Book Review: The Status Civilization, Robert Sheckley (1960)


(Richard Powers (?) cover for the 1960 edition)

4/5 (Good)

Robert Sheckley deftly manipulates — in a mere (but dense) 127 pages — a plot straight from the pulps involving prison planets and gladiatorial fights against terrifying robots into a scathing and artfully constructed work of satire.  Similar skills were apparent in his masterful collection Store of Infinity (1960) where traditional sci-fi situations such as colonization of alien worlds, robot rebellions, post-apocalyptical wastelands, and time-travel (among other tropes) are imbued with witty wordplay and biting social commentary.  Due to the almost novella length of The Status Civilization do not expect any unnecessary declamations on technology or the nature of the world or government or endless interior character monologues for Sheckley clearly prefers — and revels in — the shorter form.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“He was a man with the recollection of memories.  He must at one time have had that priceless wealth of recall which now he could only deduce from the limited evidence at his disposal.  At one time he must have had specific memories of birds, trees, friends, family, status, a wife perhaps.  Now he could only theorize about them.  Once he had been able to say, this is like, or, that reminds me of.  Now nothing reminded him of anything, and things were only like themselves.  He had lost his powers of contrast and comparison.  He could no longer analyze the present in terms of the experienced past (6).”

Will Barrent wakes up on a spaceship with only a vague recollection of things.  His name, his past, are lost somewhere in the mist.  In neoplatonic terms, he’s a man with knowledge of the forms but can recall no particular manifestations of them or make connections between them.  With legions of others he stumbles, in a sense “reborn” (9), from the bowels of the sterile hospital-like vessel onto the surface of the harsh prison planet Omega.  He’s soon informed that he’s a criminal found guilty on the charge of murder (and brain wiped).  His sentence was exile to Omega where the life expectancy is three years.

But what sort of world has developed from the dregs of Earth?  As soon as his “phlegmatic blandness” (11) induced by the memory wipe passes Barrent sets off to find out.  Omegan society is designed around two related principles — 1) hidden knowledge (legal, religious, etc) revealed only to those who ascend up the status ladder (as in, it is hidden until you attain a particular status) and 2) all benefits of a particular status, Omega’s central social rituals, and the laws facilitate high mortality.  For example, when Barrent stumbles out of the barracks he’s deposited in he’s immediately hunted by members of the priestly class.  And of course, he had no prior knowledge that on Landing Day any of the new prisoners are fair game!  Barrent kills one of them and is immediately promoted from peon status to free citizen — he takes over the establishment, , a poison antidote shop, of the man he killed.

But drawing him away from his new profession are the promises of the Dream Shop down the street that promises a drug generated vision of his Earthbound past.  But he soon discovers that drug addiction is another requirement of life on Omega….

As Barrent slowly rises up in society as he acquires more kills soon he discovers the nature of Omegan religion — the worship of “eternal and unchanging Evil” (29) — and fights a killer robot.  At multiple points of his ascension he’s assisted by a mysterious woman who initiates him into the Omegan underground where a plan is hatched…  And the true nature of Earth revealed…

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

The fulcrum of the satire balances on the notion that mankind (criminals, but wiped of all memories of their actions and born “new men”), severed from knowledge of pseudo-utopian Earth, will develop a highly regulated state designed to kill its own people.  Murder is the ultimate good.  Of course, after the workings of Earth’s society are revealed the prison planet’s population bizarrely becomes the means of mankind’s rebirth.  Omega at first glance is Earth’s foil — its polar opposite.  But in reality, they are both dystopic worlds.  One where conformity is required the other where conformity is condemned.  One where death means exile the other where death and status go hand in hand.

I found Will Barrent an intriguing character — he’s dumped into a drastically different world and flails about trying to  stay alive and learns from experiences how the world works.  At moments he’s plagued by what little morals remain within him while at other points kills with little hesitation…

Told with energy and wit The Status Civilization (1960) is a fast and enjoyable read.  Highly recommended for all fans of 50s/early 60s science fiction — especially of the satirical bent.


(Leo Summers’ cover for the August 1960 issue of Amazing Stories)


(Peter Elson’s cover for the 1986 edition)

Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 6.46.07 PM(Adrian Chesterman’s cover for the 1979 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

36 thoughts on “Book Review: The Status Civilization, Robert Sheckley (1960)

  1. This one is nearing the top of my to-read pile, doubled with Notions: Unlimited, so I only skimmed the top half of your review 😉

    That first cover is pretty awesome, that last one is… uhm… awful. haha

    • I’ve really really really enjoyed his work so far. It’s witty, snarky, and delightful fun. His short stories are told with some real skill. And, the social commentary is nicely blended with pulp plots. Fun stuff.

  2. I`m pretty sure I`ve only read his short stories, have several collections. He was the fiction editor of OMNI at one point, and I met his son while I lived in Providence, R.I. [he attended Brown, I think]. That`s all I got, except to say I think of him as Philip K. Dick if PKD wasn`t so afraid of people. Sheckley had a biting, Vonnegut-like sense of amusement about people`s foibles. I think my favorite of his is a story he co-wrote with Harlan Ellison, `I See A Man Sitting In A Chair, And The Chair Is Biting His Leg.`

    • Well, this one reads like an extended short story. I tried to make it clear in the review because it is super short, and doesn’t have tons of description/analysis of behavior, and character development — all things that a slightly longer work might be able to do.

      But yes, I love his biting sense of amusement about people’s (and society’s) foibles — great phrase.

