Sunday, 3 November 2013

Specialist by Robert Sheckley

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, May 1953.

This is a great little story that’s on a par with the enjoyable Hands Off! that was in volume three of the History of the Science Fiction Magazine. These two stories remind me of how much I enjoyed Sheckley’s stories when I was a kid. In the olden days he was one of the relatively few writers who I’d bother with in single-author collections.

By coincidence, both of these stories focus on a key SF idea: the convincing and sympathetic portrayal of aliens. These types of story seek to answer one of the key questions of science fiction: if man is not unique in creation, what do other men look like?

This story begins on a space ship manned entirely by highly specialised aliens. Each individual is a different race particularly adapted to their role. As well as crew such as Doctor, Talker, Eye or Thinker, the Ship itself is alive, but distinct from the Walls or Engine.
Through Eye’s seeing organ, Talker watcher the storm. He translated Eye’s purely visual image into a direction for Engine, who shoved the Ship around to meet the waves. At appreciably the same time, Talker translated direction into velocity for the Walls who stiffened to meet the shocks.
As we meet them, they’re halfway through a delivery run when disaster strikes: the specialised alien known as ‘Pusher’ that forces them to hyper-light speeds gets killed in a photon storm.

Sheckley avails himself of the ‘space as a workplace’ theme (which I discussed in my last quarterly reading update) to make his aliens sympathetic and real to us. We identify with the workaday motivations of the characters – Talker plans to use his pay to build a treehouse, Walls typically blow theirs on booze – and the signs of daily drudgery of the day-job. Talker is the Everyman protagonist of the story. He’s the fixer, the facilitator, the one the turns ideas and observations into instructions for the acting parts of the ship.

Sheckley is particularly deft at this; he gives his aliens an appealing vernacular voice in both this story and Hands Off! that’s intelligent and humane and does much to endear them to the reader.
One of the Walls suggested that they get good and drunk. This unrealistic solution was vetoed at once. It was typical of Walls’ attitude, however. They were fine workers and good shipmates, but happy go lucky fellows at best. When they returned to their home planets, they would probably blow all their wages on a spree.
When we study aliens we're really looking at ourselves and both stories contrast their aliens with humans. In Hands Off! it’s the piratical Captain Barnett and his crew. Here it’s the confused and somewhat terrified man the alien crew find when their search for a new Pusher leads them – inevitably – to Earth. Both leave us with the impression of moral, competent aliens while the space pirates are evil and the new Pusher reacts like a terrified cave man to the aliens’ attempts to communicate.

They’re both little moral fables with a light touch. Sheckley wraps it all in a generous wit and unobtrusive prose that makes them a pleasure to read. This and the classic sci fi assumptions prevent the stories from feeling stodgy or dated. In fact they could easily be retold today with minimal work: the space pirates are comedy villains of the Home Alone type, while Specialist could be the basis of a charming CGI kids’ cartoon.

Themes: space as a workplace, teamwork, moral fable.

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