In “Diplomatic Immunity,” what happens when an alien ambassador arrives, telling the residents of Earth that they will be joining a galactic union whether they like it or not—and the ambassador is unkillable?
The thirteen other stories in this collection are “The People Trap,” “The Victim from Space,” “Shall We Have a Little Talk?”, “Restricted Area,” “The Odor of Thought,” “The Necessary Thing,” “Redfern’s Labyrinth,” “Proof of the Pudding,” “The Laxian Key,” “The Last Weapon,” “Fishing Season,” “Dreamworld,” and “Ghost V.”
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.”
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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
THE PEOPLE TRAP
It was Land Race Day — a time of vaunting hope and unrelieved tragedy, a day which epitomized the unhappy twenty-first century. Steve Baxter had tried to reach the starting line early, like the other contestants, but had miscalculated the amount of time he would require. Now he was in trouble. His Participant's Badge had got him through the outer, exocrowd without incident. But neither badge nor brawn could be relied upon to carry a man through the obdurate inner core of humanity which made up the endocrowd.
Baxter estimated this inner mass at 8.7 density — not far from the pandemic level. A flash-point might occur at any moment, despite the fact that the authorities had just aerosoled the endocrowd with tranquilizers. Given enough time, a man might circle around them; but Baxter had only six minutes before the race began.
Despite the risk, he pushed his way directly into their ranks. On his face he wore a fixed smile — absolutely essential when dealing with a high-density human configuration. He could see the starting line now, a raised dais in Jersey City's Glebe Park. The other contestants were already there. Another twenty yards, Steve thought; if only the brutes don't stampede!
But deep within the corecrowd he still had to penetrate the final nuclear mob. This was composed of bulky, slack-jawed men with unfocused eyes — agglutinating hysterophiliacs, in the jargon of the pandemiologists. Jammed together sardine fashion, reacting as a single organism, these men were incapable of anything but blind resistance and irrational fury toward anything that tried to penetrate their ranks.
Steve hesitated for a moment. The nuclear mob, more dangerous than the fabled water buffaloes of antiquity, glared at him, their nostrils flared, their heavy feet shuffling ominously.
Without allowing himself time to think, Baxter plunged into their midst. He felt blows on his back and shoulders and heard the terrifying wrrrof a maddened endomob. Shapeless bodies jammed against him, suffocating him, relentlessly pressing closer and closer.
Then, providentially, the authorities turned on the Muzak. This ancient and mysterious music, which for over a century had pacified the most intractable berserkers, did not fail now. The endomob was decibeled into a temporary immobility, and Steve Baxter clawed his way through to the starting line.
The chief judge had already begun to read the Prospectus. Every contestant and most of the spectators knew this document by heart. Nevertheless, by law the terms had to be stated.
"Gentlemen," the judge read, "you are here assembled to take part in a race for the acquisition of public-domain lands. You fifty fortunate men have been chosen by public lottery from fifty million registrants in the South Westchester region. The race will proceed from this point to the registration line at the Land Office in Times Square, New York — an adjusted approximate mean distance of 5.7 statute miles. You contestants are permitted to take any route; to travel on the surface, above, or below ground. The only requirement is that you finish in person, substitutes not being permitted. The first ten finalists —"
The crowd became deathly still.
"— will receive one acre of unencumbered land complete with house and farming implements. And each finalist will also be granted free Government transportation to his freehold, for himself and for his immediate family. And this aforesaid acre shall be his to have and to hold, free and clear, perpetually unalienable, as long as the sun shines and water flows, for him and his heirs, even unto the third generation!"
The crowd sighed when they heard this. Not a man among them had ever seen an unencumbered acre, much less dreamed of possessing one. An acre of land entirely for yourself and your family, an acre which you didn't have to share with anyone — well, it was simply beyond the wildest fantasy.
"Be it further noted," the judge went on, "the Government accepts no responsibility for deaths incurred during this contest. I am obliged to point out that the unweighted average mortality rate for Land Races is approximately 68.9 percent. Any contestant who so wishes may withdraw now without prejudice."
The judge waited, and for a moment Steve Baxter considered dropping the whole suicidal idea. Surely he and Adele and the kids and Aunt Flo and Uncle George could continue to get by somehow in their cozy one-room apartment in Larchmont's Fred Allen Memorial Median Income Housing Cluster. After all, he was no man of action, no muscled bravo or hairy-fisted brawler. He was a systems-deformation consultant, and a good one. And he was also a mild-mannered ectomorph with stringy muscles and a distinct shortness of breath. Why in God's name should he thrust himself into the perils of darkest New York, most notorious of the Jungle Cities?
"Better give it up, Steve," a voice said, uncannily echoing his thoughts.
Baxter turned and saw Edward Freihoff St John, his wealthy and obnoxious neighbor from Larchmont. St. John, tall and elegant and whipcord-strong from his days on the paddle-ball courts. St. John, with his smooth, saturnine good looks, whose hooded eyes were too frequently turned toward Adele's blonde loveliness.
"You'll never make it, Stevie baby," St. John said.
"That is possible," Baxter said evenly. "But you, I suppose, will make it?"
