In “Sarkanger,” Gregor and Arnold of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Corporation take on an extermination job on Sarkan. Things get surprisingly complicated when the target vermin start arguing about who should be wiped out.
The ten other stories in this collection are “At the Conference of the Birds,” “The Destruction of Atlantis,” “Dial-a-Death,” “Divine Intervention,” “Love Song from the Stars,” “Message from Hell,” “The Necessary Thing,” “Robotvendor Rex,” “There Will Be No War after This One,” and “Wormworld.”
From the very beginning of his career, Robert Sheckley was recognized by fans, reviewers, and fellow authors as a master storyteller and the wittiest satirist working in the science fiction field. Open Road is proud to republish his acclaimed body of work, with nearly thirty volumes of full-length fiction and short story collections. Rediscover, or discover for the first time, a master of science fiction who, according to the New York Times, was “a precursor to Douglas Adams.”
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Robert Sheckley was one of the funniest writers in the history of science fiction. He did screwball comedy, broad satire, and farce. He could also be deadly serious, but he was always entertaining and always had something pointed to say about our world using the skewed versions of reality he created in his fiction. Starting in the early 1950s, he was an amazingly prolific short story writer, with a lot of his stories appearing in Galaxy Magazine. He launched his novel-writing career with Immortality, Inc., which he followed up with a sequence of excellent books: The Status Civilization, Journey Beyond Tomorrow, and Mindswap. He continued to produce novels and short stories in abundance until his death in 2005.
Read an Excerpt
At the Conference of the Birds
So respect the child within you because he knows the truth: he was kidnapped and put into an aging body and given unpleasant work and a lot of stupid rules to follow. From time to time, the child wakes up in the grownup's body and finds there's no one left on the baseball field and he can't even find his ball and glove, that the little river beside which he used to read poetry and eat licorice lozenges has been swallowed up by the utilitarianism of a world which permits a stream to exist only if it proves useful to pollute. What a strange world, when each tree, each flower, each blade of grass, each bee and swallow has to earn a living, and even the lilies of the field must have a care for tomorrow. The oversight that Christ noticed: "They reap not, neither do they sow ..." has now been corrected. In this new world, everything reaps and sows and commits a double blasphemy by ascribing it all to the grace of God. The swallows have failed to fulfill their quota of mosquitoes; they will be punished. The squirrel's granary is full of acorns, but he has neglected to pay his income tax.
There was great consternation in the world, for the hand of man had reached out, had discovered a way to communicate with all living things, had discovered at last a way of being understood and of understanding. And what did they choose to say? That our labor is required in their scheme of things. No longer are we to go our way and they theirs; now we are to work for them. "It's not just for ourselves," the humans said. "Don't think we don't recognize how unseemly this must seem, trying to tax the previously untaxable. But these are troubled times. Due to various forms of bad luck and (we admit it) mismanagement by our predecessors, to whom we bear no resemblance and from whom we repudiate all relationship, it is necessary now for everyone to work. Not just the human beings and their allies, the horses and dogs. All of us must make an effort to repair the damage, so that we will still have a planet to live on. This being the case, please spare me the lilies of the field routine. At least they can collect moisture for our water replenishment scheme. And the birds can bring us twigs and bits of sod from the few wooded areas left, so that we can start our reforestation. We haven't made contact with the bacteria yet, but it's only a matter of time. I'm sure they will do their part, because they are by all accounts sober-minded and serious people."
Graylag, the great gray goose of the northern latitudes, had been late in getting the news. He and his flock usually went further north than anybody else, to the regions where the low summer sun flashed off bright waters pierced with dark wooded islands. The sooty terns arrived soon after, and they brought the news.
"Listen, geese, it's finally happened! The humans have held discussions with us!"
Graylag was less than enthusiastic about this news. In fact, this was just what he had been dreading.
"What did they say?" he asked.
"Just 'happy to see you,' that sort of thing. They really seemed rather nice."
