Robert Sheckley, Options

Robert Sheckley’s Options is a novel that disassembles itself as you read it, and it’s amazing.

Space pilot Mishkin discovers he can go no further without an engine part. He lands at a depot looking for a replacement. Unfortunately, in the spirit of decentralization the authorities spread the parts all over the planet. Fortunately, they left a robot to guide Mishkin to the right part. Unfortunately, the robot was programmed for some other planet.

Robert Sheckley was one of SF’s great comic writers, and this looks like a recipe for a quick, funny space opera adventure. Except something’s off even before he lands: Mishkin has to argue with his equipment, browbeating his radio and control board into playing their assigned roles. The tools of science fiction are rebelling.

Mishkin trudges cross-planet. His path crosses alien monsters. They think Mishkin is a hallucination, or their multiple heads argue in Brooklyn accents. They’re neurotic and anxious. (“It would be good to remember that when making any strange contacts: The monster feels anxious.”) Mishkin’s picaresque encounters get stranger. What’s with the Duke of Melba, dumped into the story because his wife stopped believing in him? Or the guys playing poker on a narrow bridge, who think they’re in a hotel room?

We cut to a starship whose square-jawed captain and aw-shucks engineer confront a threatening alien. Luckily the captain remembers the “Martins-Turner Interpersonal Equations, which were part of the hypno-training of every human beyond Intelligence Level IV,” and is instantly rational and objective. This bit is a piss-take on A. E. Van Vogt, who loved giving his characters super-powered philosophical systems. Also John W. Campbell, whose conviction that human psychology could be solved like a math problem led him to fall hard for L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. It’s a jargon-heavy expression of hard SF’s susceptibility to Engineer’s Disease–the assumption that with a little scientific know-how a Competent Man can solve any problem, even problems of human behavior or ethics. Certainly the minor problem of finding an engine part.

When a novel introduces a new premise readers assume the new plot strand will link back to the old one. The Captain’s situation is relevant to Mishkin’s, right? It’s an implicit promise on the part of the author, practically a contractual obligation. Not this time, though. We cut again to a gaggle of godlike alien observers who decide they can’t get involved in these plots “for reasons which become apparent to you if you take a moment to do some tenth level Fournean rationalizing.” We never hear from any of these guys again.

Meanwhile, Mishkin is wandering through short, sometimes koan-like chapters. He comes upon a line of people listening to a radio saying, very quietly, “You only live once.”

The Author, “The Man of a Thousand Disguises,” is bored. The reader isn’t. The Author’s boredom inspires an ever-shifting parade of surreal scenarios, wordplay, and comic dialogue. (Sequence, he’s realized, doesn’t have to imply causation.)

The Author has written too many stories to the same expectations. He can’t make himself fulfill them anymore. He’s tired of the expectation that stories ought to follow certain structures–a three-act structure, the Save the Cat formula, whatever. And that his prose style shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic. And that his initial premise (Find that engine part!) can’t mutate or veer off in weird directions if the whim strikes, and that he must always show and never tell. Then there are the genre-specific expectations. A science fiction story must have certain elements–Sheckley is taking the piss out of Campbellian SF, so here we have xenophobia, an obsession with IQ, and engineering problems. Everything must work according to a certain kind of plot logic (No anxious monsters!). Your hero is a Competent Man who knows his Martins-Turner Interpersonal Equations.

Not all of these expectations are always bad.[1] Structures, styles, and tropes can be tools, and some tools are used a lot because they’re actually often useful. A three-act Hollywood thriller structure can be a good skeleton on which to build a unique and idiosyncratic vision, if the writer’s vision fits that skeleton.

Sheckley is not, I think, suggesting we throw out the whole concept of genre. His point is more that genre is no excuse for complacency.[2] Tools used too often can become conventional wisdom, devices used by rote. The resulting stories look like cheap mass-produced products made from interchangeable parts. They’re what the editors are buying right now. Or what the audience expects. Or what all the online writing advice says stories should look like. (Or even what all the MFA workshops say stories should look like. Preconceived expectations aren’t just for pulp fiction.)

