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I Started a Joke


By Robert Sheckley 

5 May, 2019

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Robert Sheckley’s 1966 Mindswap is a standalone SF comedy. 

Interplanetary travel is prohibitively expensive. Interstellar travel even more-so. Bad news for Marvin Flynn, a small town young man with the travel bug. 

Even though travelling in person is far too expensive for Marvin, there exists an affordable alternative. Simply dispatch his mind to some waiting body on a far-off world. What could go wrong? 

Marvin Flynn wakes in the body of a Martian named Ze Kraggash on Mars. Success! Except, as he soon discovers, Ze Kraggash is a being who is not entirely on the up and up. Kraggash is in fact a complete reprobate who has rented his body to two people simultaneously before fleeing with the funds to inhabit some other, unknown, host. This was very rude of Ze Kraggash as bodies can host but one mind at a time. 

Even more unfortunately, the first person to sign a contract with Ze Kraggash is the one with the right to the body. Marvin was the second person Ze Kraggash bilked, therefore Marvin has no right to the body in which his mind is ensconced. He must return home to Earth without ever seeing Mars. 

If only he could! The villainous Ze Kraggash has fled with Marvin’s body. If there isn’t a vacant body waiting in a transfer booth, Marvin’s mind cannot be re-homed. He will soon be bodiless, AKA dead. 

Marvin hires Urf Urdorf to track down Marvin’s body and the miscreant within it. Since Urf seems unlikely to succeed in time, Marvin turns to the Open Market, a disreputable mind-transfer service. Somewhere out in the stars, Marvin hopes, is an alien body in which he can dwell until Urf succeeds. 

Marvin’s problems are only just beginning. 


Many Sheckley stories (including Mindswap) feature characters of dubious competency (they think they know more than they do, they believe crazy things, they proceed without due caution, etc.). They are also all too easily distracted.

Case in point: a Martian cop investigating Ze Kraggash’s crimes has an illuminating conversation with a psychic also assigned to the case: 

Yes, you,’ the telepath said. You need not be surprised; grand larceny is the sort of thing about which most intelligent creatures feel guilty.’ 
Now just a minute!’ the policeman shouted. I haven’t committed any grand larceny!’ 
The telepath closed his eyes and introspected. At last he said, That is correct. I meant to say that you will perform grand larceny.’ 
Clairvoyance is not admissible as evidence in a court of law,’ the policeman stated. And furthermore, readings of the future are a direct violation of the law of free will.’ 
This is true,’ the telepath said. My apologies.’ 
It’s quite all right,’ the policeman said. When will I perform this alleged grand larceny?’ 
About six months hence,’ the telepath said. 
And will I be arrested?’ 
No. You will flee the planet, going to a place where there is no extradition law.’ 
Hmm, interesting,’ the policeman said. Could you tell me if … But we can discuss this later. 

Then there’s Detective Urf Urdorf’s understanding of probability: 

You must not be superstitious,’ the detective replied. The probabilities are there; even the most casual examination of the situation should convince you of that. I have been unable to solve 158 cases in a row. You are my 159th. How would you bet if you were a betting man?’ 
I’d stay with the run,’ Marvin said. 
So would I,’ the detective admitted, with a self-deprecating smile. But we would both be wrong, and would be betting on the basis of our emotions rather than on the calculations of our intellect.’ Urdorf looked at the ceiling dreamily. One hundred and fifty-eight failures! It’s a fantastic record, an unbelievable record, especially if you grant my incorruptibility, good faith, and skill. One hundred fifty-eight! A run like that simply has to break! I could probably sit here in my office and do nothing, and the criminal would find his way to me. That’s how strong the probabilities are in my favour.’ 

None of this adds up to a swift conclusion for poor Marvin’s case. 

Marvin keeps putting his trust in people (Ze Kraggash, the Martian policeman, Urf Urdorf) who are either malign or incompetent. Which suggests that Marvin himself could do with a competency upgrade. As long as you’re the reader, not the protagonist, this can be funny. Like watching home videos of people stepping on rakes, falling off chairs, walking into doors. Just don’t stop to empathize. Or wonder how applicable the vision of endless crowds of villains, incompetents, and incompetent villains is to the real world. 

One improbable event follows another at a madcap pace, which eventually overwhelms the plot. The novel collapses into absurdist nonsense at the end. But when it works, Mindswap is pretty funny.

Humourists like Douglas Adams cited Sheckley as an influence;

The SF writers I like best are the ones who are funny, and there are not many of them. Robert Sheckley. He’s a very, very funny writer. He’s also a stylist. Very few science fiction writers write English well. Robert Sheckley can.

It’s possible that if your favourite humourist sounds a bit like Sheckley — as if they had studied Sheckley’s books for pointers — it is because they did.

Mindswap is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca) and here (Chapters-Indigo).