"Sure, humans always seem nice at first," Graylag said. "But then they do something unthinkable and unspeakable. Which of us would hang up humanskins on our walls, mount the stuffed head of a hunter on the wall of a cave, or paint pictures of deer bringing a wounded hunstman to bay? They go too far, humans, they presume too much."
"Maybe it's different for them now," the sooty tern said. "They've been through a lot recently."
"Haven't we all!" Graylag sniffed.
The tern flew on. The terns were nesting this year near Lake Baikal, where the big human rocket station had been. New grass and seeds were growing nicely in the cracks of the lava shield that resulted when the installation melted down under nuclear attack.
There had been disturbances all over Earth. The terns had suffered sad losses, as had all the other species they knew. Only some of the underwater species had profited — sharks and moray eels were doing nicely — but at least they had the good taste not to rub it in. They knew they were perverse to be able to benefit by what came near to causing the end of all life on the Earth.
Later in the season, a flight of ptarmigan came through to the north and exchanged information with Graylag.
"How is it going between you and the humans?" Graylag asked.
"Well, frankly, not so good."
"Eating you, are they?" said Graylag.
"Oh, no, they're being very good about that," the ptarmigan said. "Downright silly about it, in fact. They seem to think that just because you can converse intelligently with a fellow means you shouldn't eat him. Which makes no sense at all. Wolves and bears talk as well as anyone, and it never occurs to them to give up meat in favor of salads. We eat what we must and we all get along somehow, isn't that right?"
"Of course," said Graylag. "But what seems to be the trouble, then?" "Well, you're not going to believe this, Graylag."
"About humans? Try me!"
"Very well. They want us to work for them."
"You? The ptarmigans?"
"Everybody. All the animals and all the birds."
"You're right, I don't believe it."
"Nevertheless, it's true."
"Work for them? What do you mean? You're not exactly of a size to carry a pick and shovel or scrub dishes — the two jobs humans seem to have the most need to fill."
"I don't know exactly what they mean," the ptarmigan said. "I got out before they could make me do it, whatever it is."
"How could they make you?"
The ptarmigan said, "Oh gray goose, you don't know much about men! You may know the high empty skies, but you don't know men. Don't you know that whereas birds can fly and fish can swim and turtles can crawl, men can talk? It is talk that is the excellence of a man, and he can convince you to do anything he wants, if he talks at you long enough."
"Convince you to work for them?"
"Yes, and pay taxes, too."
"But this is madness! One of their own holy men promised us exemption from all that. He said, they reap not, neither do they sow. We have our own things to do. We live in the aesthetic dimension. We are not utilitarian."
The ptarmigan looked discomfited and said, "You should have been there. You'd have to hear them talk."
"And then become a beast of burden! Never, ptarmigan!"
Sometime later, a conference was held among several species of large predatory birds. This was the first time eagle, hawk, and owl shared the same branches. The meeting was held in a wooded valley in northern Oregon, one of the few areas in the northwest that had escaped direct nuclear effects. A man was there, too.
"It's easy enough to blame this mess on us," the man said. "But we're just creatures like the rest of you, and we did only what seemed best. If you were in our situation, do you think you would have done any better? It's too easy an answer to say that man is bad, kick him out and the rest of us will live in peace. Men have always been saying that to each other. But it should be obvious that there's no way everything can stay as it was. Things have to change."
The animals objected, "You men are not natural. There can be no cooperation between you and the rest of us."
"Not natural?" the man said. "Perhaps this mess around us, this shrinking down of the habitable earth, this cutting back of the proliferation of species, was not an accident or an evil. The lightning that starts the forest fire isn't evil. Perhaps we humans are nature's way of producing atomic explosions without dragging stellar cataclysms into it."
"Perhaps," the animals said. "But what's the point? The damage was been done. What do you want from us now?"
