Again and Again

It was a mistake to time my round-up of SF deaths in 2005 for our January 2006 issue. While that column was in the pipeline, the Grim Reaper claimed two more authors who loomed large in my personal map of science fiction.

Robert Sheckley (born 1928), one of the great American pioneers of intelligently humorous and satirical SF, died on 9 December aged 77. After surviving critical respiratory illness last spring and major heart surgery in June, he had an unexpected brain aneurism in November and never recovered.

Sheckley entered the SF scene with a blizzard of 1950s and 1960s short stories that ranged from engaging nonsense (he had a particular gift for silly names), through clever gadgetry and twist endings worthy of Saki or O. Henry, to dark satires whose comedy verged on nihilism. "Voltaire-and-soda" was Brian Aldiss's description. Kingsley Amis called Sheckley "science-fiction's premier gadfly" but later decided: "A gadfly is a force that provokes you into doing something, whereas all Sheckley provokes you into doing is reading more Sheckley."

Particularly charming is his "Specialist", revealing that humanity's glorious forgotten destiny is to be a component of an organic spaceship. Another short, "Seventh Victim" (1953), was famously filmed as The Tenth Victim, featuring Ursula Andress as a lady assassin firing bullets from her double-barrelled bra. Several stories predicted the excesses of reality TV, long before this satirical idea came true. One even featured a school for wizards (not called Hogwarts). His inventive first novel Immortality Inc. was adapted for the BBC SF drama series Out of the Unknown, and – much later – totally botched as the movie Freejack.

Often his long fiction was deliriously uneven, the mark of a brilliant short-story writer floundering at book length. My favourites are Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962), Dimension of Miracles (1968) and especially Mindswap (1966) – all crammed with anarchic humour and increasingly unreliable realities. The climax of Mindswap is an epic duel in the "Twisted World" where logic and causality break down in a tour-de-force of sustained, surreal invention. Many readers felt that the humour of Douglas Adams's Hitch-Hiker novels was highly derivative of Sheckley.

In person he was genial, soft-spoken and unfailingly witty, a popular convention guest. Only health problems kept him from appearing at the 2005 Glasgow Worldcon as a guest of honour. Though his finest work appeared in decades when SF humour was sadly underrated, Sheckley received Hugo nominations and other acclaim from the fan community, and was much loved.

Though less of a public figure, the British author Kenneth Bulmer (born 1921) also had many devoted fans and friends. Part-paralysed by a stroke in 1997, he died in a Tunbridge Wells nursing home on 16 December 2005.

This is a personal blow. I first saw Ken Bulmer as the awesome guest of honour at my very first SF convention. Despite this godlike status, he was actually prepared to talk to and encourage new, callow fans like me. What's more, while editing the British anthology series New Writings in SF, Ken was the first man in the history of the universe to buy a Langford SF story.

Alas, I repaid him with mockery. He was a prolific author in many genres, under many pseudonyms. (Bibliographer Steve Holland calculated that the recent The Steel Claw: The Invisible Man, collecting some 1962-63 Valiant comic strips, was his 189th book.) One set of SF potboilers appeared under the byline "Tully Zetford" and starred a bizarrely foul-mouthed space adventurer called Hook, the Boosted Man. I and a pal couldn't resist writing spoof stories about Lynan Synker the Rubberised Man ("Eczema-sniffing spirochaete!"), and submitting them to New Writings in SF ...

We tremblingly awaited lightning bolts from a wrathful Bulmer, but all that happened was that the next Hook episode introduced two inept young agents called Line and Synker. "Eczema-sniffing spirochaete!" they swore, with "a wit derived from rubberisation of the brain-faculties." Oops. Authors always get the last word.

I think Ken's Hornblower-like "Fox" naval adventures were his personal favourites. Best known, though, is the long-running Kregen series of swashbuckling space operas, echoing Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom. These were bylined Alan Burt Akers or (on later volumes) Dray Prescot, the name of the series hero. Worth a look if you can find them – though the final 15 of the 58 titles appeared only in German translation.

Thinking back, I owe a lot to Ken Bulmer.

David Langford's brain-faculties are still rubberised.

Robert Sheckley was also Guest of Honour at Skycon, the 1978 British Eastercon. Various appreciations – including the Kingsley Amis one quoted above – appeared in the Skycon programme book, edited by yours truly. They can be read on this site in Cloud Chamber 132.