Options – Robert Sheckley

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Many book blogs have a rating system for their book reviews, involving stars or A+. Mine doesn’t because I didn’t think of doing that long after I’d started this site, and by then were too many reviews for me to be bothered revising. If I did have such a system, Robert’ Sheckley’s Options would get a question mark. But it would be made from gold.

Tom Mishkin is an astronaut stranded on an alien planet, who is searching for a missing ship part with the help of a surprisingly human robot. At first glance this seems like a fairly pedestrian premise, the sort of thing you’d expect from an iPhone game, but soon enough Sheckley abandons this straight-forward concept and uses it as a springboard into bizarrity.

About a third the way through Options, the Sheckley’s book adopts the structure of a Land of Oz novel. That is to say, the narrative is a series of self-contained episodes in which a human protagonist and manufactured being encounter several surreal entities that force you to ask the question “What drugs was the author taking?” The journey motif is also Oz-like, although obviously fantastic voyages go all the way back to the Odyssey. Really, all that’s missing is that Mishkin’s party doesn’t include a talking animal, although they do meet more than a few verbose creatures. And obviously they’re not in Oz – they’re on the planet Harmonia, which is worse.

The stuff that goes down on Harmonia is weirder than anything Frank Baum ever hallucinated, drifting straight into Monty Python and Samuel Beckett territory. The novel’s coherent beginning features a robot whose programmed personality drives him into an existential crisis, similar to Marvin the Paranoid Android who from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which first appeared as a radio show a year after Options was published in Britain. Mishkin and his robot companion encounter a carnivorous sandworm whose many heads act like racist Italian stereotypes, gruff city men playing poker on a thin bridge across a ravine, and a duke who imagines himself in and out of existence. The novel becomes truly post-modern is its second half, with Mishkin advising a replacement protagonist how to perform his role, the author cameoing to worry about how to end the novel, and a nested narrative in which a fat man in South-East Asia worries about how to get Mishkin his engine part before giving up.

I don’t believe Sheckley had a plan when writing this novel, or if he did that he abandoned it early on. A science-fiction book hasn’t bamboozled me so much since Creatures of Light and Darkness. This is practically a Zen novel, if you’re an adherent of the most fatuous form of Buddhism this book will catapult you into the most profound form of nirvana. For the rest of us, our response to incomprehensible and sometimes deliberately infuriating forms of art will dictate how we respond to the novel.

I’ll tell you who wouldn’t like this novel: the sort of people you find in creative writing tutorials at universities. If Sheckley showed them this they’d say, ‘Robert, this all very interesting, but it’s too dense. I don’t understand it, what does it mean?’ Of all the books I’ve read in my life, this one would be the worst for that audience.

This is a book I’d recommend towards Beckett fans who are convinced that science fiction cannot be Real Literature, Zen Buddhists, and anyone who can fully understand a Philip K Dick novel on first reading.

The other rating I’d give this book is WTF.

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