This 1960 novel by Robert Sheckley reminds me of a later book by Frank Herbert, of Dune fame. Herbert also wrote a novel about a place called Dorsai, which distilled ideas in some other of his books (including Dune) about an environment which hardens men into living weapons. After reading The Status Civilization, I have to think that Herbert read it, too. Now, don’t get me wrong – there is a reason Herbert is still widely read and this novel, maybe not so much. Herbert had a gift for world building, while Sheckley’s scenario is more tendentious.
In short, a man wakes up with his memories mostly wiped and learns he’s on a prison ship to take him to Omega – basically, a planet-wide prison. There is a surprisingly well-organized government, but it’s literally based around semi-legalized murder and the literal worship of Evil (always with a capital E). Our hero, like many heroes, proves not to be bad guy (he was sentenced for murder, but didn’t really do it) and also surprisingly physically adept and a pretty good fighter and killer for a non-murdering kind of guy.
The interesting bit is when he makes it back to Earth and finds a society which has been inculcated to extreme self-regulation. In fact, he realizes that he turned himself in for the murder, knowing he didn’t commit it, but also knowing that the ‘evidence’ suggested he did. There’s a weird, not terribly well done internal struggle (visualized through the recreation of his earlier battles, but with inner, ‘Earth’ self being the antagonist) where he tries to stop himself from turning himself in again.
It ends with him realizing he has to warn the incoming Omegans before they get their memories back and their conditioning and just wind up sending themselves back to Omega.
The story is nicely paced and feels very full, despite being only a little over one hundred pages long and for the avid sci fi reader, there’s plenty to be had, especially if you are interested in some antecedents to a modern sci fi trope.