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.

Friday, January 06, 2006

"Bad Medicine" by Robert Sheckley: An Appreciation by Jason Boog

I heard my first Robert Sheckley story on the old-time radio drama, X Minus One. Even though it was recorded twenty-five years before I was born, Sheckley's exuberant adjectives, alliterative phrases and deadpan delivery inspired my Star Wars-saturated imagination. Re-reading "Bad Medicine" this week, I could still hear Sheckley's radio voice booming:

Caswell was a choleric little man with fierce red eyes, bulldog jowls and ginger-red hair. He was the sort you would expect to find perched on a detergent box, orating to a crowd of lunching businessmen and amused students, shouting, "Mars for the Martians, Venus for the Venusians!"

But in truth, Caswell was uninterested in the deplorable social conditions of extraterrestrials. He was a jetbus conductor for the New York Rapid Transit Corporation. He minded his own business. And he was quite mad.

With pulp-fiction syntax and brassy vocabulary, "Bad Medicine" tells the story of a homicidal maniac named Caswell who ends up seeing a robot psychiatrist-—a special Martian "mechanotherapist" he bought from a hapless computer store employee. In this story, corporations like General Motors and IBM rule the world, paying a separate police department to enforce brand loyalty. Instead of Orwell's 1984, Sheckley sketches a hyper-consumerist, more familiar nightmare: a place where bad publicity can land employees in the dreaded "General Motors Reformatory" and consumers are addicted to fashionable machines that cure psychological defects.

In the science fiction pantheon, Sheckley's stories strike an odd balance between Philip K. Dick's paranoia and Ray Bradbury's sermonizing. Only Sheckley was cynical enough to imagine the science of psychological recovery commanded by robots; but conversely, only Sheckley was naive enough to imagine that Martian society could exist without a word for "murder."

Sheckley died last December, and was memorialized in quiet tributes. He never enjoyed the cult following (nor the cinematic success) of Phillip K. Dick, even though his stories counterpoint psychological fantasies like "Minority Report" or A Scanner Darkly. Even on X Minus One, the producers smothered his social satire with zany music and slapstick sound effects.

Still, Sheckley's stories beg to be re-read in this age of reality television and digital consumers, as John Kessel pointed out here. If you don't believe Kessel, just substitute the word "I-Pod" for "machine" in this passage. This crazy world will be emptier without Robert Sheckley . . .

The search for the missing customer had been brief and useless. He was nowhere to be found on the teeming New York streets and no one could remember seeing a red-haired, red-eyed little man lugging a black therapeutic machine.

It was all too common a sight.

Link to story.

Jason Boog is a
writer living in Brooklyn.


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