St. John winked and laid a forefinger alongside his nose in a knowing gesture. For weeks he had been hinting about the special information he had purchased from a venal Land Race comptroller. This information would vastly improve his chances of traversing Manhattan Borough — the densest and most dangerous urban concentration in the world.
"Stay out of it, Stevie baby," St. John said in his peculiar rasping voice. "Stay out, and I'll make it worth your while. Whaddaya say, sweetie pie?"
Baxter shook his head. He did not consider himself a courageous man; but he would rather die than take a favor from St. John. And in any event, he could not go on as before. Under last month's Codicil to the Extended Families Domicile Act, Steve was now legally obliged to take in three unmarried cousins and a widowed aunt, whose one-room subbasement apartment in the Lake Placid industrial complex had been wiped out by the new Albany-Montreal Tunnel.
Even with anti-shock injections, ten persons in one room was too much. He simply had to win a piece of land!
"I'm staying," Baxter said quietly.
"Okay, sucker," St. John said, a frown marring his hard, sardonic face. "But remember, I warned you."
The chief judge called out, "Gentlemen, on your marks!"
The contestants fell silent. They toed the starting line with slitted eyes and compressed mouths.
A hundred sets of leg muscles bunched as fifty determined men leaned forward.
And the race was on!
A blare of supersonics temporarily paralyzed the surrounding mob. The contestants squirmed through their immobile ranks and sprinted over and around the long lines of stalled automobiles. Then they fanned out, but tended mainly to the east, toward the Hudson River and the evil-visaged city that lay on its far shore, half concealed in its sooty cloak of unburned hydrocarbons.
Only Steve Baxter had not turned to the east.
Alone among the contestants, he had swung north, toward the George Washington Bridge and Bear Mountain City. His mouth was tight, and he moved like a man in a dream.
In distant Larchmont, Adele Baxter was watching the race on television. Involuntarily, she gasped. Her eight-year-old son Tommy cried, "Mom, Mom, he's going north to the bridge! But it's closed this month. He can't get through that way!"
"Don't worry, darling," Adele said. "Your father knows what he's doing."
She spoke with an assurance she did not feel. And, as the figure of her husband was lost in the crowds, she settled back to wait — and to pray. Did Steve know what he was doing? Or had he panicked under pressure?
The seeds of the problem had been sown in the twentieth century; but the terrible harvest was reaped a hundred years later. After uncounted millennia of slow increase, the population of the world suddenly exploded, doubled, and doubled again. With disease checked and food supplies assured, death rates continued to fall as birthrates rose. Caught in a nightmare geometric progression, the ranks of humanity swelled like runaway cancers.
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, those ancient policemen, could no longer be relied upon to maintain order. Pestilence and famine had been outlawed, and war was too luxurious for this subsistence age. Only death remained — much diminished, a mere shadow of his former self.
Science, with splendid irrationality, continued to work insensately toward the goal of more life for more people.
And people marched on, still increasing, crowding the earth with their numbers, stifling the air and poisoning the water, eating their processed algae between slices of fishmeal bread, dimly awaiting a catastrophe to thin out their unwieldy ranks, and waiting in vain.
The quantitative increase in numbers produced qualitative changes in human experience. In a more innocent age, adventure and danger had been properties of waste places — the high mountains, bleak deserts, steaming jungles. But by the twenty-first century most of these places were being utilized in the accelerating search for living-space. Adventure and danger were now to be found in the monstrous, ungovernable cities.
In the cities one found the modern equivalent of savage tribes, fearsome beasts, and dread disease. An expedition into New York or Chicago required more resourcefulness and stamina, more ingenuity, than those lighthearted Victorian jaunts to Everest or the source of the Nile.
In this pressure-pot world, land was the most precious of commodities. The Government parceled it out as it became available, by means of regional lotteries culminating in Land Races. These contests were patterned after those held in the 1890s for the opening of the Oklahoma Territory and the Cherokee Strip.
The Land Race was considered equitable and interesting — both sporty and sporting. Millions watched the races, and the tranquilizing effect of vicarious excitement upon the masses was duly noted and approved. This in itself was justification for the races.
Additionally, the high mortality rate among the contestants had to be considered an asset. It didn't amount to much in absolute numbers; but a stifled world was grateful for even the smallest alleviation.
The race was three hours old. Steve Baxter turned on his little transistor radio and listened to the latest reports. He heard how the first group of contestants had arrived at the Holland Tunnel and been turned back by armored policemen. Others, more devious, had taken the long southern trek to Staten Island and were presently approaching the approaches of the Verrazzano Bridge. Freihoff St John, all by himself, flashing a deputy mayor's badge, had been allowed past the Lincoln Tunnel barricades.
But now it was time for Steve Baxter's gamble. Grim-faced, with quiet courage, he entered the infamous Free Port of Hoboken.
It was dusk on the Hoboken foreshore. Before him, in a sweeping crescent, lay the trim, swift ships of the Hoboken smuggling fleet, each with its gleaming Coast Guard medallion. Some already had cargo lashed to their decks — cases of cigarettes from North Carolina, liquor from Kentucky, oranges from Florida, goof balls from California, guns from Texas. Each case bore the official marking, "contraband — tax paid." For in this unhappy day and age, the hard-pressed Government was forced to tax even illegal enterprises, and thus to give them a quasi-legal status.
Choosing his moment carefully, Baxter stepped aboard a rakish marijuana runner and crouched down among the aromatic bales. The craft was ready for imminent departure; if he could only conceal himself during the short passage across the river ...
"Har! What in hell have we here?"
A drunken second engineer, coming up unexpectedly from the fo'c'sle, had caught Baxter unawares. Responding to his shout, the rest of the crew swarmed on to the deck. They were a hard-bitten, swaggering lot, feared for their casually murderous ways. These were the same breed of Godless men who had sacked Weehawken some years ago, had put Fort Lee to the torch, had raided and pillaged all the way to the gates of Englewood. Steve Baxter knew that he could expect no mercy from them.
Nevertheless, with admirable coolness, he said, "Gentlemen, I am in need of transportation across the Hudson, if you please."
The ship's captain, a colossal mestizo with a scarred face and bulging muscles, leaned back and bellowed with laughter.
"Ye seek passage of uns?" he declared in the broad Hobokenese patois. "Think 'ee we be the Christopher Street ferry, hai?"
"Not at all, sir. But I had hoped —"
"To the boneyard wit' yer hopes!"
The crew roared at the witticism.
"I am willing to pay for my passage," Steve said with quiet dignity.
"Pay is it?" roared the captain. "Aye, we sometimes sell passages — non-stop to midstream, and thence straight down!" The crew redoubled its laughter.
"If it is to be, then let it so be," Steve Baxter said. "I request only that you permit me to drop a postcard to my wife and children."
"Woife and tuckins?" the captain inquired. "Why didn't yer mention! Had that lot myself aforetime ago, until waunders did do marvain to the lot."
"I am sorry to hear that," Steve said with evident sincerity.
"Aye." The captain's iron visage softened. "I do remember how, in oftens colaim, the leetle blainsprites did leap giner on the saern; yes, and it was roses all till diggerdog."
"You must have been very happy," Steve said. He was following the man's statements with difficulty.
"I maun do," the captain said heavily.
A bowlegged little forebow deckman thrust himself forward. "Hi, Captain, let's do for him and get underway before the pot rots on the spot."
"Who you giving orders at, ye mangy, scut-faced hogifier!" the captain raved. "By Big Jesus, we'll let the pot rot till I say not! And as for doing him — nay, I'll do one deed for me blainsprites, shiver me if I won't!" Turning to Baxter, he said, "We'll carry ye, laddie, and for naught ought loot."
Thus, fortuitously, Steve Baxter had touched upon a bittersweet memory in the captain's recollection and had thereby won respite. The marijuana men pushed off, and soon the sleek craft was breasting the sallow gray-green waves of the Hudson.
But Steve Baxter's respite was short-lived. In midstream, just after they entered Federal waters, a powerful searchlight flashed out of the evening gloom and an officious voice ordered them to heave to. Evil luck had steered them straight into the path of a destroyer on the Hudson patrol.
"Damn them!" the captain raved. "Tax and kill, that's all they know! But we'll show them our mettle! To the guns, bullies!"
Swiftly the crew peeled the tarpaulins from the fifty-caliber machine guns, and the boat's twin diesels roared defiance. Twisting and dodging, the pot runner raced for the sanctuary of New York shore. But the destroyer, fore-reaching, had the legs of her, and machine guns were no match for four-inch cannon. Direct hits splintered the little ship's toe rail, exploded in the great cabin, smashed through the maintop forestays, and chopped down the starboard mizzen halyards.
Surrender or death seemed the only options. But weatherwise, the captain sniffed the air. "Hang on, hearties!" he screamed. "There's a Wester do be coming!"
Shells rained around them. Then, out of the west, a vast and impenetrable smog bank rolled in, blanketing everything in its inky tentacles. The battered little kif ship slid away from the combat; and the crew, hastily donning respirators, gave thanks to the smoldering trashlands of Seacaucus. As the captain remarked, it is an ill wind that blows no good.
Half an hour later they docked at the 79th Street Pier. The captain embraced Steve warmly and wished him good fortune. And Steve Baxter continued on his journey.
The broad Hudson was behind him. Ahead lay thirty-odd downtown blocks and less than a dozen crosstown blocks. According to the latest radio report, he was well ahead of the other contestants, ahead even of Freihoff St John, who still had not emerged from the labyrinth at the New York end of the Lincoln Tunnel. He seemed to be doing very nicely, all things considered.
But Baxter's optimism was premature. New York was not conquered so easily. Unknown to him, the most dangerous parts of his journey still lay before him.
Excerpted from "The People Trap"
Copyright © 1968 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
- The People Trap
- The Victim from Space
- Shall We Have a Little Talk?
- Restricted Area
- The Odor of Thought
- The Necessary Thing
- Redfern’s Labyrinth
- Proof of the Pudding
- The Laxian Key
- The Last Weapon
- Fishing Season
- Diplomatic Immunity
- Ghost V