This book starts out in a fairly straightforward, if somewhat clichéd fashion. A space pilot is sitting at his controls when something goes wrong and he has to make a forced landing on a backwater planet. There he goes in search of a pare part. This being a superficially well-organised future, he heads for the nearest depot where spares are cached. This being a superficially well-organised future, they have every spare part conceivable except the one he wants. So far, so humdrum; but this is a Robert Sheckley novel.
There would be enormous mileage in this as a straightforward satire that exposes the sheer chaos of modern life and parodies the ultra smooth futures of much science fiction. Sheckley, however, takes a different turn altogether and in the course of this novel explores the meta narrative of writing a novel, well before it became the angsty province of ‘literary’ writers and with considerably more than a dozen of the aforementioned could muster between them.
On being told there may be a spare part on a different part of the planet, the pilot is given a robot to guide him through the dangers he will face. In keeping with the original premis, the robot has been delivered to the wrong planet and is programmed for an entirely different eco-system.
The journey starts out Carrollian and then gets bizarre. As attempts to progress are constantly thwarted, the author intervenes and constructs new narratives in an attempt to help the pilot reach his goal. Along the way we are treated to philosophical discussions and ideas, subverted pulp adventures, what appear to be entirely unrelated events (but which are, of course, the author trying to keep his narrative on course).
The result is exuberant chaos, shot through with hilarity and enough ideas to last other writers a lifetime. Yet it also manages to remain subtle. The jokes aren’t flagged or repeated to make sure you see how the author is. And it also manages to explore some of the fundamental problems of philosophy in an understandable way. What is more, this package is wrapped in a sure style; even when Sheckley is exploring and experimenting with language, it never gets to the point of self-indulgence or obscurity.