"The Earth is in pretty sorry shape," the man said. "And there may be worse to come. We all have to work now, to restore soil, water, vegetation, to give ourselves a chance. This is the only task left to us now, all of us."
"But what has that to do with us?" the animals asked.
"Frankly, you birds and animals have had it easy for long enough. It must have been nice for you, the millions of years without responsibility. Well, the fun's over now. All of us have work to do."
A pileated woodpecker raised his rakish head and said, "Why must we animals do it all? What about the plants? They just sit around and grow. Is that equitable?"
"We have already contacted the plants," the man said. "They are prepared to do their duty. We have discussions going on with some of the larger bacteria, too. This time we're all in it together."
Animals and birds are essentially simple-minded and of romantic natures. They cannot resist the fine words of a man, because those words act on them like the finest food, sex, and slumber combined. Even animals dream of the perfect world of future.
The tern grasped a twig in his claw. He said to Graylag, "Do you think men can be trusted?"
"Certainly not," Graylag said. "But what does that matter?" He grasped a bit of bark. "It's all changed now, but whether for the better or the worse I don't know. All I do know is this: it is probably going to be interesting." Grasping the bit of bark, he flew over to add it to the pile.
The Destruction of Atlantis
Countless centuries ago, before the beginning of Egypt, before the continents had taken on their present shapes, before the oceans and mountains had settled into their present positions, there was a land and a civilization which has left no record. It has all been lost beneath the shift and upheaval of mountain ranges, beneath new ocean beds which once were fertile plains and may be again. The only knowledge we have of this land is a nearly universal memory of something which came before anything we have documented. It has been called Atlantis, but that is only a name for a civilization that we know once existed yet vanished without a trace.
In Atlantis one fine day succeeded another with a regularity that would be called monotonous only by the ungrateful. Indeed, the climate of Atlantis and of all the lands that adjoined it was much of present-day Miami. It was hot, steamy, enervating. All year around, Atlantis lived in a tropical dream, and this continued without change for many centuries.
A great king ruled Atlantis. His domain was cut through by many rivers, some small, others great. Interconnecting them were canals and waterways, their levels maintained by locks to which water was hoisted by means of great paddlewheels driven by slaves. The kingdom was vast, and all of it was connected by a network of waterways, lakes, canals, and channels.
Only the King's navy and his merchant marine were allowed on the royal waters. Villagers were permitted, on payment of a fee, to fish from the banks. Swimming was allowed, or rather, paddling, since swimming itself was a monopoly of the royal commandos.
Beyond the outermost river stretched a vast desert, reaching to the limits of terra incognita. Strange, nameless tribes came out of the desert from time to time, sometimes in great armed hordes. But always they were turned back by the water barriers, for he who ailed the waterways and rivers ruled Atlantis. This was an axiom as old as time itself, a law of nature against which there was no recourse.
So the King was not too alarmed when he heard that new horde of barbarians was moving down from the north. They came from beyond the back of the world, from misty and fabled Hyperborea.
The King sent out his scouts and spies. He was relieved to hear that, as usual, the barbarians had no ships or rafts, and no materials with which to cross the rivers that shielded Atlantis.
Wide waters had always protected Atlantis from barbarian incursions. Even if the barbarians built boats of reed, or employed inflatable leather bladders — typical barbarian expedients — they were not to be feared. The King's navy was vigilant, and included swift canoes, deadly triremes, ponderous beaked galleys — all armed and armored, and filled with the King's superb marines.
So the King awaited this latest invasion with equanimity. But just to be on the safe side, he consulted the royal scientists.
The Chief Scientist reported, "Sire, we have examined all the factors. On the basis of centuries of observation of barbarians, their Fighting techniques, their resources, matched scientifically against our own resources, I can tell you that, barring the completely unforeseen, we have absolutely nothing to worry about."
The King nodded. But something in the soothing formula disturbed him. He said, "This completely unforeseen that you are barring — what is that?"
"That, Sire, is the element of the unpredictable."
