Book Review: Journey Beyond Tomorrow (variant title: The Journey of Joenes), Robert Sheckley (1962)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1962 edition)

4.75/5 (Very Good)

“Beyond a doubt, Joenes himself was an actual person; but there is no way of determining the authenticity of every story told about him.  Some of the tales do not appear to be factual accounts, but rather, moral allegories.  But even those that are considered allegorical are representative of the spirit and temper of the times” (vii).

Robert Sheckley’s third novel Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962)—after Immortality, Inc. (1959) and The Status Civilization (1960)—is a wildly successful episodic novel that plays to his strengths as a short story author.  In a similar but less radical manner as George Alec Effinger’s What Entropy Means to Me (1972), Sheckley subverts the notion of narrative truth and by so doing explores the complex nature of storytelling.

In the “introduction”  to the account of Joenes’ journey across America in the 21st century, the “editors” of the text describe how it is culled together in the future from sparse and fragmentary records—“these are: ‘Lum’s Meeting with Joenes’ from the Book of Fiji, Orthodox Edition, and ‘How Lum Joined the Army,’ also from the Book of Fiji, Orthodox Edition” (viii).  But the account is not limited to written texts but also the oral traditions transmitted by five Pacific Islanders, Ma’aoa of Samoa, Maubingi of Tahiti, Paaui of Fiki, Pelui of Easter Islands, and Teleu of Huahine (viii).

Each of the episodic fragments differ drastically in telling: each contain “various viewpoints, idiosyncrasies, moralities, styles, comments, and so forth” (viii).  They range from first person accounts that read as if they are straightforward narratives to finely wrought Borgesian allegories in highly metaphoric environments.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Sometime around the year 3000 A.D. the editors of the volume transcribe the oral legends and gather the remaining text fragments about the life and journey of a young man named Joenes that occurred around the year 2000 A.D.  Joenes lived on an atoll near the island of Tahiti where his parents managed electricity generating equipment.  After the death of his parents Joenes decides to travel to his parents’ homeland, “there to see with his own eyes the wonders about which he had read, to discover if his destiny lay there” (11).

Joenes himself is a well-meaning but incredibly naïve about the workings of the unusual America he experiences…  He encounters Lum, a guitar playing, peyote ingesting beatnik who later ends up in an asylum.  Their encounter is told through Lum’s eyes, who does not remember all the details of their fateful meeting that ended with Joenes’ arrest: “But Joenes then made a speech [to the police] which was a beauty, and I cannot recall it word for word, but the idea was that laws are made by man and thus must partake of the evil nature of man, and that true morality lies in following the true dictates of the illuminated soul” (16).  Soon Joenes is carted before a McCarthey-esque Congressional Committee where he is accused of being a Communist.

In following chapters Joenes is granted a pardon by the Oracle, enters the Hollis Home for the Criminally Insane where the doctors attempt to cure their patients by recreating their delusions, becomes a faculty of Pacific history at a University that runs a secret utopia with disturbing secrets, decides to join the government but gets lost on the way in labyrinthine Octagon government complex whose floor plan changes at the whim of the higher echelons who order the creation of fallacious maps, and travels to Communist Russia…

Final Thoughts

The oral legends that comprise many of these chronologically organized episodes are told by Pacific islanders cut off from the rest of the world.  Hence, fragments of unrelated western culture, for example Greek myth and historical figures such as Rousseau, are interwoven into the narrative.  The political history of America is combined with Classical Greek history (Athens, Sparta, Corinth). Joenes encounters Edwin J. Minotaurus and Theseus inside the maze-like Octagon.

Some episodes are constructed as moral allegories for the edification of the the audience of the storytellers: for example, the story of “Joenes and the Three Truck Drivers” where the first truck driver tells of how he questioned science and found religion, the second truck driver questioned his idealism of good government and found science,   and the third truck driver questioned religion and found the idealism of good government (and of course none of them listen to story told by the others) (32).

Journey Beyond Tomorrow contains Sheckley’s single most brilliant sequence I have yet encountered: the story of how Joenes entered the Government and his adventures inside the Octagon.  I wonder if Sheckley read any of Borges’ fiction–some was translated into English in the 40s but more obvious models, such as “The Library of Babel” (1948) did not appear in translation until 1962.

The Octagon, a vast government complex, is mapped by cartographers who attempt to create the perfect fake plan.  Ostensibly to trap spies who think that the plan is actually a cypher for what really exists. In a tale within the tale we learn of a spy who tried to decode the map, “First, I know that the map is important.  Everything about it, and everything that I have ever experienced, leads me to this premise.  I also know that the map does not seem to represent the building it is supposed to represent.  Quite obviously there is a relationship of some kind between the map and the building” (99).  Joenes, in an attempt to find his new office, naturally gets lost and infuriated by the fake plan.  But then again, no one else seems to know where anything is.  And the walls and rooms and numbers all seem to change.  Unusual dramas take place in the hallways… 

The cumulative experience generated by the various modes of telling, stylized environments is highly rewarding.  Sheckley’s wit and invention that characterizes his short story collections—for example,   Citizen in Space (1955), The People Trap (1968), and Store of Infinity (1960)—is successfully integrated into the novel format.  For all fans of science fiction…  A touch of the New Wave before the New Wave…

Highly recommended.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

(Uncredited cover—I would wager Josh Kirby—for the 1966 edition)

(Jerome Podwil’s brilliant cover for the 1969 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)

(David Bergen’s cover for the 1979 edition)

31 thoughts on “Book Review: Journey Beyond Tomorrow (variant title: The Journey of Joenes), Robert Sheckley (1962)

  1. I’ve been hankering for some Sheckley late. I reread Mindswap awhile back and have been wanting to reread Dimension of Miracles. I’ve never read Journey of Joneses. I’d also like to find is a good short story collection. Back in the 1960s me and my high school buddies just loved Sheckley and would discuss and laugh at his wild ideas. But I’ve sort of forgotten about him over the years.

