Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books: Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

Note: Friday’s Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

In a 2006 speech at Google's headquarters, fantasist Neil Gaiman recounted how his one-time editor Alisa Kwitney asked his opinion about Robert Sheckley. "I think that from the late fifties to the mid sixties he was probably the finest short-story writer actually writing in pretty much any field," he replied, "and that it's a terrible pity that he burned out his brain on recreational pharmaceuticals and sort of lost it. Why?" Kwitney's response: "I'm his daughter." Awkward social situation aside, Gaiman's evaluation of Sheckley's legacy was pretty fair. While Coleridge was the Romantic Period's poster boy for wasted potential, Sheckley could just as easily fill the position for the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And his 1966 novel Mindswap, ripe with fineness and foibles aplenty, exemplifies both parts of his career.

Marvin Flynn, native of sleepy Stanhope, New York, has always wanted to travel. Not to the Grand Canyon or the Egyptian pyramids or the North Pole or some such provincial, Earth-bound locale. Rather, Marvin wants to sail to the distant stars. But he has a problem: He's almost broke. So he opts for the next best thing, a mindswap with a Martian named Ze Kraggash. Marvin will get to experience Mars in a Martian body for a bit while Kraggash does the same on Earth. Only the situation turns sour as soon as Martin shuffles on his new corporeal frame. Turns out that Kraggash is a wanted criminal, a stealer of bodies, and the Martian authorities want to evict Marvin from his new form so that its proper owner can have it back. Marvin needs to find a new body -- fast.

Unfettered invention is both Mindswap's greatest asset and liability. Sheckley is a master of left-handed exposition, of dropping incidental details that gradually reveal the strange (and uniformly absurd) worlds where Marvin finds himself. For example, Marvin opens up about his desire to travel in Spanish/Afrikaans dialect to a friend while they sip LSD frappes at a soda fountain. A barker at the Free Market for host bodies offers a credit per month plus unlimited sacking rights for those willing to inhabit soldiers in the Naigwin Army, an army that has been losing the war for a decade, true, but you could be promoted to second-class Manatee Leader if you act now. During his adventures, Marvin also bumps into a verse-spouting hermit on a jungle world, an explorer whose Theory of Searches reads like advanced Calculus and a minor government official who may have a ticking bomb in his nose. But as delightful as Sheckley's imaginings are, he piles them on so thick that the narrative thread grows thin. In the end, it snaps altogether. Sheckley only manages a conclusion by employing the shaggiest of
shaggy dog endings. A mortal sin for most writers, but here it accentuates the absurdity. Broken denouement aside, this one's worth swapping some of your time for.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


pattinase (abbott) said...

Lovely writing, Loren.

Loren Eaton said...

Thank you, Patti. You're very kind.

Evan Lewis said...

Well said! Sheckley should not be forgotten.

Loren Eaton said...

I've often heard him compared to Douglas Adams. It seems like such a shame that he frittered away all that talent on drugs.