Tag Archives: The World Inside

Sheckley gains high status with me

Here’s another “first book I’ve read by this author” situation; and wouldn’t you know it, it turned me into an instant Robert Sheckley fan. Gotta love it when that happens.

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!

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Silverbergian skyscrapers and the world inside them

“Here begins a happy day in 2381.”

Such is the opening claim of The World Inside (1971), Silverberg’s take on the dual problems of overpopulation and social engineering. Contrary to that opening line, not everything here is happy; this is the tale of a deeply flawed would-be utopia.

The novel takes place in a time when there are 75 billion people on Earth. The vast majority of them are housed in gigantic skyscrapers — called urban monads or “urbmons” for short — which are 3 kilometers in height (roughly eight or nine times as tall as the Empire State Building, built from futuristic super-materials). These urbmons exist in large groupings around the planet, each one holding something in excess of 800,000 people living in extremely crowded conditions. These buildings take up 10% of the world’s land area, the other 90% being needed for farming to provide enough food for those masses. Except for a small population of farmers, everyone else lives in these massive structures, most never stepping foot outside in their entire lifetimes. The urbmons contain all the necessities: power plants, factories, theaters, gyms, hospitals…. everything a person needs…. except, perhaps, for a few minor frivolities like “freedom” and “privacy.”

Obviously it would take quite a different mindset for people to live in those conditions and accept them as natural. Indeed, urbmon society has been engineered to be balanced and harmonious, and to reduce any possible frictions between its members, because with people being so crowded together, friction is a dangerous thing. So these people live in a “post-privacy” culture. Privacy doesn’t exist. There are almost no private possessions. No doors are locked. Anyone can enter anyone else’s home at any time. Nudity in front of strangers is no big deal. Anyone can have sex with anyone else they want to; it’s considered taboo to refuse someone. It’s all about reducing friction — gotta keep everyone happy, so they don’t go stir crazy living in their little boxes, right?

Another aspect of their society, and one that is almost shocking given the conditions they live in, is that not only do they not control their birth rate, but they positively rejoice in breeding and increasing their population. They consider it their “duty to god” to reproduce as much as possible. The more “littles” one has, the better his or her social standing. Most couples have at least four or five children, and even six or eight is quite normal. But although there is a religious aspect to this, it seems just as attributable to a kind of intellectual arrogance, a certain proud thumbing of the nose at a problem, denying that it even is a problem:

We could limit births, I suppose, but that would be sick, a cheap, anti-human way out. Instead we’ve met the challenge of overpopulation triumphantly, wouldn’t you say? And so we go on and on, multiplying joyously, our numbers increasing by three billion a year, and we find room for everyone, and food for everyone. Few die, and many are born, and the world fills up, and god is blessed, and life is rich and pleasant, and as you see we are all quite happy.

Early on in the novel I thought the entire concept was absurd. It seemed completely unrealistic that these two conflicting forces could exist together — extremely crowded living conditions AND the desire to have large families. But then I started thinking about the real world, and it didn’t seem so far-fetched. People really DO keep breeding and breeding with no thoughts about ever-increasing population density. And many people DO deny any overpopulation problem, or blithely put the burden of solving it on future generations. Cities DO keep growing and growing, even though the streets are so choked with traffic you can hardly move around. Is this future urbmon society so much more irrational than the present world? Perhaps not. And after all, the whole point of a novel like this is to take present conditions and push them to an extreme to facilitate examination, the way much good science fiction does.

The problem is, even though the speaker quoted above claims everyone is “quite happy,” it’s clearly not true. The characters keep saying how great their lives are, but they give the impression of people trying hard to convince themselves. It soon becomes clear that this supposedly frictionless society is actually full of frictions: sexual jealousies, class discontents, and difficulties in dealing with the crowded lifestyle. In some it is a general sense of unease. In others it culminates in a kind of nervous breakdown; these people are called “flippos” (they flip out, get it?), and they are sentenced to death so as not to bring disharmony on others. This reminds me of the “muckers” (those who run amok, ya know?) from Brunner’s 1968 overpopulation novel Stand on Zanzibar. In both novels, the stresses of an overcrowded world constantly batter at people and break them down, sending some over the edge into madness.

The book follows the lives of several characters and how they deal (successfully or not) with those stresses. It’s a good commentary on human excesses, the folly of utopia-building, and the futility of trying to drastically change human nature. Aside from the overpopulation topic, another target is social stratification: how, even in supposedly egalitarian societies, class distinctions are almost impossible to truly eliminate. Silverberg addresses this with an elegant spatial symbolism: the blue-collar grunts live at the bottom of the urbmon, while the administrators live at the luxurious top, and the middle class is in the middle, and everyone strives to rise higher and higher in the tower during their lifetimes. It’s quite literally climbing the ladder of success, making it to the top, walking all over your inferiors… you get the point.

I like this novel for its social commentary and examination of human nature. Silverberg is usually good for that. The only criticism I have is the over-emphasis on sex. Not that I’m the prudish sort by any means, but this book is full of sex and incest and orgies and masturbation and so on; and Silverberg’s approach is less than tasteful. Now it’s possible I’m being too harsh; with sex being used as a social lubricant, it certainly has a role to play in this novel. Maybe Silverberg wants us to see it as a commonplace banality, which is what this future society has made it into. Perhaps that’s why nearly every female character in the book is introduced along with a description of her breasts, women are referred to as “slots,” etc. — because people are seen as meat (but funny how that only applies to one gender). Even so, his depiction of sex usually comes across as crude and vulgar, and not just in this novel. Rather surprising, actually. Among his non-SF work, Silverberg once wrote soft porn novels, so you’d think he’d have more skill in that area. Anyway, others may disagree, but to me this was one flaw in an otherwise fine novel.