The Status Civilization
by Robert Sheckley
by Curt Clark (Donald Westlake)
I read these two back-to-back, and it makes sense to me to talk about them together. In The Status Civilization, Sheckley follows a man condemned to a prison planet from which he must escape; on this planet the inmates have formed a society based on an inversion of values, where wickedness (as defined by society circa 1960) is celebrated — you go to church to worship the spirit of Evil, for example, and taking drugs is mandated by law. Anarchaos follows a man who travels to the titular planet seeking the man who killed his brother, a colonist there; on Anarchaos, there are no laws, and life is a struggle of all against all. So a pair of books with real similarities, though they play out in different ways.
Sheckley's is a more direct satire, as I take it, of nineteen-fifties life (it was published in 1960). It’s a solid adventure story, with nice action scenes, and an unexpected ending. It tries to have a character-based conclusion, but isn’t really as profound as it needs to be to pull it off. Still, it’s a clever extrapolation from the premise. It moves fast, has some nice set-pieces, and has a few ideas in its head.
Curt Clark — actually a pseudonym for Donald Westlake — goes a completely different direction. One of the things you find out quickly about Anarchaos is that corporations are effectively in charge, exploiting the lawless brigands who populate the planet. It’s basically a realistic depiction of libertarian fantasies; without laws, the strong exploit the weak. The strong and smart triumph — but only up to a point. An individual can't stand against a group. Malone, the main character, can kill a taxi driver easily enough; but when two or three people join together, he gets taken down easily. And that small gang is nothing compared to the corporations, who operate slave labour camps because there aren’t any laws to stop them. What's interesting about the book is that instead of following Malone as he cuts a bloody swathe through the planet, he gets captured early on and sent to one of those camps. He breaks free, eventually, but he's never the same after. It's a nice swerve, making for a vastly different book than you'd anticipate.
Both of these are good books, frankly better than I expected. They take a similar premise, but explore it in different ways. You laugh at the social satire of the Sheckley at the same time as you’re led through the highs and lows of an action story. The Westlake wrong-foots you completely, and you never know what to expect after. Stylistically they’re not dissimilar — neither of them are brilliantly written, but both of them are competent enough to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Together, they’re a good example of how a similar premise (one man against a wild planet) can be twisted in ways you wouldn’t expect.