The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"The Prize of Peril," by Robert Sheckley: An Appreciation by John Kessel

This one I remember reading as a kid, probably twelve or thirteen, a few years after it was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. At the time it seemed an outrageous satire: a TV show where an ordinary guy volunteers to be chased down by gangland killers? Camera crews following him through the streets? Helicopters and Good Samaritans? It seemed an impossibly dystopian America where big media has grown like a cancer to destroy any sense of reality or civic decency. Remember, this was at a time when there were three broadcast networks--more like two and a half, with ABC a fledgling--and the limit of TV risk was The $64,000 Question.

But looking back from the age of Survivor and The Amazing Race and Fear Factor, Sheckley's preposterous exaggeration seems like cool prescience. "The Prize of Peril" has it all-—the unctuous TV host "Mike Terry", the real-life contestant chosen because he's handsome and not too smart, the engaged and participating audience, the vicarious thrills edging toward obscenity. A populace glued to their televisions, whose lives are so hollow, whose prospects are so limited, whose dazzlement by the celebrity culture is so complete that the chance to be famous is worth any risk. Jim's truck driver friend clues him in on the chance he has to make it big:

"In the old days you had to be a professional boxer or footballer or hockey player if you wanted your brains beaten out legally for money. But now that opportunity is open to ordinary people like you, Jim."

"I see," Raeder said again.

"It's a marvelous opportunity."

Sheckley's cynicism about the public is complete. The moral posturing of Mike Terry and his flattery of the audience's concern for Jim is a thin veil over excited voyeurism and complicity. For every Good Samaritan ready to help Jim escape there is an informer eager to see him die.

Jim Raeder is an average man. Like a Frank Capra hero, like Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe, Jim is the people. He's good looking (an ugly person can't be the people), and in no way intimidating (neither can a smart one). But this story is a slap in the face of Capracorn: the average man is a moron, and the engaged citizenry has become a passive audience. Democracy has turned into sublimation, torture, and vicarious thrills.

Sometimes, reaching for outrage, the satirist hits closer to home than the writer who confines himself to the probable. Here's a quote I just copied from a TV listing for next week:

Teams of two compete in extreme stunts for keys to unlock a submerged car containing one million dollars. Stunts include a helicopter stunt and crawling through a ventalation [sic] system with rats, spiders, and flames. Also, [the show] travels to Phoenix, Arizona for an all new Home Invasion segment.

Link to story.

John Kessel teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University. He has published three novel and more than fifty short stories, two of which were published on SCI FICTION.


Blogger mike weber/fairportfan said...

Amazing how the summary sort of reminds me of a film featuring some big dumb muscle guy who'd make a perfect gevernor or other...

7:29 AM  
Anonymous mjhollman said...

And you wrote this long b/f "Hunger Games."
This story is one reason I somewhat disdain HG.

7:51 AM  

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