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Running For The Shelter

Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?

By Robert Sheckley 

10 Dec, 2023

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Robert Sheckley’s 1971’s Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is a collection of short science fiction stories.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Sheckley’s death. Odd coincidence. 

When rereading this slender DAW mass market paperback, I noticed the narrow range of publication dates (this was the second thing I noticed; see1). All of the stories were published between 1969 and 1971. Ten are from 1971 alone. Given that Sheckley often struggled with writer’s block, the burst of productivity is impressive.

Happily for me, the collection spared me the effort of tracking down the original publications to see which magazines benefited from this burst of energy. In order of frequency: Playboy (4), BOAC2 (2), The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (2), Galaxy (1), and If (1). This accounts for ten. The other stories appear to have been original to this volume. Sheckley used to be a Galaxy regular before he moved to Playboy. That outlet paid a lot better than standard SF magazines, so the move would have been good for Sheckley’s wallet3.

The third thing that I noticed: yes, these are short stories, but they are very short stories. The DAW paperback is only 160 pages, which means that, on average, each story is about nine or ten pages long. No need to worry about narrative fatigue!

Drawn from so narrow a period, the collection highlights Sheckley’s borderline New Wave proclivities. His fiction was always often absurd, but these stories can veer into surreal nonsense. This will not be a surprise to readers of his Mindswap and Options. Many of these stories are very minor but as they are so short, I did not resent this. 

Readers curious about the fiction of a now lamentably obscure satirist from extremely specific period in his career should seek out this volume.

Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble) and here (Kobo). I did not find Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? at Amazon UK or Chapters-Indigo. Yes, I did expect the Kobo edition to be visible at Chapters.

Now for the deep dive.

Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?” • (1969)

An infatuated machine’s bid to seduce a sexually-unsatisfied woman runs aground on the shoals of self-actualization.

Which is to say, if she is going to have a fulfilling sex-life, it will be on her terms, not someone else’s. It’s a valid point, but I don’t know if Sheckley saw it that way. He might have thought it pure obstructionism on her part. The story was published in 1969 and it did appear in Playboy.

Cordle to Onion to Carrot” • (1969)

A man finds purpose in being a complete asshole.

This is more or less the same chain of logic that recently led to an encounter on the streets of Kitchener, when some random nutter tried to grab my throat while screaming that I was an NPC (non-player character). That only some people are real and others mere supporting characters to abuse at whim has long been a very popular belief.

The Petrified World” • (1968)

An unhappy man becomes trapped in a horrible static world.

His hallucination is our reality! A punch-line of a kind of which Sheckley would not tire.

Game: First Schematic” • (1971)

Our protagonist plays a vaguely described sportsball. He plays it well.

Doctor Zombie and His Little Furry Friends” • (1971)

An ambitious but reclusive scientist is exposed and punished, although not for his actual research, which puny minds cannot comprehend.

The Cruel Equations” • (1971)

Barred from the life-giving water by a security robot, a desperate space explorer must find a way around the robot’s inflexible programming.

This could have been a classic Eisenhower-era Sheckley story. The solution points to a problem with Asimov’s Three Laws, which is that all you need to do to get an Asimovian robot to murder humans is to provide it with sufficiently limited definition of human.

The Same to You Doubled” • (1970)

A New Yorker is offered three wishes by a representative of Hell, the catch being that whatever the New Yorker wishes for, his worst enemy will get double. How to maximize personal benefit while displeasing his enemy?

Starting from Scratch” • (1970)

A man discovers his unthinking habits imperil a civilization. To save that civilization requires personal sacrifice. Can he pay the price?

The price is that he refrain from scratching one particular knuckle for a short time. What makes this SF or F is that the minor inconvenience does not inspire our hero to commit immediate genocide.

The Mnemone” • (1971)

Security requires conformity and ignorance. Too bad for the bibliophile who remembers too much.

Tripout” • (1971)

An Aldebaranian tourist enjoys life on that odd planet known as Earth.

Notes on the Perception of Imaginary Differences” • (1971)

Two prisoners use applied logic and obfuscation to escape prison for a life of enhanced confusion.

Down the Digestive Tract and Into the Cosmos with Mantra, Tantra, and Specklebang” • (1971)

A drug user enjoys transformed reality.

Sheckley was almost as keen on what if my protagonists took drugs?” as he was what if reality isn’t what the reader expects?” I suspect that’s causality, not correlation.

Pas de Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer” • (1971)

Three people’s lives entwine, each of them coming away convinced that they are the villain of the story.

Each of the trio is too focused on their personal narrative to compare notes or they’d know that all of them are incorrect about the events they lived through.

Aspects of Langranak” • (1971)

An interstellar envoy recounts the tale of a disappointing assignment.

Plague Circuit” • (1971)

A salesman’s bad timing facilitates musing on the human need to have their numbers culled.

Curing overpopulation the mass-death way is an evergreen notion.

Tailpipe to Disaster” • (1971)

A determinedly cliché space adventure, populated by cardboard idiots. Pew! Pew! Pew!

1: The first thing I noticed was that my MMPB was published by DAW and not, as was more common for my Sheckley MMPBs, Ace.

2: Presumably this refers to a British Overseas Airways Corporation in-flight magazine.

3: Like most grade-schoolers, I was a regular Playboy reader — kids have to learn about high quality audio systems from somewhere! — but I don’t remember these particular Sheckleys or the covers of the issues in question. I probably should not add Sheckley to the list of authors like Niven that I first encountered in Playboy.