    • James, but it doesn’t seem like a book you’d like at all… it’s in part a SATIRE! (I remember your lengthy condemnation/dismissal of satire). It’s not trying to be realistic or remotely interested in realism, it is about the nature of storytelling and the complex notion of narrative “truth,” it’s obviously a moral allegory in parts, filled with metaphorical landscapes, more about the operations of narrative than narrative… it’s an amalgamate telling exploring the nature of telling.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to this book, I am intrigued. Have made a note of the author’s name in my notebook and will consider him when next I decide to review some SF. Great site by the way, you clearly know your stuff. 🙂

  3. I’ve said before,I don’t remember much about JBT,and I only read a library copy,so don’t have one available,and reading your review hasn’t sparked any particular memories of it.Despite this,I know I quite liked it at the time,more so than “Immortality Inc.” and “The Status Civilization”,which I’d also liked,but It was more complex,and the details now escape me.I have to say however,that I don’t think it made a lasting impression on me.

    I’m glad you mentioned Borges;I’ve said on the Neither Kings nor Americans blog that his short story,”Funes the Memorius”,seemed to be an influence on Dick’s early novel,”The World Jones Made”.Much of your review sounds as if it was largely influenced by Kafka also,which funnily enough,I also cited as an influence on Dick,which I know to be true.Something was going on here.

    I’ve already said that this novel was one of those that was shaping modern sf during the early 1960s.When everybody was screaming about the Beatles,another,much greater revolution was happening within sf,that went unnoticed!

    • I enjoyed The Status Civilization as well.

      Borges has long been one of my favorites… The only Kafka-esque portion of the novel concerns the Octagon (and that is party inspired by the Minotaur legend). But yes, the situation might be Kafka-esque ibut Sheckley (as you know) is rather more light-hearted and playful. We are not meant to experience an existential crisis as he wanders the hallways…

  4. Jack Kirby did covers? Do you mean Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics fame?

    Anyway, this sounds marvellous, I’m glad I kept the link to your review. I’ve not heard of it before but it sounds rather wonderful, clever and meta but not too much of either. I’ll look out for it.

    Not sure I love any of those covers. The Lehr may be the best but it’s not as clear cut as some I’ve seen here.

  5. Yes Josh Kirby,not Jack the American comic book artist,and he was English.Anyway,the other one’s real name was Jacob Rubenstein.

          • I used to be a big fan of comics,especially Marvel,so I new Kirby’s stuff well.Another comic artist,who was influenced by him,but was probably better,was Jim Steranko.He did most of his early and most famous stuff for Marvel.I can’t describe his art if you haven’t seen it,but I can tell you,he was a genius,whose work combined the best of comic and graphic art,and the likes of the more famous Wharhol and Litchenstein couldn’t hold a candle to him.

  6. Have you read the F&SF abridged version for comparison? That’s the only one I’ve read.

    I can see why this book appeals to you, and I think it’s successful so far as it goes, but I far prefer Sheckley’s prior short fiction.

    Journey feels like Sheckley’s attempt to make a philosophical masterpiece, one which would define the 1960s.

    Instead, Stranger in a Strange Land won that title (feh), and who remembers Journey? Or Sheckley at all, for that matter?

    • I missed this comment — apologies (often happens on older reviews if readers leave new comments as they don’t come up in my feed). Is it actually abridged or a story that was expanded into the novel later?

      There is nothing wrong with an attempt to make a philosophical masterpieces — and it would be ridiculous of us to think that an author didn’t want their work to define a decade….

  7. I finally read this novel, and I agree it’s great. While my personal Sheckley favorite is Dimension of Miracles, I can readily accept arguments that this is Sheckley’s best given the blending of relevant material in literary fashion you deftly describe in your review. Have you read Dimension?

    • Have y’all tried listening to Sheckley? Many of his classic novels have been reprinted as audiobooks, and they are wonderful. In fact, Dimension of Miracles has a wonderful introduction by Neil Gaiman. Sheckley’s humor begs to be performed. Each chapter or short story is like a comedy sketch. Untouched by Human Hands, one of his best short story collections really shines on audio.

      • I’m glad they’ve been released as audiobooks. But, they’re not for me. As I tend to write reviews of the works I read, I take notes and mark in the books with pencil — so, I only listen to audiobooks for SF I’d never review — i.e. newer stuff.

        • That’s why I often end up buying both audiobooks and ebook/printed books. I need to see the words to review them. I prefer ebooks because I can easily quote from them. But for pure pleasure and experiencing fiction to its fullest, I prefer audio. Great writing shines when it’s read aloud. And the difference between good and bad dialog writing pops out on audio.

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