Robert Sheckley is an author you’ll probably see a lot more of on here in the coming months. Best known for his short stories (look into the collection The Store of The Worlds, brought to you by the NYRB), Sheckley was a mainstay in Galaxy magazine who focused on cunning social satire hidden under often hilarious and always witty SF. That was the kind of social science fiction Galaxy thrived on, and Sheckley provided it in spades, along with contemporaries like William Tenn and Damon Knight. Alas, despite his presence in the field—over a dozen solid novels and several hundred shorter works—Sheckley is a forgotten author today. It’s good that the NYRB is helping to bring his fiction back to the limelight, because at his best Sheckley had few peers in the genre.
The Status Civilization was originally the novella “Omega” in Cele Goldsmith-Lalli’s Amazing Stories in 1960; I’m not sure why H.L. Gold didn’t buy it for Galaxy (my guess, his ailing health) but it’s his loss. For book publication it gained a better title. My edition is a fake Ace “double” with only one cover, bound with Sheckley’s Notions: Unlimited, one of his great collections. It hasn’t been printed by a major publishing house for some time, but it’s one of the gems hidden away in the Project Gutenberg stash (which also has a number of Sheckley’s short stories), and Prologue Books digitized it as well.
Will Barrent wakes up with a stereotypical case of amnesia, unable to recall his name, his past, or how he got here. “Here” turns out to be a spaceship heading for Omega, prison planet for all of Earth’s unwanted criminals, who’ve been given free reign over the laws and culture of their new world. Will’s unable to recall his crime, either, though he has more pressing problems. Omega has a very strict caste system, and a byzantine series of laws and regulations; life expectancy is three years. Within minutes of entering Omega’s only town, Will finds out that today is a special holiday for one of the upper classes, the Hadjis, who come forth to kill all the new arrivals who’ve wandered away from their disembarkation point. And when Will kills one of them, he moves up from being a newly-arrived Peon to inheriting the dead man’s status of Free Citizen, his possessions, and his storefront, an antidote shop.
With a new title, social freedoms, and a means for income, Will mingles with the Omegan society. And man, is it a hoot, with its contrarian laws that are often conflicting. This culture openly worships evil at its hidden covens, which (when Will is invited to visit) hasn’t scraped up the funds for any sacrificial virgins, and the sermonizing puts Will to sleep. Drug use is mandatory, because an addicted population is a good, law-abiding population. (It also leads to hallucinations, which show the amnesiac populace scenes on Earth such as their crimes.) Women outnumber men, due to constant deaths and the use of poison by vengeful wives. Cut forth from the highly-policed and regulated society of Earth, these criminals have created their own highly-regulated and policed society. A society with cultural rites and values designed to keep its population low, keeping the status quo intact—social movement is possible, as Will shows, but for the most part the rich stay rich and the poor are mown down like chaff.
At one point, Will is judged as a lawbreaker—an interesting contradiction, since the judge later points out that the law must be obeyed and broken to rise in power, and the real trick is not getting caught. Will is forced to fight various Omegan flora and fauna in a gladiatorial game, then brawl with a killer robot; he’s one of the targets of the sacred hunt, and must outwit the entire colony of criminals to become Above the Law. Along the way, he’s helped by a mysterious woman working with the Omegan underground, a group rebelling against the evil practices of their society who hope one day to return to Earth… with Will’s help. And of course, what he finds on Earth might be the most shocking satirical twist of all.
The prose is straightforward and a bit loose at times, delving into exposition. But it’s very readable, and as the story is an expanded novella you can get through it in a day or so. I’m more used to Sheckley’s short fiction—this is the first novel-length work of his I’ve read—and his shorts are often comic/comedic, some of the best humorous SF out there and an undeniable influence on the The Hitchhiker’s Guide “trilogy.” While The Status Civilization was most assuredly satire, it didn’t have the same laugh-out-loud wit, which was disappointing; instead, the creativity and wit on display is more subtle and conniving.
Everything here is about contradictions and contrasts: the Omegan laws contradict themselves; its society is a contradiction to Earth’s society; Will is a contradiction himself, easily gunning down assailants and killer robots, but he often mires himself in a moral quandary and believes himself incapable of premeditated murder. Not quite a laugh-out-loud brand of humor, but a dark and dry wit hidden behind some very skilful satire. And I wonder if this story is meant as a satire of SF in general, since it uses so many stock tropes—the Burroughs-style gladiatorial arena, the prison planet, the use of utopian/dystopian elements.
I can’t say that this is Sheckley’s best work, since some of his shorter works have more creative ideas or tighter plots. But what The Status Civilization does, it does well. Really, really well. Sheckley is weaving a complex web of two similar but separate social systems, satirizing them to the fullest, and does so with an interesting character struggling to stay alive. The novel is a fast and enjoyable read, rife with creativity and a satirical brilliance the likes of which haven’t been seen since the time of Swift. It has some flaws—Will’s contradictory character, the use of derivative elements, and the occasional use of showing over telling. Overall, a recommended read… a good way to get into Sheckley, who has so many wonderful but forgotten stories to offer.