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.

"Charlie's Angels" by Terry Bisson: An Appreciation by John Borneman

I am not always a fan of Terry Bisson's work--many of his stories tend to use the "smack the reader upside the head with a message" school of writing. However, no one can deny the impact he has had on the world of the speculative fiction short story. After all, "Bears Discover Fire" managed, in 1990/1991, to win the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards.

Fortunately, Ellen Datlow obviously enjoys Terry's work. She has given us many opportunities to read Bisson's stories on the virtual pages of SCI FICTION. Five
stories, if my count is correct.

But "Charlie's Angels" is my favorite. It not only appeals to my love of the 'hard boiled detective story' but it also appeals to me as a writer. Simply stated, Charlie's Angels is Writing 101.

Looking for hints on writing tight snappy dialogue? How can you miss with phrases like:

"The moon doesn't come up until after midnight," I said. "If I'm staying the night, you're paying expenses. And I don't eat pizza plain."

"Make it pepperoni on one side and mushrooms on the other," said Prang, as she tore open a new pack of Camels with her teeth. "I'm a vegetarian."

I love the juxtaposition of a name like "Prang," ripping open cigarettes with her teeth, while asserting herself as a vegetarian. Priceless!

Or are you wondering about how to create pacing and carry the reader from scene to scene to scene? No problem. Professor Bisson instructs:

"Two uniformed cops wearing rubber gloves were standing over a crumpled wad of clothing and flesh by the door. Two forensics in white coats were taking pictures and making notes on handheld computers.

I joined them, curiosity and nausea fighting within me. As a private eye you see a lot of things, but rarely a man with his head pinched off.

Nausea won.


"Our former Security Exec," said Prang, nodding toward the headless body on the floor as I returned from throwing up in the men's room. . . "

But maybe your style tends toward the subtle. In that case, maybe this scene transition appeals to you more:

She closed her purse and walked out the door without answering, but not before handing me two reasons to follow her. Each was printed with a picture of a President I had never had the good fortune to encounter before.


"Now that I'm on retainer," I said, folding the bills as I followed her out onto Bourbon Street, "perhaps you can tell me what this is all about."

But seriously, "Charlie's Angels" propels the reader through the story, fast and furiously, without sacrificing understanding or enjoyment. This is not a story
that slowly and gently unfolds. It is not a story to savor, but devour. Unless, that is, you want to linger over phrases such as: "We parked in front of Starbucks where the BMW wouldn't be so conspicuous"

The finish slows the reader down, artfully and without notice. Terry begins to get to the point--and not in an aggressive or in your face way--he develops the reasons for the story and mankind's dilemma elegantly and without unneeded drama.

This story opened my eyes to what writing could be. It was written in a style I enjoyed and gave me a goal in my journey toward personal writing success.

If you haven't read this one yet, go read it now. But wear your seatbelt, it's a wild ride.

Link to Story