[Gregor] pushed the list aside, found a pack of tattered cards, and laid out a hopeless solitaire of his own devising.
Minutes later, Arnold stepped jauntily in.
Gregor looked at his partner with suspicion. When the little chemist walked with that peculiar bouncing step, his round face beaming happily, it usually mean trouble for AAA Ace.
Robert Sheckley “The Necessary Thing” (1955)
Robert Sheckley was certainly a forerunner to, if not a direct inspiration for, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Indeed, when asked what the difference between himself and Sheckley was, Adams is reported to have said, “Sheckley writes better.” Adams notoriously found writing arduous; Sheckley, in his heyday, seemed to have found it easy, pouring out humorous short science fiction in the 1950s and humorous novels in the 1960s. But then he ran into a chronic period of writer’s block spanning the next two decades, only hitting his prolific stride again in the 1990s.
I’ve hunted around for a way to impart some sense of Sheckley’s particular style, and I can’t actually come up with anything better than the Publishers Weekly squib for his novel collection, Dimensions Of Sheckley (2002):
Brains get swapped, spots in heaven must be purchased, cities can think, and a squat ambulatory ‘shrub’ infects passersby with paralyzing metaphysical doubt …
Add to that a delight in invented words, an approach to plotting which involves the stacking of startlements one atop the other, and explanations that are simultaneous ludicrous and engaging—Sheckley in his pomp was a humorous force of nature.
In all the short fiction he wrote, he produced only one series—the eight stories of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service. Seven were written in a creative burst between 1954 and 1956; the last appeared in 1991, as he began to return to form.
The first six stories appeared in quick succession in Galaxy Science Fiction, and the seventh appeared soon after in the short-lived Fantastic Universe magazine. This is good news, since all the relevant issues are now freely available on-line, at the Internet Archive. I’ll give you links to each story as we go along.
In 1991, Pulphouse started to produce five volumes of The Collected Short Fiction Of Robert Sheckley, and the newly revitalized Sheckley placed his final AAA Ace story straight into the fifth volume of that collection.
Prior to Collected Short Fiction, the AAA Ace stories were only sporadically anthologized. Five of them appeared in two early collections of Sheckley’s short fiction: Pilgrimage To Earth (1957) and The People Trap (1968). Both of these were reprinted several times during the ’60s and ’70s, which is how I first encountered the AAA Ace stories in my local public library. Although they cry out to be collected in a dedicated single volume, this seems to have happened only in an Italian edition, Spettro V: AAA Asso Interplanetaria (1971), which of course lacks the final story. As far as I know, they weren’t all gathered together in a single volume until 2005, when the excellent NESFA Press produced a collection of Sheckley’s short fiction, under the odd title The Masque Of Mañana.
The AAA Ace stories record the misadventures of Richard Gregor and Frank Arnold, who are the owners and entire staff of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service. Despite having chosen a company name so as to place themselves first in the telephone directory (remember them?), they are doing very little business. Sheckley’s universe operates very much like the 1950s, except it is possible for two guys with a spaceship and some rented equipment to fly across the galaxy and “fix” a planet for their client—eliminating troublesome wildlife or chemical contaminants, altering the climate, or creating some new continents to order.
The stories are generated from two kinds of plot line—either Arnold accepts an ill-considered job that goes horribly wrong, or Arnold buys a cheap exotic machine from Joe the Interstellar Junkman, with unanticipated consequences. Gregor suffers through all of it grimly, while playing endless rounds of elaborate solitaire in the office between jobs:
Richard Gregor was playing a new form of solitaire. It involved three packs of cards, six jokers, a set of dice, and a slide rule. The game was extremely complicated, maddeningly difficult, and it always came out if you persisted long enough.
That, right there, is simultaneously a metaphor for Gregor’s life with Arnold, and for the sort of plots Sheckley constructs around the hapless pair.
In the brief synopses below, the links associated with each story will take you to the magazine copies held on the Internet Archive.
“Milk Run” was the first story published, in September 1954, a month before “Ghost V“—but since “Milk Run” briefly refers to the events of “Ghost V”, we must assume that the editorial staff at Galaxy jumbled the order of the stories. In “Ghost V” Gregor and Arnold are hired to exorcise a haunted planet—and have to work out the origin of these supposed “hauntings” while being terrorized by products of their own imagination. In “Milk Run”, they try to make some money by agreeing to transport three different kinds of alien animal in a single spacecraft, piloted by Gregor. The habitat requirements for the three species turn out to be wildly incompatible with each other (and with Gregor’s own requirements) such that Gregor barely survives the journey. (As a side note, the woolly, snowball-shaped and eternally reproducing Queel of the story look very much like the inspiration of Star Trek‘s tribbles, to me.)
“The Laxian Key” followed in November 1954, featuring the first of Arnold’s fatuous purchases—a Meldgen Free Producer which, once activated, continuously manufactures tangreese, “the basic foodstuff of the Meldgen people”. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a viable market for tangreese … or a way to turn the machine off again.
“Squirrel Cage” (January 1955) is my personal favourite. AAA Ace are hired for a simple extermination job, but the client neglects to mention that the pests to be eliminated are invisible. Sheckley stacks up a teetering tower of successive complications for his heroes to sort out, some of which made me laugh aloud just because of their sheer unexpectedness.
In “The Lifeboat Mutiny“, (April 1955) Gregor and Arnold buy a second-hand intelligent lifeboat from Joe the Interstellar Junkman:
Not that Joe was dishonest; far from it. The flotsam he collected from anywhere in the inhabited Universe worked. But the ancient machines often had their own ideas of how a job should be done. They tended to grow peevish when forced into another routine.
So things go wrong. And the frantic bargaining that ensues between Gregor and Arnold and their self-willed lifeboat is reminiscent of the conversation between Doolittle and the philosophical Bomb #20 in the film Dark Star.
“The Necessary Thing” (June 1955) is another of Arnold’s purchases, this time a Configurator, which can instantly manufacture any desired object. Only when they have to rely on it in an emergency do our heroes discover that it gets bored easily, and is only prepared to manufacture one example of any given category of object.
“The Skag Castle” (March 1956) is a fairly conventional comic mystery, in which Gregor and Arnold have to figure out who is attempting to frighten a young woman into abandoning the home (and small planet) she recently inherited.
By the time he came to write “Sarkanger” (1991) Sheckley had moved into a more absurdist and satirical mode of writing. The story is a tight little exercise (only six pages long), in which AAA Ace are contracted to exterminate vermin again—but these “vermin” turn out to have reasoned arguments as to why they should not be exterminated. The tone is different, and the action so condensed that Gregor and Arnold are more tools of the plot than characters within it. Of the AAA Ace stories, certainly the one I enjoyed least.
For me, the three stories from 1955 mark the peak of AAA Ace; the three preceding stories are fine things in themselves, but not quite up to the highest standard; and a decline sets in with the last two stories. But there’s no need to take my word for anything—click on a link and see what you think yourself.