Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CXXVI (Lessing, Silverberg, Sheckley, Dickson)

I have yet to read anything by the Nobel Prize for Literature-winning author Doris Lessing…  And she wrote numerous SF novels—I’m very excited that I found one in a clearance section for 2$.  I also found one of the very few 1970s works by Silverberg not in my collection.  Dickson’s supposedly most mature novel (which I doubt is very good) also joins my collection.  So far the only Dickson I can tolerate are a handful of his short stories. And finally, my last acquisition is one of Robert Sheckley’s best-loved novels.


1. The Memoirs of a Survivor, Doris Lessing (1974)


(Brad Holland’s cover for the 1988 edition)

From the back cover: “In a beleaguered city where rats and roving gangs terrorize the streets, where government has broken down and meaningless violence holds sway, a woman—middle-aged and middle-class—is brought a twelve-year-old girl and told that it is her responsibility to save the child.  This book, which the author has called “an attempt at autobiography,” is that woman’s journal—a glimpse of a future only slightly more horrendous than our present, and of the forces that alone can save us from total destruction.”

2.  Born with the Dead, Robert Silverberg (1974)


(Jim Burns’ cover for the 1984 edition)

From the back cover: “For Sybille Klein, death was a chance to leave life’s pain and be rekindled to a strange half-life among others of her kind.  For her husband Jorge, it was the beginning of an obsessive quest to bring her back, to defy the boundaries of mortality itself.  BORN WITH THE DEAD, Rober Silverberg’s Nebula Award-winning novella, has been hailed as one of his finest works, a shattering clash between love and oblivion.  It is included here with two other powerful novellas of the human spirit—THOMAS THE PROCLAIMER and GOING—both nominated for the Nebula Award.

3.  The Far Call, Gordon R. Dickson (serialized: 1973)


(Robert Adragna’s cover for the 1978 edition)

From the back cover of a later edition with the same art: “ON THE THRESHOLD OF A COSMIC FUTURE.  Along with a very few among the Earthbound billions of the 1990s, Jens Wylie dreamed of a future for Man among the stars. He seized the chance to become US. Undersecretary for the Development of Space and to help plan the first manned Mars voyage.  But political compromise and corner-cutting built disaster into the expedition from the start.

And when disaster struck, threatening the lives of the marsnauts and the whole destiny of the human race in space, only Jens saw what had to be done—and to do it, he had to risk his own life, face the loss of the woman he loved, and defy the awesome power of the President of the United States.

Vivid in action and rich in character, The Far Call, by the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Timestorm, is a soaring epic of our own near future and of the dreamers and does who will make it come to pass.”

4. Mindswap, Robert Sheckley (1966)


(Howard Darden’s cover for the 1978 edition)

From the back cover: “It all started with a perfectly ordinary classified ad:

Gentleman from Mars, age 43, quiet, studious, cultured, wishes to exchange bodies with similarly inclined Earth gentleman; August 1-September 1.  References exchanged.  Brokers.  Protected.”

At 31, Marvin Flynn was practically an adult; was it merely the visages of adolescent foolishness that sent him to the body-brokerage firm of Otis, Blanders and Klent?  Or was it extraterrestrial fervor?  Whatever it was, Marvin knew he must see the Burrows of Mars, the Talking Ocean, the Disappearing Desert and—above all—Mud Heaven.

What he didn’t know was that more than one person had claims on the body of Ze Kraggash, and that before he was finished he would see more strange sights—through even stranger eyes—than he had ever imagined; that in his desperate struggle for continued corporeal existence he would fall prey to Metaphoric Deformation, the limitations of the Set-Expansion Factor, and at last descended/ascend/extend to the strange and unexplainable reached of the Twisted World—for the ultimate MINDSWAP.”

29 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CXXVI (Lessing, Silverberg, Sheckley, Dickson)

  1. Silverberg’s BWTD,is an excellent novella,one of the best I should think in sf history.The prose is so pristine and readable,while the theme of resurrection is handled in a deftly bleak manner,that leaves no dought of it’s futility.”Thomas the Proclaimer” is a rather lesser piece,but is quite good though.

    Philip K.Dick also dealt with the resurrection theme in his short story,”Apon the Dull Earth” and the novel “Counter-Clock World”,from a theological viewpoint,with rather more devastating results,but BWTD is perhaps presented in a more slick and conservative manner.

    Sheckley novel,of the four of his I’ve read,is a middleweight book I thought,reminisent of Philip K.Dick,particularly the ending

    • I suspect I’ll love the novellas in the collection. He has long been one of my favorite authors!

