After reading Robert Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles, I was eager to read more of his work. That novel was intelligent, creative, thought-provoking, and entertaining. So I picked up Untouched by Human Hands, a collection of Sheckley’s short stories published in the 1950s in the various pulp magazines.
My edition is the audiobook produced by Skyboat Media and read by Gabrielle de Cuir, Stefan Rudnicki, and Harlan Ellison. It’s almost 6 hours long. The stories are:
- “The Monsters” (Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, March 1953) — This is a first contact story in which friendly humans arrive on a planet inhabited by friendly aliens who have much different customs. We see the humans from the perspective of the aliens who are appalled at the morals of the humans (and vice versa). It’s meant to be outlandish and shocking as a way of highlighting the concept of moral relativism. It’s all a little obvious, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
- “Cost of Living” (Galaxy, December 1952) — To have all the latest convenience items immediately, before they can afford them, people are signing away their own and their children’s future salaries. This is clearly a commentary on rampant materialism, greed, overuse of personal credit, and a desire for an easy life of leisure.
- “The Altar” (Fantastic, July/August 1953) — Mr. Slater gets lost in his own hometown when he runs into a strange little man and agrees to help him. Then he learns that there are competing cults vying for members in his sleepy little suburb. This imaginative horror story is a bit Lovecraftian and it’s read by Harlan Ellison, which is quite a treat.
- “Keep Your Shape” (Galaxy, November 1953) — An alien species that can shape-shift is trying to invade Earth but every expedition they send to begin the invasion never reports back. They’re sending another expedition to figure out what keeps going wrong. This amusing story is about personal freedom and opportunity.
- “The Impacted Man” (Astounding Science Fiction, December 1952) — I recognized this funny story as a precursor to Sheckley’s novel Dimension of Miracles. It’s about a construction company that manufactures designer planets. When a problem arises with one of their projects, funny anomalies and paradoxes occur.
- “Untouched by Human Hands” (Galaxy, December 1953) — Two starving explorers arrive on an abandoned alien planet and need to find something to eat before they die. Fortunately, they find a warehouse full of boxes of unidentifiable items that might be food but, unfortunately, they can’t understand the writing on the crates. They try to use reason and logic to figure out what is edible and what might be poisonous.
- “The King’s Wishes” (Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, July 1953) — A couple who own an appliance store lie in wait for the burglar who keeps stealing their merchandise. When they catch him and agree to hear him out, they’re surprised by the reason he’s taking their appliances. This story is hilarious.
- “Warm” (Galaxy, June 1953) — In this uncomfortable mind-bending story, a young psychology teacher is given a glimpse of reality, without the familiar covering of “gestalt” that we use to perceive the world.
- “The Demons” (Fantasy Magazine, March 1953) — Neelsebub (Beelzebub’s great-grandson) summons a demon and it turns out to be Arthur Gammet, an insurance salesman from Earth. Neelsebub demands ten thousand pounds of gold and Arthur has to figure out how to get it before Neelsebub traps him in a bottle. This story is amusing.
- “Specialist” (Galaxy, May 1953) — The crew of an alien spaceship is made up of different types of beings with forms that are specialized for particular functions. When they lose their “pusher” they visit a “pusher” planet and try to recruit a new one, but he’s reluctant to join their galactic team. This story is about the human condition in the present and possibly in the future.
- “Seventh Victim” (Galaxy, April 1953) — In a future society, humans have solved the problem of needing an outlet for murderous aggression. Those who feel the need to kill a fellow human can do so as long as they register and participate in a hunting and killing game with others who have also registered. Our protagonist has managed to be successful in twelve matches so far but his thirteenth pits him against an opponent that he is reluctant to kill. I saw where this was going pretty early on, but I still enjoyed it. As a psychologist, I also liked thinking about Sheckley’s proposed solution to the problem of aggression.
- “Ritual” (Climax, 1953) — This silly story is about a village that is finally being visited by their gods after many years of being ignored. When the gods arrive, the villagers go through many elaborate rituals that they think show honor to the gods. Perhaps this story is about the silly protocols, parades, and ceremonies that dignitaries probably pretend to love but really hate. Or maybe it’s about the difference between true and false devotion to God.
- “Beside Still Waters” (Amazing Stories, October/November 1953) — This touching story is about an old man who lives alone on a planet with the robot he built as a companion. It’s a lovely ending to an excellent collection of stories.
It is rare to enjoy every story in a collection, but I truly did like all of these stories. They are sharp, insightful, witty, satirical, diverse, and just plain entertaining. Most of them are funny, or at least ironic. Despite being published in the early 1950’s, they don’t feel dated. That’s because they’re mostly about the human condition and we just haven’t changed that much. As a modern psychologist, I was completely engaged and found much to think about here.
Audio readers already know that Skyboat Media, Gabrielle de Cuir, Stefan Rudnicki, and Harlan Ellison are the best in the business, so I don’t need to say that this is a superb audio production with brilliant narration. I definitely recommend this edition.