      I need to find that story — intriguing title.

            • Why don’t you like short stories? The Status Civilization is essentially a novella… So slightly longer than a novelette (oh, these length differentiations used for the awards make me laugh).

              No I have not — I have given up reading post-1980 SF for many years now (long story). However, I have read many of Adiss’ earlier novels. (Reading Greybeard at the moment).

              Index 🙂


            • I had several short story collections and I can’t honestly explain why I don’t enjoy them as much as a full novel – though I take your point about Status – I think I just became too used to books with more ”meat” on them.

            • I have only written a few. They are often outtakes for longer pieces or gap fillers when trying to drag myself out of writer’s block
              The novels on my Science Fiction ‘shelf’ number about thirty (?).
              I have a habit of only keeping books I enjoy reading over and over! I have some Aldiss, Piers Anthony, Greg Bear and a few others.
              I am currently devouring Pratchett and Sharpe’s novels –

              I must admit I haven’t read too much SCI FI from the eras you review. But what I have seemed to be quite dated.

              I had a couple of Ben Bova’s a while back but swapped them out at my local secondhand bookshop.

              My son recently borrowed a whole stack of Roger Zelazny books from one of our neighbours and neither of us could get past the first novel!
              The language seemed so corny (old fashioned?) and we weren’t too impressed with the style of writing.
              Which is not to say it was poorly written, I am not qualified to slate another writer’s work.

              One man’s meat… and all that.

            • ” But what I have seemed to be quite dated.” — and why is this a problem? They are products of their time, SF authors are not interested (often) in accurate predictions, rather great stories set in a future…. And commentaries on their present.

              I also do not understand the “old fashioned” complaint — we all still read (or should) the great Victorian Classics yet rarely complain that they are “Dated”….

              These criticisms strike me as hollow ones.

            • I understand your point, but the books ( those few I read) just didn’t grab me. I wish I could remember the name of the Bova book? It was originally a trilogy but was released as a single volume.
              Your review of Darkover Landfall and subsequent discussion with Wendy Van Camp partially makes my point. You criticized certain seemingly incongruous aspects and Wendy defended them.

              I have a book by James White, All Judgement Fled, about First Contact, and although it was written in 1967 I Iove it and must have read it a dozen times.
              His use of language doesn’t date and the story hasn’t dated either.
              I hae Circus of Hells by Poul Anderson and it was very much a take it or leave it story.
              I guess it depends on the author and what the reader expects out of the book.
              Not a criticism of the writer.

              And as for the ‘Classics’ . I enjoy an author like Marcus Aurelius but don’t go all doey eyed over Will Shakespeare. 🙂
              I resented reading him at school and that has no doubt coloured expectations as an adult.
              Maybe I am just a Philistine…

              And a novel like To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf left me cold.

              Isn’t it great that we are all different otherwise we would be buying the same books and writers would starve.
              I doubt that Ms. Rowling cares two hoots that I dislike Harry Potter…lol

            • Well, I am a historian and naturally inclined to the historical…

              Darkover Landfall is awful but it has nothing to do with “being dated.” Bradley’s philosophy makes little to no sense, the mysterious “fairy” aliens in the woods are silly, the mysterious stones are hokey — there are many many problems with the book that have nothing to do with being written in the 70s. And yes, I know the era of the 70s quite well in terms of SF.

              Fair enough. But my point is more general — critiquing something simply because it’s dated is not valid, one has to understand the context, the author, and what they are engaging with.

              Bova is awful — for different reasons. He can’t write a character, his plots are dull, and doesn’t know what a metaphor is.

            • …because it’s dated is not valid, one has to understand the context, the author, and what they are engaging with.

              Okay,you are right. I have re read my initial comment and I should have said some of rather than ‘the ones’ implying all, as clearly as many of the earlier books i have disliked I have enjoyed others.

              What about Zelazny? Are you familiar with his work?
              I’d never heard of him until my son brought home these books.

            • Yes, Zelazny is one of the most famous 60s/70s SF/F authors. I’ve read Jack of Shadows (average), This Immortal (one of my favorites from the 60s), The Lord of Light (generally on every best of SF list)… And probably a few more — generally avoid fantasy so I haven’t read his famous and extensive Amber sequence.

            • The Amber sequence are the ones my son borrowed.
              The first one Nine Princes of Amber left me cold.
              Ah, I guess it is after all, simply a matter of taste.

              I adored the first two Covenant trilogy’s by Donaldson and haven’t enjoyed what I’ve read of the third.

              Takes all sorts to make a world I guess.

            • I enjoyed the Covenant trilogy when I was a teen. but haven’t returned to them since then. I probably would have enjoyed the Amber series then as well. But, haven’t read much fantasy in the last 10 years.

            • Obviously we can dislike works from the past! But, I think they are for more specific reasons — like simply bad writing 😉 (clunky, poor characterization, silly worlds, reliance on dull clichés, painful “metaphors,” boring worlds, repetitive unimportant technobabble, etc).

  3. Hey, Joachim, just wanted to say I’m really liking this blog. Ever since discovering Thomas M. Disch’s dystopian novel ‘334’ I’ve been on an old school sci-fi binge and your reviews have helped me find a lot of thought-provoking sci-fi from yesteryear. Now that it’s 2022, ‘The Status Civilization’ feels increasingly more relevant with each passing month. I wouldn’t be surprised if a world like the one described here by Sheckley becomes a reality in our lifetimes.

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