The Status Civilization (1960) is yet another utopian/dystopian story, taking on the issues of conformity and societal pressure to subordinate the individual to the group. The novel is somewhat on the quirky side, reading like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. In fact, with a little condensing it would have been perfect for that show. I can almost hear the back cover blurb in the voice of Serling: “This is future Earth — one vast and stratified society that brutally ejects all who fail to conform. And you’ve just entered… ” — you know the rest. There are some farcical elements here, which I normally don’t care for, but Sheckley succeeds brilliantly in presenting some substantial and thoughtful social commentary, and does it with style.
Will Barrent wakes up on a starship with no memory of who he is, or anything else for that matter. He soon learns he’s one of a cargo-load of criminals being dumped on the prison planet Omega (last letter of the Greek alphabet… “end of the line”… nice symbolism). After being told his name and his crime (murder), he is thrust into the chaos of trying to adjust to Omegan society. For on this prison planet there are no cells and no guards (except the guardships in orbit). The criminals are left to govern themselves, and have formed a bizarre society that is at once savage and unpredictable, but also orderly and lawful in its own way. The Omegans revel in their criminality, and have formalized that attitude in their legal and civil structure. One gains status by killing others, but this must be done according to certain complicated rules. And breaking the rules gets you into trouble with the Omegan justice system, consisting of departments such as the Kangaroo Court, the Star Chamber, and such. But even if one is found guilty, the sentence can be avoided if one is creative or brazen enough to find the loopholes, which Barrent seems to be good at.
While explaining the legal system of Omega, Sheckley takes the opportunity for some barbed commentary which could apply just as well to our own world:
Without the law, there could be no privileges for those who made the law; therefore the law was absolutely necessary.
Life has a superficial appearance of normality on Omega, but underneath that everything is utterly backwards. People have their own homes and businesses (common among these are weapon shops, drug emporiums, poison and antidote sellers, assassin’s guilds, and the like). They go to church (although they worship pure Evil). They visit psychologists (to help with problems like not wanting to kill). It’s a very strange world with a strange outlook. The philosophical “problem of Good” cracked me up.
All that may sound entertaining (and it is), but things get more serious when Barrent finds reason to believe he is innocent of the crime he’s here for. Even more, he finds others in the same situation. From what they can piece together from their almost-wiped memories, it seems a good portion of the prisoners on Omega were sent there not for real crimes, but for the offense of nonconformity on Earth — for criticizing the government, for expressing unpopular opinions, for failing to follow the crowd like good sheep. So, a daring plan is formed: when the next prison ship arrives, Barrent sneaks aboard for a ride back to Earth to find out what really happened, and why he was really imprisoned.
Once he gets there, he finds a society on Earth that is every bit as bizarre as that on Omega. This future society has taken conformity to a disgusting and insidious extreme. Disgusting, because the urge to conform is so thorough as to turn people into robots. Insidious, because this society has grown soft and weak, losing touch with its technology, leaving everything automated by machines which continue to enforce the desire for conformity through psychological manipulation of humanity. In this regard the book has parallels with Gunn’s The Joy Makers, published in the same year and one of my favorites; indeed, the two novels seem to me somewhat similar stylistically. (Also, both novels have a similar scene in which the protagonist arrives on Earth and walks across an eerily deserted landing field.)
Barrent finds a history book which attempts to justify the drive to conformity:
The need was dictated by the continued explosive increase in population, and the many problems of unification across national and ethnic lines. Differences in opinion could be deadly […]
That sounds very familiar. In fact, it’s the same reasoning behind the conformist society in Silverberg’s The World Inside, which I recently reviewed.
Barrent finds the information he’s looking for about his past, and in the process encounters one of the best plot twists I’ve ever seen. He then comes to the ironic conclusion that Omega is now a better examplar of individuality and freedom than Earth is, and only a merger of the two societies will save humanity and lead it forward. I like that. Nicely done, Mr. Sheckley!