(Richard Powers (?) cover for the 1960 edition)
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)
(Adrian Chesterman’s cover for the 1979 edition)
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