The Minimum Man
by Robert Sheckley

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Galaxy, June 1958

collected in —
Store of Infinity (1960)

The Masque of Manana (2005)

March 2005

Accident-prone pitfalls — and virtues

There had been muted horns of gladness at his birth. Bravely, to the sound of muffled drums, young Perceveral had ventured into school. He had excelled and been promoted to a small workshop class of five hundred pupils, where he could receive a measure of individual attention. The future had looked promising.

But he was congenitally unlucky. There was a constant series of small accidents ... Things had a damnable propensity for breaking under his fingers, or sometimes his fingers broke under them. To make matters worse, he caught every possible childhood disease ...

These things in no way reflected upon Perceveral's native ability; but one needs more than ability in a crowded and competitive world. One needs considerable luck, and Perceveral had none. He was transferred to an ordinary class of ten thousand students, where his problems were intensified ...

"The Minimum Man" by Robert Sheckley has a good share of plot surprises and background ironies which we may expect in Sheckley's best science fiction. It is also funny and poignant in Sheckley's characteristic mixture. And this short novelet has something more.

Anton Perceveral is accident-prone to an extreme degree. A reasonably likable, intelligent, and potentially competent young man, yet he is at the wrong end of the bell curve for those necessary incidentals of living in the world. If he doesn't put his foot wrong and break a bone or at least his glasses, he loses papers or bumps into customers. The world is too much with him.

What kind of pioneer is best?

Nevertheless, even for Perceveral, an appropriate opportunity emerges. The Planetary Exploration & Settlement Board needs pioneers to check out newly discovered Earth-type worlds for general settlement. The Board has realized that their early explorers "managed to survive on every planet where human survival was even remotely possible". Great. But that doesn't tell the Board nearly enough about whether ordinary people of Earth can settle such planets. The whole mix of emigrants whose range of abilities, toughness and so on, inevitably must be below that of the super-competent explorers.

The Board has switched their heroic explorers to other jobs, and now seeks ordinary people as pioneers, to verify whether ordinary settlers can survive and prosper on the new planets. Or even better and more subtly, for each new world it seeks a minimum man as pioneer. If a minimally competent man can make it through a year of solo pioneering, then surely that environment will be reasonably guaranteed for the mass of run-of-the-mill emigrants from Earth.

Enter Anton Perceveral; or rather, exit to a new world. He is accompanied only by a utility robot, and has a substantial set of tools, seeds, weapons, food stocks, building materials, and other necessities.

It is not flattering to be recognized as a Minimum Man, supremely (or nadirly) accident-prone, disease-prone, socially clumsy, and not-quite-fatally awkward. Yet Perceveral has survived so far on crowded Earth, and he is determined to make good, and of course survive, on his assigned job in a new and otherwise uninhabited world.

Perseverance ... keeps honor bright

"The Minimum Man" is an excellent story, with adventure, humor, and psychological insight. I commend it to you as enjoyable — and thought-provoking.

Ulysses [to Achilles]:

                      Time hath, my lord,
A wallet at his back, wherein he puts
Alms for oblivion, a great-sized monster
Of ingratitudes. Those scraps are good deeds past,
Which are devoured as fast as they are made,
Forgot as soon as done. Perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honor bright.

William Shakespeare
Troilus and Cressida, 3.3.139-145

Sheckley's idea sends tantalizing ripples into my mind beyond the little pool of story.

How far should society or its institutions go, in coaxing or forcing individual men and women to conform to their physical, civic, or social environments? Should society and institutions be designed for the superman, for the average, for the minimum man? How far should individuals go, in trying to conform themselves to those parameters? Sheckley gives us a new perspective here.

What is the appropriate kind of individual, anyway? What is the appropriate environment?


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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