It is a simple dream that criminals might be whisked away to an isolated land, a place to live amongst their own kind and do what it is that makes them criminals, never to enter good society again. The idea the opening premise of Robert Sheckley’s 1960 novel The Status Civilization, the ensuing planetary adventure gradually evolves into a story of personal discovery in a universe gone mad. The absurd deteriorating into the merely surreal, it is also utopian satire.
Awaking to discover he has no memories save those of a hazy murder, on the first page of The Status Civilization Will Barrent quickly learns he’s on a prison ship bound for a place called Omega. An insular planet where convicted criminals live, rule, and die, the average life span is a scant three years, long term survival unlikely. Stepping out of the ship and onto the sidewalk, Barrent is immediately confronted by three men drawing lots to decide who has the right to shoot him first; it is hunting day for newbies. Escaping into a nearby building with a victim’s sanctuary sign above the door, he discovers the room is not intended to assist him, rather to ensure no rights violation is occurring. As newbies are legal game on hunting day, the proprietor of the sanctuary promptly draws a gun himself. Barrent narrowly escaping the sanctuary, he gradually but uneasily settles in to Omegan society as an owner of a shop selling poison antidotes. He meets a priest in the religion of Evil, talks with a mutant soothsayer, learns about the Black One, and has a few encounters with a mysterious woman who, for reasons he cannot scry, helps him through the ordeals Omega’s strictly hierarchical society places on him. Though experience gains him status, unfortunately for Barrent, it also increases the size of the cross-hairs on his back.
The first half of The Status Civilization is a soap bubble; at the slightest touch of logic it dissolves in the air. But the effect is intentional. Sheckley opening the novel with a standard man-who-has-been-wronged-must-take-the-law-into-his-own-hands-to-set-things-straight story, the science fiction tropes used to set this scene are so absurd one wonders whether the effort is even worthwhile. On top of being fooled by the “victim sanctuary”, Barrent is arrested for not being a drug addict, coerced into attending the local church of Evil, given ‘Trial by Ordeal’, is the target of a legal manhunt, and participates in gladiator games.
But satire is the name of the game, and slowly The Status Civilization extends beyond raw pulp. Omegan society not ostensibly a mirror to Earth’s, rather a simple thought experiment, its bizarre ideas regarding law nevertheless come full circle when someone explains to Barrent:
“On Omega, the law was kept secret. Older residents used their knowledge of the law to enforce their rule over the newcomers. This system was condoned and reinforced by the doctrine of the inequality of all men, which lay at the heart of the Omegan legal system. Through planned inequality and enforced ignorance, power and status remained in the hands of the older residents.”
But ultimately, it’s when the story transitions to Earth that Sheckley’s agenda takes full shape. Moving from anti-hero, to hero, to just normal guy, Barrent is forced to confront the forces at work in life in human fashion. The absurdism of the opening sequence reflected through a handful of prisms by the time the storyline reaches the climax, the light shining on his life takes on more natural than plastic tones, and as a result, the novel far outpaces the pulp simplicity of its initial outlay.
In the end, The Status Civilization is a two-edged sword: satire of both humanist and pulp origins. Sheckley playing with the idea of utopia/dystopia on a planet populated by criminals juxtaposed against a seemingly pastoral Earth, there are as many gimmicky tropes of the Silver Age as there is deft commentary on the state and perception of social class, law and order, and place in society. What begins as a standard story about a man accused of crimes he didn’t commit who must clear his name gradually evolves into larger commentary on the state of the societies he finds himself in. A quality society is just not as simple as separating the good from the bad—as much as some would like it.