Friday, July 27, 2012

Art is a cruel mistress

"You want to ask me about class and status? Is that it?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"You Opinioners are always asking about class and status. One would think you'd know all about it by now. But very well. Today, since everyone is equal, there is only one class. The middle class. The only question then is — to what portion of the middle class does one belong? High, low, or middle?"

"And how is that determined?"

"Why, by all sorts of things. The way a person speaks, eats, dresses, the way he acts in public. His manners. His clothing. You can always tell your upper middle class man by his clothes. It's quite unmistakable."

"I see. And the lower middle classes?"

"Well, for one thing they lack creative energy. They wear ready-made clothing, for example, without taking the trouble to improve upon it. The same goes for their homes. Mere uninspired adornment won't do, let me add. That's simply the mark of the nouveau upper middle class. One doesn't receive such persons in the home."

"Thank you, Citizen Gotthreid. And where would you classify yourself statuswise?"

(With the very faintest hesitation). "Oh, I've never thought much about it — upper middle, I suppose."

— from The Status Civilization, by Robert Sheckley.

Maybe it's because of the job posting I saw last week, for a scriptwriter at Ubisoft, that I'm spending these last few days imagining everything as a video game — the journey to work, a news story, meal preparation, whatever I happen to be reading. This week I happen to have been reading Robert Sheckley, and I'm convinced The Status Civilization would make a most excellent videogame.

This is a novella written in 1960. It appears to be widely available online (I downloaded a free ebook from Kobo Books). Go, download it, read it now.

Will Barrent wakes up to find himself being shipped to the prison planet (think Great Britain's relationship to Australia). He has little recollection of his life on Earth ad does not remember having committed a crime. But here he is with hundreds of others being introduced into a prison society and left to figure out the "rules" on his own, which is something of a challenge — when you let the lawless run things their own way, the law doesn't quite work on the same assumptions you and I would make. And no one's willing to help you out — that's part of the game.

So Will essentially faces one challenge (or puzzle, or enigma) after another, and with every success, he levels up. The challenges mostly consist of staying alive, and usually as part of some society-sanctioned games, some gladiator-style, some mass hunts. Every win gains him some status in this prison world's hierarchy.

Behind all his miniquests lies the greater mystery of the crime he committed on Earth and how Earth society operates now that it exports its convicts. Will does beat the odds and make it back to his home planet, but the egalitarian utopia that Earth society has aspired toward is as stratified as ever, though perhaps more subtly (see the quote above), and with new sets of complications and dirty truths.

The following exchange is not exactly representative; it occurs toward the end, shares little with the rest of the story to this point in terms of pacing and mood, and is not especially videogame-like. But I find this idea of re-creating a work of art both fascinating and hilarious.

"You are a verbalizer, Citizen Honners?"

"I am, sir. Though perhaps 'author' would be a better word, if you don't mind."

"Of course. Citizen Honners, are you presently engaged in writing for any of the periodicals I see on the dissemination stands?"

"Certainly not! These are written by incompetent hacks for the dubious delectation of the lower middle class. The stories, in case you didn't know, are taken line by line from the works of various popular writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The people who do the work merely substitute adjectives and adverbs. Occasionally, I'm told, a more daring hack will substitute a verb, or even a noun. But that is rare. The editors of such periodicals frown upon sweeping innovations."

"And you are not engaged in such work?"

"Absolutely not! My work is noncommercial. I am a Creative Conrad Specialist."

"Would you mind telling me what that means, Citizen Honners?"

"I'd be happy to. My own particular field of endeavor lies in re-creating the works of Joseph Conrad, an author who lived in the pre-atomic era."

"How do you go about re-creating those works, sir?"

"Well, at present I am engaged in my fifth re-creation of Lord Jim. To do it, I steep myself as thoroughly as possible in the original work. Then I set about rewriting it as Conrad would have written it if he had lived today. It is a labor which calls for extreme diligence, and for the utmost in artistic integrity. A single slip could mar the re-creation. As you can see, it calls for a preliminary mastery of Conrad's vocabulary, themes, plots, characters, mood, approach, and so on. All this goes in, and yet the book cannot be a slavish repeat. It must have something new to say, just as Conrad would have said it."

"And have you succeeded?"

"The critics have been generous, and my publisher gives me every encouragement."

"When you have finished your fifth re-creation of Lord Jim, what do you plan to do?"

"First I shall take a long rest. Then I shall re-create one of Conrad's minor works. The Planter of Malata, perhaps."

"I see. Is re-creation the rule in all the arts?"

"It is the goal of the true aspiring artist, no matter what medium he has chosen to work in. Art is a cruel mistress, I fear."

I am beginning to like, and admire, Robert Sheckley a great deal.
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