"But since you know all the factors," the King said, "why must you make an exception for the unpredictable, when your job is to predict everything of relevance to this situation?"
"That is the heart of scientific method, my Lord, in itself a recent discovery of ours of which we are very proud. To say that we know everything would be the superstitious stuff of the priests. By admitting the possibility of something unforeseen, we remain rigorous in our methodology."
"What are the chances of this unforeseen occurring?" the King asked.
"So close to zero," said the Chief Scientist, "that we are still awaiting the invention of a number small enough to express it."
With this the King had to be content. It was not certainty, but as near to it as a man or even a monarch could get, life being what it was.
The King drew up his forces on the inner bank of the great river encircling Atlantis. Deep and broad, slow moving, brown and steely-gray, the river had sheltered the kingdom from time out of mind. On the far bank they could see their foe — shaggy barbarians clad in furs, which must have been extremely uncomfortable in the sweltering climate. Scouts reported that the barbarians were chanting and praying to their uncouth and outlandish deities, and making no attempt to build water craft.
The barbarian position seemed hopeless. Already food was reported to be running low in their camp. There were many of them, and they were heavily armed, but they could not cross. The King, his army well rested and provisioned, its morale high, awaited the inevitable outcome.
But that very day a change took place, although it seemed a minor one. The skies, hitherto a uniform blue, began to cloud over, although it still lacked some months of the rainy season. The King again consulted his scientists.
"Unseasonable rains," his Chief Scientist told him, "are unusual, but not unprecedented."
"It also grows colder," the King said.
"We have noted that, and we recommend the issuing of cotton jackets to the troops."
Later in the day, particles of white began to fall from the sky. The King was much alarmed by this.
"It is unusual," the Chief Scientist said. "But not unprecedented. The last time this white substance fell, according to our records, was some seven hundred years ago. The stuff dissolves too fast for us to give it much more than a cursory examination. It seems to be fragments of clouds, torn apart by the high winds of the upper air."
The army didn't like it, of course. Armies don't like unusual sights and unexpected omens. But they stuck it out, and took heart at the sight of the barbarians across the river, huddling around inadequate campfires in their drenched furs.
But it became colder still, and, as night came on, colder than men's memories of how cold it could be. Double-woven cotton cloaks and mantles were issued to the troops. And still the cold increased. And once again the king consulted his scientists.
"It is true that we have never seen cold like this," the Chief Scientist said. "But it makes no difference. It will bother the barbarians more than it will us. Have the men apply extra wax to their bowstrings, because one of the recorded properties of cold is to make flaxen bowstrings brittle."
This was done, and the guard units along the riverbank were increased, and everyone passed a miserable night.
In the morning, the King was awakened by cries of alarm. Hurrying to the riverbank, the King beheld that the water had been transformed as though by an act of magic. No longer did the brown- gray waters move and lap. They had been changed overnight into a different substance. This substance was white in some spots, transparent in others. But strangest of all, it gave the appearance of being perfectly solid.
"My Gods!" cried the King. "Some demon has bewitched the river!" "Not at all, Lord," the Chief Scientist replied. "My assistants have been keeping close watch on the river all night, as befits followers of the scientific method. I can say with certainty that, in response to the unprecedented cold, the water has congealed — though that may not be quite the right term. In any event, the water has changed into a solid substance. We have long known the theoretical possibility of this — it is what we call transformation — but this is the first time we've had experimental corroboration."
"Then it's not witchcraft?" the King asked.
"Certainly not. We have just discovered a new natural law. Water, it seems, responds to extremes of cold by turning into a solid."
Excerpted from "Divine Intervention"
Copyright © 2014 Estate of Robert Sheckley.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Title Page
- At the Conference of the Birds
- The Destruction of Atlantis
- Divine Intervention
- The Eye of Reality
- Long Song from the Stars
- Message from Hell
- The Necessary Thing
- Robotvendor Rex
- There Will Be No War after This One