My Internet was out for fourteen days. No, I don't live in Afghanistan. I live in a twenty-first century Third World-country called the United States. Anyway, I'm back, writing again about Utopia and Dystopia.
During a hot August, I read The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley (1928-2005), originally in Amazing Science Fiction Stories beginning in August 1960 (as "Omega") and published in paperback just a month later by Signet/New American Library. (Part two of the story appeared in Amazing that same month.) I was drawn to it by the cover blurb: "The Stunning Novel of a Future Earth--When One Vast and Stratified Society Threatens All Who Fail to Conform." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
The Status Civilization begins not on Earth but on a prison planet called Omega. The protagonist is a man with no name, only a number (402), and no memory of his own identity or past. It's an intriguing start and could have been the seed of a simple science fiction adventure. Instead, the author Sheckley used science fiction and stories of Utopia/Dystopia as they have so often been used, as vehicles for satire and social commentary. There is real power in this place where you might not have expected it, but only after the story has gotten well along.
The setup in The Status Civilization reminds me a little of the movie Total Recall (1990). There is also a robot-confessor in Sheckley's novel (pp. 121-122); George Lucas later used the same idea in THX 1138 (1971). The protagonist's questioning of the robot-confessor leads him to a familiar place on Earth. (p. 122) That scene reminds me of "Mars Is Heaven!" by Ray Bradbury (1948).
I don't know who wrote about the first computer games in science fiction, but Sheckley might be a candidate. Once returned to Earth, Sheckley's protagonist--his name is Will Barrent (that may or may not be a pun)--questions a number of the people living there. One is Cuchulain Dent. Here is part of their exchange:
"I'm an inventor specializing in games," [Dent says]. "I brought out Triangulate--Or Else! last year. It's been pretty popular. Have you seen it?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Sort of a cute game. It's a simulated lost-in-space thing. The players are given incomplete data for their miniature computers, additional information as they win it. Space hazards for penalties. Lots of flashing lights and stuff like that. Very big seller." (p. 112)
That's as good an extrapolation as any I have read in science fiction. Robert Sheckley, it seems to me, had some pretty keen vision.
Here is Citizen Father Boeren, talking about the Church of the Spirit of Mankind Incarnate, "the official and exclusive religious expression of the government of Earth":
"[T]he forgers [I suspect that one is a pun] of our present Church threw out all controversial matter. We wanted agreement, not dissension. [. . .] There have never been any schisms in our religion, because we are all-acceptant. One may believe anything one wishes, as long as it preserves the holy spirit of Man Incarnate. For our worship, you see, is the true worship of Man. And the spirit we recognize is the spirit of the divine and holy Good."
[Barrent asks:] "Would you define Good for me, Citizen Abbot?"
"Certainly. Good is the force within us which inspires men to acts of conformity and subservience. The worship of Good is essentially the worship of oneself, and therefore is the only true worship. The self which one worships is the ideal social being [. . . .] [Emphasis added.] (p. 115)
Yeah, pretty keen.
You can fairly say that The Status Civilization is part of the literature of a 1950s-early 1960s American society that pitted conformity against nonconformity, status-seeking against the urge to drop out, and so on into other dichotomies. The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney (1950); Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1952); The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) by Sloan Wilson; and The Organization Man by William H. Whyte (1956) are examples. But Sheckley's novel is not strictly of its time, for the author expressed some key insights into human nature and human society. Following is an example, one that may be more true now than it was in 1960. The head (and sole member) of the secret police, Dravinian, speaks:
"That's how Earth is, Barrent. Our energy and skills are channeled into essentially decadent pursuits. We recarve old furniture, worry about rank and status, and in the meantime the frontier of the distant planets remains unexplored and unconquered. We ceased long ago to expand. Stability brought the danger of stagnation, to which we succumbed. We became so highly socialized that individuality had to be diverted to the most harmless of pursuits, turned inward, kept from any meaningful expression. [. . .] (p. 118)
There are closed classrooms in the Earth of the future (and of our present). What goes on inside those classrooms must always remain secret not only to the people outside the classroom but also to the pupils themselves. Barrent discovers--or recovers--what happened to him inside the closed classroom of his youth:
What had he been taught? For the social good, you must be your own policeman and witness. You must assume responsibility for any crime which might conceivably be yours. [Emphasis in the original.] (p. 123)
Barrent himself realizes: "Earth needed no security forces, for the policeman and executioner were implanted in every man's mind." (p. 123) I have written before that the most efficient tyranny is one in which individuals tyrannize themselves and each other. That is the tyranny of the future in The Status Civilization, and that is increasingly our shared tyranny of today.
One last connection to the wider world of science fiction: Barrent is looking for the witness against him. As in the final episode of The Prisoner (1967), he finds him.
|The Status Civilization by Robert Sheckley, with cover art by an unknown artist (Signet/New American Library, 1960).|
Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley