Mask of Manana, The by Sheckley, Robert, 1952

Mask of Manana, The by Sheckley, Robert - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Comprised of over 40 short stories, NESFA's first edition of Robert Sheckley stories is full of great gems (and a few stinkers) from the 1950's. Sheckley is one of those writers who relies on humor, irony, sarcasm and satire quite a bit to make his point. He is often compared to Stanisaus Lem, and I can see the comparison, but I think that a stronger comparison is to Douglas Adams. More to the point, he is as sarcastic as Adams ever was, but he sometimes likes to tackle the bigger issues in society that Lem pretty much stuck exclusively with. Not all of this is SF, and certainly not all of it is good, but it is worth a read. Three out of five stars.

Sheckley's style is typical of what you would expect for 1950's era pulp. He uses plenty of made up words to convey a sense of otherness. For example, "that is getter than a Groogly show," and "effective for a distance of 27 vims," and "Only use Norts! Act Now!" He also is a pretty terse writer, and tends to pack his sentences with information. For the most part, in the limited space Sheckley allows himself (9-11 pages on average) he gives you a lot and easily bypasses technical hurdles that would bog down others. I suppose his real facility is avoiding descriptions of things that don't matter to the point of the story. I actually find that kind of refreshing, as very few authors seem to be able to resist the temptation.

Sheckely also has a great sense of humor, and is a satirist at heart. He is not really irreverent, but does ignore a sacred lamb or two. For example, this is from The Battle:

"Ever since the Coming, since the knowledge of the imminent Last Battle, the religious workers of the world had made a complete nuisance of themselves. They had stopped their bickering, which was commendable. But now they were trying to do military business.

Consider also this passage from Ghost V, where the cast is assaulted by visions of dreamed up monsters from their own childhoods:

"I'm the purple-striped Grabber," the thing said. "I grab things."

"How interesting." Gregor's hand began to creep towards the blaster.

"I grab things named Richard Gregor," the Grabber told him in its bright ingenuous voice. "And I usually eat them in chocolate sauce." It held up the brown can and Gregor saw that it was labeled "Smig's Chologale - An Ideal Sauce to use with Gregors, Arnolds and Flynns."

Gregor's fingers touched the butt of the blaster. He asked, "were you planning to eat me?"

"Oh, yes," the Grabber said.

Gregor had the gun now. He flipped off the safety catch and fired. The radiant blast cascaded off the Grabber's chest and singed the floor, the walls, and Gregor's eyebrows.

"That won't hurt me," the Grabber explained. "I'm too tall."

The blaster dropped from Gregor's fingers. The Grabber leaned forward.

"I'm not going to eat you now, the Grabber said.

"No?" Gregor managed to enunciate.

"No. I can only eat you tomorrow, on May first. Those are the rules. I just came to ask a favor."

"What is it?"

The Grabber smiled winningly. "Would you be a good sport and eat a few apples? They flavor the flesh so wonderfully."

Within the pages of this anthology also are some linked world stories, the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Services tales. Most of these stories are "strange gadget" stories, and are pure pulp, but I like the characters in them. Arnold is the brains of the operation. Hes very unenthusiastic and trusts technology. Gregor is much more jaded and is always getting the short end of the stick after Arnold makes decisions he has no right to make without Gregor. Jake the Interstellar Junkman usually brings the devices to them. All his machines always work, but often nobody knows how, or what they do. Gregor gets sicker and sicker of seeing him turn up and start talking to Arnold. I like these stories so much not because of the plot, but because the characters are excellent archetypes regarding the acceptance of technology in our world. I and a few of my friends are pretty firmly in Gregor's camp, but I know more than enough Arnolds to cause me concern. Here is a summary of the individual stories:

The Leech: A dormant entity from space falls to the Earth and begins to consume everything that it touches, including physical objects and energy. As it does so it begins to come out of torpor and show intelligence. Men try to destroy this thing before it can eat the entire Earth, but just do not comprehend what they are really up against. This is a first contact story firmly in the tradition of Stanisaus Lem, and was an excellent choice for first story in the anthology.

The Demons: Trying to conjure a "true" demon, a hellish looking denizen of another plane of existence instead conjures Arthur, an Earthling insurance salesman. Arthur is threatened with eternal imprisonment unless he can come up with 10,000 pounds of gold. Sent back to Earth to gather the gold, Arthur conjures his own demon to help him, who turns out to be a demonic insurance agent from the nether realms. As it so happens the new demon conjures another, and winds up helping Arthur an two levels. Ironic story with an interesting twist and funny characters.

Fool's Mate: A massive, resource depleting sparse armada dallies in space and refuses to join the enemy. When the president's man goes to find out why, he learns that the odds computers on the ships show not only that whom ever attacks first will lose, but that the Earth armada is in serious trouble because of some small change that happened months ago. Like a chess game, the Earth commander is waiting, hoping only now that the enemy will make a mistake, because the end of the battle is already written, and Earth loses. Waiting for that potential mistake has driven the crews mad and destroyed morale. This is a cautionary tale about allowing machine intellect to supplant the intellect of man with a wrapped up with a butterfly-effect on fate.

The Monsters: First contact story told from the point-of-view of the non-humans. A group of archaeologists and psychologists land on an alien planet and observe the locals. The locals have a habit of mating every 25 days then killing their wives after they lay an egg. A month or so later they take a new wife from the outdoor slave pens where the women are kept. The women seem fine with this, but the human observers are not. This is an excellent example the way SF explores social issues in the extreme. It questions hierarchically divergent views of morality.

Seventh Victim: A haberdasher who specializes in making suits that conceal hidden weapons is a participant in a government sponsored game where participants alternately hunt and are hunted by other people. The game is an alternative to war in that it is an outlet for violence. The man has been successful and has just been assigned his seventh victim by the ECB, the Emotional Catharsis Bureau. Oddly, it is a woman. This story demonstrates not only that the female of the species is more deadly than the male, but much more subtle too. Fantastic story with a slight mysogonisitic tone to it.

Shape: A party of aliens with a very rigid caste system and the ability to shape shift land on Earth with dreams of conquest. They are the 20th mission to Earth. None of the others have been heard from since they left home. The shapes each alien may assume are heavily regulated by the government and societal mores. This is a wonderful story about the power of freedom to release you from your bonds and make you happy, and is also the first story to touch on the immediate social issues of the 1950's, when it was written.

Untouched by Human Hands: Not a very good story. Two space explorers run out of supplies early and are forced to land on an alien planet to look for food. They find a warehouse and must deduce what is edible and what is poison.

Something for Nothing: A fabulous device tale. A man wakes up and finds a machine by his bed that grants all his wishes, but the cost is high.

The Accountant: Mr. Dee's young son wants to be an accountant. That unfortunately is interfering with his studies of the family profession, wizardry. After a parent-teacher conference, the family decides to invoke Boarbas, the Demon of Children. But the boy has even more powerful magic at hand.

A Thief in Time: Classic time travel paradox tale. A college physics professor named Eldridge is arrested in 1953 by time cops for stealing items from his business partner after inventing a time machine 9 years later in 1962. Some lazy cops allow Eldridge access to their time machine and he escapes, only to be pursued up and down the years. Sheckely may have foreseen far future ecological issues pretty well.

The Battle: General Fetterer is preparing for Apocalypse at the end of time. Satan is marshaling his forces, and the general is preparing to fight the war with automated tanks and planes, and robot infantry. The clergy tries to get him to allow humans to fight, but he refuses because he wants to win. Unfortunately for humanity, that's not the point.

Milk Run: The first of many stories of the "AAA Ace Planetery Decontaminationist Agency" stories. Most of these stories are alien technology/problem-solving tales, and this one is no exception. In this one the Agency is running out of money and considers transportation of alien livestock to assist with income. The problem is that each animal requires different environmental conditions that negatively affect the others. The end of the story has a clever twist that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but its still enjoyable as a complex pastoral.

Ghost V: Another AAA story. A real estate speculator has purchased on spec a planet that turns out to be haunted. They learn that the planet creates a compound that convinces the lower brain that childhood monsters are real, and that they are on the planet to get them. They successfully counteract the compound, but not before being exposed. It will take 20 hours for the compound to leave their systems. To save themselves, they resort to the one foolproof way children have of defending themselves in their rooms at night. Excellent story about childhood fears of the unknown.

The Laxian Key: Another AAA story. This time Joe the Interstellar Junkman sells them a device which produces food, and cant be stopped once started. Not very good.

Skulking Permit: Another substandard tale. The planet of New Delaware lost contact with Earth 200 years ago. Now a military craft is approaching from Earth for tribute. They are told that they must be Earth-like or they are unworthy. They decided to remodel their society on 1950's Earth, from books they have, and draft the protagonist to be the local criminal. I think its a cultural conflict story, but in the end, I don't care much.

Squirrel Cage: Another AAA story. This time Gregor and Arnold are hired to rid a field of invisible rats. As usual, Arnold commits them to solve the problem before he even knows what it is.

The Lifeboat Mutiny: Yet another AAA story. This time Arnold has purchased a 500 year old sentient lifeboat. They have been hired to raise dry ground on an ocean planet. When they splash down and activate the lifeboat, it assumes that they are "Gloms" (members of the race that build it) and seeks to save them. Unfortunately, Gloms do not like warm planets and eat oil. When they tell the boat that they are humans, the boat assumes that they have suffered a brain injury and seeks to take them to the south pole which is cold enough for Gloms, but will kill men. Arnold and Gregor try to psychoanalyze the boat, but wind up having to trick it to get away. The "sentient space-craft" idea has turned up more in later SF. This one reminds me of the movie Dark Star.

The Necessary Thing: One more AAA story. This time Arnold has purchased a device that actually does work, and creates whatever its owner asks it to create. After crash-landing on a planet, however, Gregor learns that it only creates one of each item, and no more. Arnold deduces that the box works on the "pleasure principle," and wont make more than one of each thing because after the first has been made, the novelty wears off and it gets no more joy from creation. Great idea, but a boring resolution.

Citizen in Space: A cold-war piece. A relatively well-to-do American citizen is getting fed up with being spied on by his own government. He charters a spacecraft to space and leaves the planet. Once in space he finds a stowaway in a sack of potatoes who has an FBI identity card, and seeks to populate a planet with her, if you know what I mean.

A Ticket to Tranai: A dejected idealist in a city that is virtually owned by the Mob hears of a Utopia called Tranai. He books passage and arrives, only to find that Utopia is exactly what he left. This amazing novelette plays an interesting game with semantics, and is in my opinion the most interesting and best written piece in the book. Here is a sample of the prose. In this part of the story the protagonist, Goodman, is looking for a job on Tranai. He has been told that in Tranai all humans are confident in their work and never fear loss of work to a machine. Goodman, being a robotics engineer, looks for work anyway. His potential employer speaks first. I can easily see shades of Voltaire and Swift in this story:

"On Terra your gadgets work close to the optimum. producing inferiority feelings in their operators. but unfortunately you have a masochistic tribal taboo against destroying them. Result? Generalized anxiety in the presence of a sacrosanct and inhumanly efficient machine, and a search for an aggression-object, usually a wife or a friend. A very poor state of affairs. Oh, it's efficient in terms of long-range health and well-being."

"I'm not sure--"

"The human is an anxious beast. Here on Tranai, we direct anxiety toward this particular point and let it serve as an outlet for a lot of other frustrations as well. A man's had enough--blam! He kicks hell out of his robot. There's an immediate and therapeutic discharge of feeling, a valuable - and valid - sense of superiority over mere machinery, a lessening of general tension, a healthy flow of adrenalin into the bloodstream, and a boost to the industrial economy of Tranai, since he'll go right out and buy another robot. And what, after all, has he done? He hasn't beaten his wife, suicided, declared a war, invented a new weapon, or indulged in any of the other more common modes of aggression-resolution. He has simply smashed an inexpensive robot which he can replace immediately."

"I guess it'll take me a little time to understand," Goodman admitted.

"Of course it will. I'm sure you're going to be a valuable man here, Goodman. Think over what I've said and try to figure out some inexpensive way of disimproving this robot."

"Goodman pondered the problem for the rest of the day, but he couldn't immediately adjust his thinking to the idea of producing an inferior machine. It seemed vaguely blasphemous. He knocked off work at five-thirty, dissatisfied with himself, but determined to do better - or worse, depending on viewpoint.

The rest of the story is also full of double meaning and literal twists. Its a real gem, and I'm surprised it never was rewritten into something bigger.

The Sky Castle: A hottie hires the guys from AAA to rid her retirement planet of undead aliens. The boys smell a rat right away, believing someone is trying to scare her off. But she's so fine they do whatever she asks. Too bad she's engaged! This is a SF love story about how far a man will go for the woman of his dreams.

All the Things You Are: First contact story about a race of hominids on a planet that find our voices to be shattering, our breath noxious, our sweat highly acidic, and our gas deadly. But our touch brings things on their planet back to life and grants them excellent health. Who is using who, and how much annoyance we each can take before breaking are what Shekeley is looking at here, but the story is pretty confusing though.

Bad Medicine: Bad story.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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