Robert Sheckley’s “Shape”

I’ve long wished I could teach a class on ideology: what it is, how it works, how it could give us freedom and agency and how it so often fails to.  I envision this class as involving a collection of philosophical and sociological texts, examples from daily life and works of art, and each week a short story by Robert Sheckley.  These days, even die-hard fans of classic mid-century science fiction are often dismissive of Sheckley, who is probably best remembered as the author of the short story that gave rise to the game of “assassin” that use to be played on college campuses, and the author of some hack-written Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 paperbacks that fans of those shows despised.  But his short stories have always seemed to me to be wonderfully amusing meditations on conceptual problems of ideology. And since we are all ideological animals by nature, they are meditation on what it means to be human in twentieth-century America.  These storiest can give us the conceptual space to gain a reflective awareness of our most deeply held assumptions.

From time to time, I may write a short reflection on a Sheckley story here.  I hope that this will both help to clarify how ideology works and also suggest a kind of essay that might work for Imaginary Relations.  My own focus there will be primarily on the production of capitalist ideology in literature, film and television.  But it is also the case that some works of art, like Sheckley’s short stories, can serve as a discourse in which we gain distance from our ideological interpellation. That is to say, we can never “step outside” of ideology, never gain a god’s-eye view of ourselves. But we can participate in discourses that, because they open a space in an existing ideological practice, give us a sort of Archimedean point from which to shift ourselves out of our current interpellative position.  

Consider the story “Shape.”  Really, consider it.  It appears in several Sheckley anthologies in print and ebook form.  The cheapest is probably the ebook Is That What People Do?: Stories  published by Open Road Media.  

The story originally appeared on the pulp magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1953.  At first blush, it seems to be  typical cold-war-era pulp sci-fi, with alien invaders as thinly veiled communist forces seeking to conquer and oppress Americans but failing because of the natural superiority of the American way of life.  Sheckley uses all the standard machinery of 50s science fiction: shape shifting aliens called the Glom, intergalactic travel, transporter devices, even the typical sci-fi names like Ilg, Ger, and Pid.  The task of the shapeshifting aliens is simply to put a transporter device near a nuclear power source, and hordes of Glom will charge through and conquer Earth.  

It quickly becomes obvious that the story is not going to be full of space chases and laser-gun shoot outs.  Before the mission, the alien commander tells the ship’s pilot the real reason that conquering Earth is so essential: 

“there’s considerable unrest on Glom.  The miner caste is on strike, for instance.  They want a new digging shape. Say the old one is inefficient…That’s not all,” the Chief told him.  “We’ve uncovered a new Cult of Shapelessness.”  

We learn that the Glom are born without any specific shape, but must take on a shape necessary to their social function, until it comes to seem natural and enjoyable to them.  Unfortunately, the “lower castes,” those who do manual labor it seems, are less able to find their necessary shapes enjoyable.  The idea is that by focusing on conquering other worlds, the lower orders can be distracted from their complaints.  

So here we have the standard cold-war propaganda in sci-fi form, right?  We are told that the subversives want to be allowed to adopt whatever shape they desire, instead of being forced into the shape demand by social necessity.  Then we learn that twenty previous missions to Earth have disappeared, and nobody knows what went wrong.  Will the current attempt succeed in eliminating freedom from Earth? 

In the end, of course, they fail, and we are told that “This planet’s secret menace was—freedom!”  The crew of the invading ship each find a shape on earth that suits their deepest desire, and abandon their mission to become a tree, a dog, and a bird.  

So it seems that once again the evil forces of soviet communism are defeated by the power of American freedom! And Sheckley uses all the trappings of truly hacky pulp sci to make it easy enough to read the story this way: the characters are shallow and dull, the prose plodding and the even the final chase scene is simultaneously unconvincing and silly.  