      (Read Counter Clock World, we’ve discussed it extensively in the past, and thought it was middling PKD at best).

      Not sure how Sheckley reminds you of PKD (albeit, have not read Mindswap yet). Sheckley has a very distinct style which is rather different than PKD’s more surreal humor. Although, Sheckley utilizes unusual situations as well.

      • I’m sure you will like BWTD.The best of his short stuff is equal to his novels.

        “Counter-Clock World” I can’t really say is among the very best of his novels,but the consequences for those resurrected,is both diabolical and pointnant I thought.I think it’s too short a novel that fails to reach a significant climax.

        Robert Sheckley is quite distinct from Dick.In MS however,he seems to have burrowed ideas that seem to show him out of his depth I think…..probably.

  2. Doris Lessing is pretty rad, haven’t read many of her early novels but there’s a reason she’s claimed by both SF and mainstream lit—great writer at her best. That’s one of the better Sheckleys I’m told, have yet to find a copy. Eww, Dickson. Yay, Silverberg. Etc.

  3. I just finished my first Sheckley ever, the 1971 collection, “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?” I’m sorry to say it didn’t impress me, though I liked one story, “The Petrified World.” The impression I have of Sheckley right now is that he was a writer of mildly amusing, sometimes interesting fluff. Maybe his particular sense of humor just isn’t my cup of tea. Maybe it was a mistake not to begin with whichever book of his is considered a classic. That’s arguably the right approach to take with any author. So I’ll hold off final judgment until I’ve read his best. Then again, Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing the collection for the New York Times, began by saying, “Sheckley is a reliable writer …” Is that damning with faint praise?

    • I think you have to be in the right mood for Sheckley – and I don’t mean altered by chemicals, although it might help. Like Twain, Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, Sheckley’s stories, whether shorts or novels, were really a series of humorous incidents. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, and it really depends on the moment you’re in.

      What’s weird is some of his ideas stick with you, and years, or even decades later, you’ll experience something in reality and you’ll remember that story as a Sheckley moment. Then it will be even funnier.

      I tend to think Sheckely peaked between 1955-1965.

      • It might be too that Sheckley took me back to a ’60s mindset or worldview that was rather weird. One that I shared at the time, but which now gives me the heebie jeebies. At least I didn’t toss the book in the “to be sold or traded” pile, like I did with an Ellison collection I recently tried to read (I couldn’t get past the first two stories). I disliked it for the same reason.

        • I understand that feeling. With both Sheckley and Ellison, and many of the stories from the 1960s, they try to hard to be hip with the times, or even weird with the times, and today that often fails. Ellison sometimes had this chip on his shoulder he ran around daring people to knock off. On the other hand, when his stories did work, they worked very well. I still love “Jeffty is Five.”

          • “Jeftty is Five”,is excellent.I read it in a British hardcover anthology published by Chandler Press,and includes such gems as “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Graiule” by Lucius Shepard,”The Accountant” by Robert Sheckley,”The Cloud Sculpturers of Coral-D” by J.G.Ballard,”Downtown” by Tom Disch,”The Manor of Roses” by Thomas Burnett Swann,and “San Diego,Lightfoot Sue” by Tom Reamy,among others.

            Ellison’s short piece was easyly the best though I thought,despite the high standard of quality of the others I mentioned.

            • Those are some great stories. I’ve been wanting to reread “The Cloud Sculptors of Coral-D” for a long time, which I first came across in F&SF back when I was a kid. And you never hear the name Thomas Burnett Swann much anymore.

            • Yes,the book’s is called “Great Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction”.I’ve read all of Ballard’s stuff in “The Collected Stories” by him.As for Swann,he’s been dead nearly forty years,which needless to say,is largely why he’s faded into obscurity.

              I’ve read his “Green Phoenix” and “The Day of the Minotaur”.His stuff was never powerful enough it seems to stand against the real sf giants,but TDOTM was nominated for a Nebula in 1966.

    • I have not read that collection. I would claim that Theodore Sturgeon fits that description… “is a reliable writer.” I prefer Sheckley over his work. By a long shot…

      • Hmmm. I recently read Sturgeon’s “Slow Sculpture” (Hugo and Nebula awards) in an anthology. The first Sturgeon I’ve read in forty years. I was impressed by the maturity underlying the story. Something I like. Whereas Sheckley’s stories (which I recognize may not be his best) all had a feeling of adolescence about them. Something I don’t like. Ah well. Maybe it’s my age, and the fact that some authors are best appreciated at certain times of life. I didn’t care for Sturgeon at all forty years ago, but probably would have liked Sheckley if I had first encountered him then.

