1979’s The Status Civilization and Notions: Unlimited is a Disco-Era omnibus of two Robert Sheckley books, the 1960 novel The Status Civilization and the 1960 collection, Notions: Unlimited.
I wrote this review because I kept dreaming about reviewing a thick Sheckley tome (title unseen because I cannot read in my dreams). Well, this is the largest Sheckley volume I own, a product of an era when Ace Books was enthusiastically omnibusing smaller books into fewer but larger books. (That also describes a large fraction of my A. Bertram Chandler collection.)
It’s interesting (to me) how Ace tackled the problem of merging two books into one. “With as little effort as possible” comes to mind, although at least Ace did renumber the pages in Notions (which came second) rather than keeping the page numbers from the original edition. But each book still has its own title page.
Sheckley was not an author inclined to take matters seriously. Generally speaking, a Sheckley character will have been denied necessary information. Also, those around them will have a tremendous capacity for making the worst possible decisions. Protagonists may or may not understand the error of their ways. Either way, nothing will help.
While The Status Civilization lacks jokes as such, indeed views Will’s adventures with surface seriousness, it’s an absurdist take on conformity taken to extremes. It’s not my favourite of his novels — that might be Options—but the novel being short (as novels were in those days), it does not overstay its welcome.
Notions: Unlimited is more willing to be openly comedic. The stories assume (as did The Status Civilization) that humans are basically idiots and even lofty motivations cannot protect them from choices likely to end badly. This may sound like a grim condemnation of the human species. It probably is a grim condemnation of the human species. Nevertheless, it’s as funny as watching Jim Jordan fail over and over.
The Status Civilization
Will Barrent wakes in what he assumes must be a hospital, given his current state of almost complete amnesia. He is disabused of his error: Barrent is not a patient but a prisoner. He is not in hospital but on a prison ship. He is not being treated for a debilitating medical condition. His mind was wiped as part of the process of preparing him for his life on the prison world Omega.
Omega is populated by Earth’s irredeemables: thieves, frauds, murderers like Will, and political reprobates. Having little in the way of natural resources, Omega cannot support a large population. Accordingly, society is arranged to encourage violent death. The average person on Omega lives just three years before dying.
Although he does not feel as if he could have murdered anyone, Will has no choice but to accept what he is told. Once cast into Omega’s unfriendly arms, Will demonstrates a remarkable skill for not dying. The system is well-designed: each escape from death brings only increased danger as society tries to rid itself of Will.
Will’s curious talents and Omega’s determination to kill him make Will an ideal recruit for a conspiracy. Some on Omega believe the system is on the verge of collapse, that survival depends on somehow escaping back to Earth. Someone will have to pioneer the escape route. That person will be Will himself.
“Gray Flannel Armor” • (1957) • short story
Modern romantic techniques prove unsatisfactory for one young bachelor. However, even his reaction can be monetized by insightful commercial interests.
“The Leech” • (1952) • short story
Faced with a ravenous space monster for whom every attack is food, America does what it does best: hurl attack after attack at the beast, while ignoring the advice of scientists for as long as possible.
Whenever possible, double down on solutions shown not to work.
“Watchbird” • (1953) • short story
Solving America’s murder problem with autonomous robots equipped with incapacitating weapons, the ability to learn, and an insufficiently narrow definition of murder? What could go wrong?
This is also a yet another double-down-on-error story. It’s also interestingly prescient about how learning programs can evolve in ways that only pessimists could foresee.
“A Wind Is Rising” • (1957) • short story
Two human explorers are provided with a chance to test the limits of their protective equipment.
Morning After • (1957) • novelette
One of tomorrow’s useless men successfully resists efforts to better him … or does he?
The Native Problem • (1956) • novelette
An antisocial man is set down on the empty world of his choosing … only to have his planet invaded by ignorant, deluded, and heavily armed human settlers determined to eliminate native resistance before it starts. The fact that our hero is as human as they are will not affect their actions at all.
Among other things, this story is an example of “light-speed leapfrog”. The settlers set out long ago in a slow starship. This isn’t their first try at colonizing an alien world. Since these are Sheckley characters, they’ve learned nothing from experience. Having been driven off by angry natives in earlier attempts, they conclude that the right thing to do is to treat any natives they encounter even more badly than they did the last group.
“Feeding Time” • (1953) • short story
A curious young man realizes too late that words mean what words mean.
“Paradise II” • (1954) • short story
Two human explorers are granted vital roles in a sadly too-belated attempt to save an overpopulated alien world.
No space explorer in a Sheckley story ever does due diligence before rushing in. This is because none of them suspect they are characters in a Sheckley story.
Double Indemnity • (1957) • novelette
Time-travel-based insurance fraud goes horribly wrong.
“Holdout” • (1957) • short story
Tranquility on board a starship is endangered by the peculiar racial prejudices of a white American and his reluctance to serve with persons of a certain race.
The twist in this — which race the white fellow won’t work with — was probably a thigh-slapper back when Eisenhower was president. Part of the setup involved the off-stage deaths of a lot of black people, which undermines the humor a bit.
“Dawn Invader” • (1957) • short story
An imperialist human launches a psychic invasion of an alien world. Success is guaranteed! But not for him.
Although Sheckley was never a hard SF author, this touches on a hard SF question: given an ancient universe, what are the odds humans will be the first people to try invading other worlds? If they aren’t, won’t counter-measures be an established part of the galactic toolkit?
It’s not impossible this is part of the Mindswap backstory.
“The Language of Love” • (1957) • short story
Unable to communicate clearly with the target of his infatuation, a young Earthman sets out to acquire a more nuanced vocabulary. He soon finds that clarity is more of an impediment than his former lack of vocabulary.
The omnibus that I read is out of print. One can still acquire the components.
I did not find Notions: Unlimited at either Amazon UK or Chapters-Indigo.