Saturday, June 28, 2014

Middle Shelf Story: Robert Sheckley's "Pilgrimage to Earth"

Most of us know the old high-school English aphorism by heart: Literature is about universal human experience. Birth and death. Dejection and joy. Solidarity and exile. These and more serve as the bedrock for the best sorts of stories. In "Pilgrimage to Earth," Nebula- and Hugo-winning author Robert Sheckley turns his attention to perhaps the most examined subject in literature -- love.
Alfred Simon was born on Kazanga IV, a small agricultural planet near Arcturus, and there he drove a combine through the wheatfields, and in the long, hushed evenings listened to the recorded love songs of Earth.
In the far-flung future, love has vanished from every inhabited world -- except Earth. The fertile colonies are too busy with farming and manufacturing and the stuff of simple survival to busy themselves with romantic notions. If you want to find a spouse and settle down, well, you can manage that much on Detroit III or Moracia. But if you want to feel the fires of passion, want to frantically clutch your beloved in the pale moonlight, want to swear undying fealty to the lover of your dreams, then Earth is the only place for you. Having long exhausted its natural resources, the mother planet has turned to more ... exotic forms of commerce. Earth has strict laws about only one thing: False advertising is completely prohibited. Alfred Simon of Kazanga IV has learned all this from a traveling merchant, and having sold his farm, he's traveled to humanity's homeworld to find true love.
Simon didn't know what to do first. Then he heard a staccato burst of gunfire behind him, and whirled.

It was only a shooting gallery, a long, narrow, brightly painted place with a waist-high counter. The manager, a swarthy fat man with a mole on his chin, sat on a high stool and smiled at Simon.

"Try your luck?"

Simon walked over and saw that, instead of the usual targets, there were four scantily dressed women at the end of the gallery, seated upon bullet-scored chairs. Each had a tiny bullseye painted on her forehead and above her heart.
"Pilgrimage to Earth" certainly stands out from a craft perspective. It reads like a one of those golden-era SF stories, with every planet dominated by a single ecosystem and its protagonist an aw-shucks good old boy. Heinlein's juveniles are probably the best reference point. However, Sheckley slips in pleasantly subversive asides that keep the proceedings interesting. Upon seeing a marquee advertising a film entitled TARZAN BATTLES THE SATURNIAN GHOULS, Simon remembers that the titular hero "was an ancient ethnic hero of earth." An amoral war merchant tries to sell the lad a heroic place in an ongoing conflict, either by aiding "the downtrodden workers of Peru ... engaged in a desperate struggle against a corrupt and decadent monarchy" or assisting "the wise old king of Peru (a philosopher-king in the deepest Platonic sense of the word)." Then there's the shooting gallery excerpted above, a shocking combination of absurdity and horror. Poking fun at old-time conventions is all well and good, but isn't Sheckley going a little far with the suggestion of gleefully gunning down innocents?
Mr. Tate pressed a button. Simon frowned indecisively. The door opened, a girl stepped in, and Simon stopped thinking.

She was tall and slender, and her hair was brown with a sheen of red. Simon could have told you nothing about her face, except that it brought tears to his eyes. And if you asked him about her figure, he might have killed you.

"Miss Penny Bright," said Tate, "meet Mr. Alfred Simon."
That question leads right to the subject with which this post began -- the story's theme. See, Sheckley wants to probe the tender parts of the human experience, its intimate joys and raw aches. Simon experiences one right after the other, because Earth does in fact sell love. How? "We can produce any feeling at will by conditioning and proper stimulation of certain brain centers," the proprietor of Love, Inc. tells hapless Simon. "The result? Penny, completely in love with you!" However, no one said he could keep that love. If you're sensing here something of a critique of morally untethered capitalism and overweening scientism, then your narrative compass is functioning perfectly. But the story also points out something far more basic. The final three sentences hold a twist as nasty as anything you'll find in noir, reminding us of the simple truth that hate lies a mere hair's breadth from love.

You can read "Pilgrimage to Earth" in Is That What People Do?

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