However, a thoughtful reader would have to be left wondering: is it really a great success to make the change from being a superior species capable of shifting into any shape to being a dog?  Is this the outcome of “freedom”?  We are now “free” to spend our lives sniffing other dog’s butts and chasing squirrels through the woods?  And once we question that, the message of the story changes completely.  The problem that the Glom face is not a lack of “freedom,” but too much of it. That is, they are completely aware that their social formation could be run differently, that they are not “naturally” what they are but have to commit to their social role for the good of the whole.  They know that their “second nature” (to borrow a term from Burke) is not inborn, but socially produced.  And once they know this, it becomes a burden to keep their commitments.  Particularly when it is clear enough that others are getting most of the benefit.  

This, of course, is the problem faced by most theorists of ideology, and most political and ethical philosophy through the centuries: can people feel a social convention as meaningful if they do not mistake it for a necessity?  If everyone knew that capitalism is not genetically programmed into humans, but took centuries of brutal oppression to force most people to accept…well, would it be as easy to get them to go on playing the role the ruling class needs them to play?  The story suggests that in fact this kind of knowledge becomes unbearable, at least in any social system that only serves the interest of the minority.  

But it doesn’t stop there.  Sheckley also points out that once we are put in this situation we tend to see only one way out: following our supposedly “deepest” desires.  We fail to see that those supposedly natural desires were in fact installed by the very system of oppression that most troubles us.  The “detector,” trained to search the new planet, deeply yearns to be a hunter and turns himself into a dog.  The ship’s pilot longs to fly, and becomes a bird.  They give up the freedom of consciousness choice for the ersatz freedom of fulfilling their desires.  In the end, we see that what we mistake for freedom is the worst kind of oppression, and the only kind of freedom we could have is unappealing so long as we live in a violently oppressive society.

So “Shape” becomes a story about interpellation.  It demonstrates the process of moving from the indeterminate state of the individual to the completely determined role of the subject: all it takes is following one’s “true desire.”    

The pleasure of a Sheckley story is in his ability to take a discourse meant to reproduce the worst kind of banal cold-war capitalist propaganda, and use it to call attention to the errors in our most fundamental assumptions about our ideology.  The pleasure of reading a pulp science fiction story is transformed into the pleasure of thinking critically about ideology.  And that, for me, is the most powerful lesson about how ideology works: we can, in fact, gain this Archimedean point, but only by wresting it from within an existing social practice.  

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  1. Ian

     /  January 3, 2021

    This is great! I really liked and was very influenced by Isaac Asimov’s writing during my teenage years, but haven’t read much science fiction since. I’m looking forward to more reflections on Sheckley stories!

    I missed the irony of the Glom apparently finding fulfillment by turning into a dog etc. and so was left a bit confused by the ending of the story – or, rather, couldn’t imagine what your point was going to be. But on reflection I think your reading of the story makes great sense. It suddenly becomes clear that they are giving up the freedom of designing new shapes to increase their ability to interact with the world (as suggested by the demand of the miners) for the freedom to choose – based on the way they have been produced as subjects up to that point in time – their shape from the large selection of animals on Earth (whose movements they at first find rather “clunky”). This seems to me to be analogous to how we tend to give up on the ability to participate in consciously choosing our ideologies in favor of picking the commodities we most desire from the capitalist marketplace.

  2. I was never an Asimov fan—although I read the Asimov science fiction journal regularly. I was more into Philip K. Dick. But Shockley stories fascinate me, and seem to be about ideology in a broader way than PKD.

    I haven’t picked another one to write about yet, but I will. Any favorites?

  3. Ian

     /  January 5, 2021

    I guess I’m not surprised that you were never a fan of Asimov’s. As I recall it, his work tends to contain a lot of reductionist and atomist assumptions and the suggestion that it is possible (and desirable) to live without ideology – assumptions which I shared at the time. I’m thinking, for example, of his idea of “psychohistory” in the “Foundation” novels, which suggests (if I remember correctly) that society can be understood in a way that is analogous to statistical mechanics; so people are quite literally treated as atoms.

    I haven’t read many other stories in “Is that what People Do?” yet, but I’ve found them all intriguing so far. I would be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on “Besides Still Waters”.

  4. That’s a good one! So much in such as short story. Maybe I’ll do that one next.

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