Robert Sheckley’s “Beside Still Waters”

The New York Review Books edition of the stories of Robert Sheckley ends with “Beside Still Waters,” although it was one of his earliest published stories and the rest of the volume is arranged nearly chronologically.  Most likely this is because the 23rd Psalm, from which the title is taken, is usually read at funerals and so tends to connote endings.  If we want to read this story as a commentary on the nature of ideology, as I do, then we might instead consider how it works as a beginning to a career as a science fiction writer.  

It is, after all, and odd story to have been published in Amazing Stories; nothing amazing happens in it. In fact, not much happens at all.  The story describes a futuristic “prospector” who mines an asteroid, alone except for a worker robot which he gradually programs to have rudimentary conversations with him. In fact, for most of the story he no longer even seems to do any prospecting.  Having “made a little strike,” he simply lives out the rest of his life on the asteroid, having the same conversation with his robot over and over, because he “never gave much of a damn about anyone.”   Eventually, he gets old, his robot gets rusty, and his air pump breaks down, and he dies.  He seems mostly content with this solitary life, doing nothing but repairing his life support equipment, looking at the stars, and having the same conversation with his robot, which gives him only the answers he has programmed it to give.  

What does beginning a career as a pulp short story writer in this way say about the ideological function of the genre of science fiction? 

The story evokes two related themes that inform almost all twentieth-century science fiction: the unresolved oedipal complex and the fantasy of escaping sociality.  And these themes inform all science fiction because they inform all modern capitalist ideology as well.

Mark, our prospector, has a classic unresolved oedipal complex.  He cannot conceive of having a relationship with a woman, because he “never saw a good one yet.”  He programs his robot to have the same conversation with him for years: 

—What do you think of girls?

—Oh, I don’t know. You have to find the right one.

—I never saw a good one yet.

—Well, that’s not fair.  Perhaps you didn’t look long enough.  There’s a girl in the world for every man.

—You’re a romantic!

And isn’t this the goal of much of twentieth-century ideology?  To avoid resolution of the oedipal complex, caught endlessly between blaming women for not being good enough and having foolishly romantic ideas of love?  

Of course the resolution of the oedipal complex also involves entry into the social, acceptance of a symbolic system in which we need to negotiate with others.  Mark names his robot after “a father he had never known,” and programs it to speak to him as the perfect complement to his own personality.  Then, “in time, Mark forgot he had built the answers into Charles.”  The perfect strategy to avoid true sociality is to create an “other” that is really only a reflection of ourselves.  We can then pretend to true dialogism while actually avoiding it.  

The ideological function of the science fiction story is figured perfectly in the relationship between Mark and Charles.  These stories endlessly postpone the resolution of the oedipal complex, and shore up the illusion that escaping the demands of sociality will somehow, someday, yield satisfaction.  The content of such science fiction stories is generally the pursuit of a fantasy realm in which we will have magically powers over reality, like the Jedi knight or the blue people in Avatar, and live in perfect contentment.  The failure to finally bring this about is usually caused by the problem of women: their manipulations and infidelities and deviousness, or just the need to compete for them, collapses many a science fiction paradise.  And of course any retreat from sociality fails to produce enjoyment, which is why we need to be repeatedly convinced that it will.  In the end, the robot’s recital of Psalm 23 simply reminds us that the fantasy of escape into a realm of imaginary plenitude, in which all our appetites are satisfied without effort on our part, is part of the fundamental ideological project central to Western civilization: Judeo-Christian religion.  

To begin a career of writing pulp science fiction stories with this odd story is simply to proclaim that his project will always be to interrogate the ideological form he is participating in.  And “Beside Still Waters” reminds us that  if we were ever to achieve our structuring fantasy, the dream of escape from sociality and the demands of bodily necessity (which, of course, we cannot), then we would still need ideology: we would need to tell ourselves the same stories over and over just to make such a paradise bearable.  

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3 Comments

  1. Ian

     /  February 17, 2021

    I’m a bit late responding to this, but I did find it quite helpful, thank you. If you intend to do another one of these and if I may express another preference, I would like to read your take on “The Accountant”.

  2. Thank Ian. Why not take a shot at one yourself? Your essay on “The Witcher” was very good. Maybe you could offer your take on a Sheckley story? If I can find time, I’ll try to write something about “The Accountant”, one of Sheckely’s most popular stories.

  3. Ian

     /  February 21, 2021

    Yeah, why not? I’ll try and write something about my favorite story so far: “Silversmith Wishes”.

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