, knew so many interesting people that they couldn't be listed here, and spoke at a variety of conferences.
Europe seemed to value him more than we did. He was guest of honor at a convention in Eastern Europe when he took sick in early 2005, and because of that, couldn't attend Worldcon in Glasgow, where he was also supposed to be guest of honor. He tended to disappear at U. S. science fiction conventions—at least the ones in his home state of Oregon. People would nod to him, and he'd nod back, but the U.S. crowd seemed to think he'd be around forever.
But what he left behind...
Oh, what he left behind. Stories, novels, and ideas. The wacky, amazing ideas. I first discovered Robert Sheckley in the short form. I read all of his short story collections when I was a girl, looking for good fiction at the Carnegie Library in Superior, Wisconsin. When I finally met Bob, I was speechless because his work—his imagination, his mastery, and his sense of humor—had influenced me more than I could say.
I'm not the only writer influenced by him. Anyone who has been labeled "gonzo", whose work receives the praise of having "wild flights of imagination" is channeling Robert Sheckley. He was the sf field's first and best comic writer, yet he often wrote serious and riveting stories as well. He taught us that science fiction isn't just about rockets and rayguns, but it is also a way of thinking, a different form of expression.
Yet as I write this, I can't list a single story. I did my homework; I wrote down all the famous stories, the famous novels. But none of those are my favorites (except for his first collaborative novel with Roger Zelazny, Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming—whose very title still makes me smile). My favorites come in imagery and remembered bits, in the entire works assembled for the various collections. They all seem of a piece to me.
In the early 1990s, when I edited everything that came out of Pulphouse Publishing, before I became editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I supervised a large project that we called The Collected Robert Sheckley. The intent was to collect all of Bob's short fiction in one place.
I soon learned what an impossible task that would be. Bob's filing system was, at times in his life, completely non-existent. He would remember stories that he had published that he no longer had copies of—stories he no longer knew the names to.
We were sitting on a couch at a workshop at Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm's house in Eugene, Oregon, when Bob turned to me.
"You know," he said in wonder, "I wrote a short story a week for a radio program in the 1950s."
"Great," I said. "They need to be in the collection. Do you have copies?"
"No," he said.
"Are they archived or collected anywhere?"
"What was the name of the radio show?" I asked, thinking maybe there'd be audio versions somewhere, and someone could transcribe them.
"Oh, dear," he said. "I really don't remember."
And try as he might over the year we put together the Collected Sheckley, he couldn't remember the name of that show. He remembered others along the way, and different projects, and places where he'd published short fiction, now lost to time. Finally, I gave up—it would have taken a decade to put together the true Collected Sheckley; a decade and a true archivist, someone who knew how to look up everything and search for that missing carbon copy of a story that Bob couldn't remember the name to. We put together a book that my husband and the publisher of Pulphouse, Dean Wesley Smith, still calls the Selected Robert Sheckley, because we were never able to get everything.
I worry about that sometimes. I wonder if our publishing deadlines ruined the last chance to collect all of Bob's stories. If we had had the time, we might have put together the definitive work.
But we didn't, and he didn't, and eventually Pulphouse shut down, and Bob moved from Oregon back to New York, and we didn't see him as often.
He died, after hiking from his home to the nearby town, his ever-present pack on his back, filled (as always) with books. He was still finding something to learn, even to the very end.
For more on Robert Sheckley, go to his website, www.sheckley.com. There you'll find his biography and bibliography as well as some video clips.