Ask a Foolish Question
is a collection of science fiction stories by Robert Sheckley, originally published in 1958. The stories in this collection are characterized by their humorous and satirical tone, which skewers various aspects of society and human nature. This introduction will explore some of the major themes and motifs in the book and provide an overview of some of the standout stories.
The title of the book, “Ask a Foolish Question,” is a nod to the adage “there’s no such thing as a foolish question.” However, Sheckley’s stories often subvert this notion by showing how asking the wrong questions or pursuing the wrong answers can lead to disastrous results. Many of the stories in the collection involve characters who are confronted with existential questions or moral dilemmas, but who lack the wisdom or foresight to make the right decisions. Instead, they bumble their way through life, making mistake after mistake until they find themselves in absurd or hopeless situations.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the idea that technology and progress are not always positive forces in society. In several of the stories, Sheckley imagines futuristic worlds where technological advancements have created new problems or exacerbated existing ones. For example, in “Watchbird,” a society that has developed a sophisticated system of robotic birds to prevent murder finds that the same technology can be used to perpetrate new forms of violence. Similarly, in “The Leech,” a man who invents a machine that can transfer memories from one person to another inadvertently unleashes a dystopian world where people can buy and sell memories like commodities.
Another recurring motif in the book is the idea of absurdity and the surreal. Sheckley’s stories often hinge on bizarre or nonsensical premises, such as a man who wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect (“The Minimum Man”) or a society that is controlled by a board game (“The Status Civilization”). These stories are often characterized by a sense of disorientation and confusion, as the characters struggle to make sense of their strange new realities.
Despite the often bleak or absurd scenarios that Sheckley imagines, there is also a sense of humor and playfulness that runs through the book. Many of the stories in “Ask a Foolish Question” are outright comedic, with witty dialogue, slapstick humor, and absurd situations. Sheckley’s humor is often used to puncture the pomposity or self-importance of his characters, who are frequently shown to be flawed or foolish in some way.
Some of the standout stories in the collection include “The Prize of Peril,” which imagines a reality TV show where contestants are hunted by assassins for the amusement of the public; “The Seventh Victim,” which is set in a future society where people can legally hunt and kill one another; and “Protection,” which is a darkly comic take on the idea of insurance, where people can purchase protection from any kind of harm, no matter how unlikely or bizarre.
In conclusion, “Ask a Foolish Question” is a witty, satirical collection of science fiction stories that skewers various aspects of society and human nature. Sheckley’s stories are characterized by a sense of absurdity and surrealism, but also contain a sharp social commentary and a dose of dark humor. While some of the stories may feel dated in their portrayal of technology or societal norms, the themes and motifs that run through the book are still relevant today, making it a timeless classic of the science fiction genre.