Without question, Robert Sheckley was one of the premier humorists in the field of science fiction. His work not only influenced writers of humor and satire, but also those who admired the sheer craftsmanship of his stories. The “AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service” stories are exemplary of his prolific output in the 1950s. The first six of these appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, a magazine that was particularly receptive to humor.
The series features Arnold and Gregor, two entrepreneurs who have established a planetary decontamination service (they preform whatever functions necessary to make a planet habitable, whether it be extermination, climate adjustment, altering the terrain, etc…). The problem is that the industry is dominated by two other companies making clients few and far between. When not ignoring unpaid bills and playing solitaire to pass the time, they manage to get the occasional client. Arnold’s propensity for ill-conceived money making schemes tends to lead him to accept work they probably should not be taking. He also has a weakness for gadgets that he is convinced will bring them wealth. These stories are clever, well crafted, and contain the sort of plot twists for which Sheckley was notorious.
Here are short, mostly spoiler-free, summaries of what you will find in each of the eight AAA Ace stories:
“Milk Run” – Arnold has, without consulting Gregor, accepted a contract to transport three species of animals to a far off planet. Not only is transport not their line of work, but the industry is monopolized by a very emphatic group that doesn’t take kindly to competitors (think teamsters union). But that is not their only problem as Gregor quickly finds out. One of the animals strikes me as a possible progenitor of tribbles.
“Ghost V” – Chronologically (and you don’t have to read them in any particular order) this is the first story, but for whatever reason, it was the second AAA Ace story to appear in Galaxy. Arnold and Gregor get their first client after three months in business. A real-estate agent needs a planet decontaminated of ghosts. Some aspects remind me of the movie Forbidden Planet, though more humorously handled, which came out two years after this story.
“The Laxian Key” – Arnold spots a bargain at Joe’s Interstellar Junkyard and buys it with visions of becoming a millionaire. The machine is of ancient alien construction, one of only a handful of “Free Producer” machines in existence, the science of which has long been lost. It will produce indefinitely, without the need to supply it materials or energy—and it is indestructible. But what does it actually produce?
“Squirrel Cage” – An alien farmer hires AAA Ace to rid him of rat-like vermin plaguing his crops. Simple and straightforward—until they realize that the rats are invisible.
“The Lifeboat Mutiny” – Arnold has acquired another bargain from Joe the Junkman, an intelligent lifeboat completely devoted to the safety of its passengers. Gregor is leery about purchasing paternalistic machinery, but as usually, Arnold insists. Likely a core inspiration for the Sheckley tribute story, “On Safari,” that Mike Resnick contributed to the Unidentified Funny Objects 2 anthology I reviewed last October.
“The Necessary Thing” – Gregor sends Arnold out for supplies for their next job, but Arnold returns having spent the money on another item from Joe the Interstellar Junkman. As Arnold explains it, “I have just saved us a considerable sum of money.” He has found the one thing an expedition really needs—The Necessary Thing.
“The Skag Castle” – The longest of all the AAA Ace stories, it was also the first not to appear in Galaxy, instead making its print debut in Fantastic Universe in 1956. Arnold finds himself attracted to a potential client who has a planet purported to be haunted by a long extinct alien race. Arnold gets to display the skills he acquired from a six week correspondence course in detection. This one plays out like an episode of Scooby Doo.
“Sarkanger” – Thirty years after the first seven AAA Ace stories were written, Sheckley added one more. Arnold and Gregor are hired to exterminate a species destroying cabbage-like vegetables and wind up with a moral quandary.
It could be that I am just preaching to the choir here at Amazing, but if by chance you are not familiar with Sheckley’s AAA Ace stories, I suggest that you treat yourself to these little gems. Although these stories can be found scattered about in different collections and anthologies, the only place I am aware of that you can find all eight in one volume is The Masque of Mañana published by NESFA Press. It is an excellent collection containing 41 Sheckley stories, mostly from the 1950s.