In Sheckley’s day these stories might have been written to fill out an issue of Astounding or Worlds of If while baffling or annoying the fewest possible subscribers. These days subcultures exist dedicated to churning out “minimum viable product” space opera for Kindle Unlimited. Stories in which “for all questions there are only a small number of answers, infinitely repeated, typically banal.” Tools become clichés, clichés become sedatives. The Author doesn’t want to write another “ballet for catatonics,” demanding so little imagination from writer or audience that they could write or read it in their sleep. (Mishkin likes “story lines that you could follow while thinking of other things.”)

This isn’t a Kafka-style call for stories to “wake us up with a blow on the head.” Awakenings don’t have to be painful. All a story needs to be engaging is something unique, unexpected, to show the author was an irreproducible individual and not a committee working to a blueprint. Why not an anxious Brooklynite monster? A Duke of Melba? Some guys playing poker on a bridge?

Why tell exactly the same story again, in exactly the same style, when there are so many other options?

At this point I have caveats:

  1. I don’t want to criticize “golden age” SF exclusively. It’s not an era I enjoy–the SF I like started with the new wave. But every genre and era has tics; they’re just different tics. In some ways contemporary SF is much more diverse. In others–prose styles, structure, and types of stories and protagonists–it feels as conformist as ever.
  2. I started this review last year and never finished it. I think it was because it felt like I was restating points I’ve made in other blog posts. Everybody loves irony, right?

Anyway. Disgusted as he is, as much as he wants to blow everything up, the Author is obliged to finish his story. He can’t stick to the premise… but he’s so used to writing by rote that every other premise he tries is equally tired. Tired from his perspective, I mean; from the readers’, they’re still funny. The engine part drifts through a clichéd hard-boiled noir[3] and a clichéd scientific detective story. The Author replaces Mishkin with a conventionally heroic hero, who doesn’t last a chapter.

Discovering that “the Interstellar Space Flight Premise had been suspended,” Mishkin’s Uncle Arnold consults a company called Continuities, Inc., which promises to “create connections between incompatible assumptions… provide a link between these two different realities without doing violence to either.”

The company sends a Kasper Gutman-type agent to search a generic foreign country for the engine part. We actually catch a glimpse of the damn thing. But it’s embedded in another string of bad pulp clichés, a secondhand protagonist wandering a generically “exotic” landscape. The story comes to another abrupt halt when the agent falls deathly ill. Mortality puts the story in perspective: “It has taken us many years to pay attention to what is important.” The engine part isn’t important. Mishkin’s last option has run out.

Options is a cry of frustration with generic extruded fiction product designed to fill time as frictionlessly and forgettably as possible. Pulp fiction, light reading, comfort fiction, whatever you want to call it–it’s art, as much as even the most avant-garde litfic. Not great art, but it’s an expression of a particular person’s unique point of view. Or it ought to be. Even “just entertainment” has to be, fundamentally, not a waste of its author’s or its audience’s time. Is entertainment doing its job if it isn’t surprising and engaging–in other words, if it isn’t fun?

Well, I’m still having fun–when I find the right books. Sheckley’s Author isn’t so lucky; he’s stuck writing the wrong ones. He can’t find a way out except to “walk away, simply leave a situation unresolved, its riddles unanswered.” (Sometimes the unanswered riddles–the ones that leave you with something to ponder–are the best kind.)

The only option the Author has left is to reimagine Mishkin as a kid playing pretend, whose story ends suddenly and happily when he’s called in to dinner by his mother. It’s an ending that hints at what makes Sheckley’s work great, and what the Author needs to rediscover to get out of his rut: a sense of play.


  1. Although the toxicity of the Campbellian Competent Man is never-ending: It’s the default philosophy of 21st century tech-dudebros, who never met a problem they couldn’t fix with blockchain, VR, and Soylent.  ↩

  2. It’s like mystery novels. They’re almost all written to exactly the same template–kill someone, scatter clues, wrap things up with an explanation. I still read piles of them. But the ones I finish are always the ones where the writers had something new to try, or something they wanted to express beyond “I need the money.”  ↩

  3. Featuring a “Johnny Allegro.” There was an actual movie by that name; it starred George Raft.  ↩

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