  4. I’m looking forward to your review of Born with the Dead!

    In college, over twenty years ago, I was supposed to read Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, but I think I just skimmed enough to get by. More than once I have seen hard cover sets of the Canopus in Argos books in used bookstores and considered buying them because I thought they looked really nice on the shelf, sort of modern and classy, but I never actually pulled the trigger.

  5. I read The Memoirs of a Survivor, as a teenager in the 70s when it first came out. I recall feeling a little underwhelmed. I then read a shed load of Lessing some five years ago, starting with The Grass is Singing and then working my way through the Children of Violence quintet, The Golden Notebook. Essentially, I was reading her works chronologically. The Four Gated City, the final volume of the Children of Violence, charts the doings of Martha Quest during the 1950s. In the previous novels in the series, Martha is shown growing up in Southern Africa during the 30s, joining the Communist Party in the 40s, marrying, having children etc. In short, Lessing’s own experiences turned into a bildungsroman. The Four Gated City shows Lessing’s interest in psychotherapy and mental illness and, I think, spends a lot of time navel gazing. There is a coda to the novel, which takes place after a nuclear disaster/3rd world war and is set in the 1990s – so the novel has been claimed as straying into science fictional territory. This coda is the only place where, for me, the novel shows any liveliness. Lessing was very concerned with mental breakdown and illness, in her subsequent novels – brilliantly in The Golden Notebook, turgidly in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Then came Memoirs of a Survivor – I didn’t like it much, the 2nd time around, either, I tried reading the Canopus stuff, but just could not get through it. Then, in the 1980s, she published The Good Terrorist, a realist novel about a group of young left wing activists in London. This is a very fine novel and shows her back on form. Lessing was a very uneven writer. I will be very interested to know what you make of Memoirs of a Survivor.

    • I have high hopes! Obviously I’m not going to be able to fit it into the greater scope of her work as you have. I also enjoy novels that take the form of journals or other written documents — epistolary novels etc.

  6. I look forward to seeing your review of “Born with the Dead”. I’ve read that one twice recently, the second time with its sequel from Damien Broderick.

    • I suspect I’ll enjoy it. Make sure to check out my other Silverberg reviews (he’s one of my favorites). I’ve reviewed Downward to the Earth (1970). Godling, Go Home! (1964), Hawksbill Station (1968), The Man in the Maze (1969), Master of Life and Death (1957), Needle in a Timestack (1966), The Second Trip (serialized: 1971), The Time Hoppers (1967), Time of the Great Freeze (1964), The World Inside (1971)
      Thorns (1967), To Live Again (1969), To Open the Sky (1967)

      • Of these I’ve only read “Downward to the Earth”,”The Time Hoppers” and “Thorns”.DTTE is truly excellent,although I haven’t read it for many years,while “Thorns”,although quite well composed,was written a little too self consciously I think,with artless symbolism,and is upper middle rank.”The Time Hoppers” though,was a poor average.

        I’ve missed out on a few of these I suppose,but think “Hawksbill Station” is probably the best.

  7. While I appreciate and like Jim Burns’ art and have two volumes of his works, his people always seem zonked out, like they’ve just taken a hit of something.

  8. I recently read Sheckley’s Mindswap (the British 70’s edition has a much better cover image) and was rather underwhelmed, even though I had been looking forward to it, for the last…oh, 25 years, since I had first bought it!

    It starts off very well and contains some wonderful ideas, but, as it goes on, it tends to meander too much and tries too hard to be abstract, or Modernist, or Surrealistic. It throws out crazy concepts all over the place, which become muddled, irrelevant and slightly irritating, as the story progresses.

    The biggest annoyance is that such ideas don’t seem to follow any Internal Logic* in the universe they are set in, and just because it is meant to be a satirical novel, doesn’t mean that such basic rules shouldn’t apply. The concepts are just ‘bizarre’, and that’s it – which can sometimes feel like a plot structure cop-out. The more it flourishes such ‘wacky’ ideas and fragmentary narrative, the more it becomes self-consciously ‘hip’ (for the era it was written in) and thus partly fails in it’s mission.

    I still think it is worth reading, though, as a generally good, but flawed novel, and would give it 7 out of 10 for effort and some fun ideas (with a few very funny lines and situations, too).

    ( *my own pet theory, which I will explain if need be, though the term is pretty self-explanatory )

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