Robert Sheckley is a maddening author to read.  He could have been a famous
crossover talent, breaking out of the sci-fi ghetto into the literary mainstream, a
master of the profound and the absurd attuned to the emerging counterculture
of the 1960s. Certainly Sheckley possessed all the ingredients for greatness:
unfettered imagination, a deft prose style, a wild sense of humor, a philosophical
bent, and an acute eye for the fashions and foibles of his fellow earthlings.  

Yet Sheckley's longer works suffer from a slapdash
sensibility. The plots wander, characters are hastily
constructed without drive or focus, incidents are
strung together without rhyme or reason, and dropped
as soon as Sheckley loses interest with them—which
is usually sooner  rather than later. Even Vonnegut
seems like a tight formalist by comparison. Sheckley's
extended efforts are marketed as novels, but they remind
me more of those old Broadway revues from the Jazz
Age, in which a series of set pieces and routines are
presented for the entertainment of the audience, with
only the most cursory attempt at linking them together
into a narrative.

Yet the miracle in this novel about miracles is that
Sheckley can achieve so much despite these shortcomings.
The man was brilliant, make no mistake about it.  
Dimension of Miracles has no
structure, no narrative arc, but almost every page offers something pleasingly zany
or piquant or provocative for your enjoyment. The characters may be made of
cardboard, but they are colorfully decked out. The dialogue can seem aimless, yet
somehow manages to address deep issues amidst all the superficial chatter. Put
simply, the book is a mess, but still only a few steps away from earning accolades
as a masterpiece.  

When tackling longer forms, Sheckley typically returned to the earliest origins of
science fiction as speculative travel literature—we see the roots of this in the sci-fi
interlude in
Gulliver’s Travels, and Jules Verne later established it as a powerful
formula for the genre. In truth, we can trace this loose travel-oriented structure for
an adventure narrative back to Homer's
Odyssey, or even more distantly to various
myths and legends, which rely on a hero’s journey into the unknown as a entry point
into conflicts, discoveries and awe-inspiring sightseeing.

Alas, Sheckley wants to write sci-fi travel narratives, but he has no patience with any
journey that takes more than a fraction of a second, let alone time-consuming space
flights into distant galaxies.  So in
Dimension of Miracles, as with his other leading
novels
Mindswap and Immortality, Inc., the story begins with his unwitting protagonist
getting transported, almost magically, into the first of a series of anxiety-provoking
incidents. When the first adventure loses steam, the hero gets transported to another,
typically unrelated, situation, which serves as the setting for the next crisis. And so on
and so forth.

In
Dimension of Miracles, the hero is Tom Carmody, a hapless New Yorker
('hapless' is almost always the right word to describe a Sheckley protagonist).  
A messenger arrives in Carmody's living room, amidst a bolt of lightning and
clap of thunder, and tells him that has won the Galactic Lottery. Carmody is
ushered off to the Galactic Center to claim his prize, a trip that proves to be
"brief, lasting no more than Instantaneity plus one microsecond squared."  
Readers are never quite clear what the prize is—it starts out as a "small,
brightly-wrapped parcel" but changes shape and nature several times during
the course of the book. Yet whatever its form, it can speak, and turns into an
amiable, but occasionally petulant, sidekick for the resulting adventures.

Carmody now wants to return home, but the bureaucrats at the Galactic Center
prove even more incompetent than their counterparts on planet Earth. They aren't
sure how to get the prize-winner back to New York, or even to the right solar system
and correct universe.  He must travel around, checking in with various local deities
in the galaxy, until he finds the god-like force that can bring him back to Manhattan.    

This is not a promising beginning, but Sheckley doesn’t need much to work his
wonders. Carmody gets to interrogate some quasi-deities during his travels, and
these scenes are so smartly written that you could even assign them as required
reading for theology students, and stir up a devilish debate. God should never appear
as a character in your novel, Philip K. Dick once warned, but Sheckley shows that
you can safely ignore this advice—at least if you are as clever as him in constructing
dialogues between a wandering New Yorker and an omnipotent being.  

But Sheckley, true to form, quickly loses interest in everything, even the process of
divine creation.  After interviews with two deities—the fickle Melichrone and the
cost-cutting Maudsley—Carmody is transported (again instantaneously) into a
series of probable Earths in possible Universes.  The science here is vague and
fuzzy, and the metaphysics even less solid, but Sheckley only wants a pretext for
various skits and satire. He sends Carmody to a city so perfectly constructed that
all of the inhabitants have abandoned it.  Then Carmody travels to another universe
in which everyone speaks in
Mad Men-era advertising copy. And then Carmody
must deal with a dangerous predator who can take on the appearance of a space
ship, a subway station, or whatever else it needs to camouflage its intention of
swallowing up our hapless hero. (Yes, 'hapless' is the right word again.)

The book fizzles out at the end. Sheckley isn't very good at tying together loose
ends. Let's be honest, he hardly even makes an effort here.  Many have seen
Dimension of Miracles as a precursor to Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy—Adams, who didn’t know about Sheckley’s work when he
wrote his bestseller, was later struck by the similarities. But even the rambling
Adams offers more closure than Sheckley, who seems to stop worrying about
his characters' problems after a few hours of writing (or perhaps when he reaches
the requisite daily word count).

Yes, this is maddening. With a little more attention to the nuts and bolts of writing,
Sheckley might have delivered one of the great counterculture classics. Instead,
Dimension of Miracles is not only mostly forgotten, but even unavailable in print.  
If you want a hardcover copy, be prepared to shell out more than five hundred
dollars. Yet this is Sheckley's strongest novel, and even with its flaws, well worth
reading.  


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of
love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date: July 21, 2014
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Abbott, Edwin A.
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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

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Hothouse

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Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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I, Robot

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The Handmaid's Tale

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Crash

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Moderan

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

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Childhood's End

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A Fall of Moondust

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2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

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House of Leaves

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Fifth Business

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Babel-17

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Dhalgren

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The Einstein Intersection

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Nova

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

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The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

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Practical Magic

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Submission

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Brave New World

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The Haunting of Hill House

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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Carrie

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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The Big Time

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Conjure Wife

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Swords & Deviltry

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The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

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Magic for Beginners

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Station Eleven

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Doctor Faustus

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What Dreams May Come

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Dangerous Laughter

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Cloud Atlas

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Beloved

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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
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Ada, or Ardor

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Ringworld

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Vurt

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Love in the Ruins

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Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

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Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

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Norstrilia

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The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

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Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

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More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

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The Hobbit

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The Witches of Eastwick

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Slan

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Around the Moon

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From the Earth to the Moon

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Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

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Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



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