Thursday, April 23, 2015

Status Quo by Mack Reynolds

Cold War counterfeit caper
Mack Reynolds (a.k.a. Dallas McCord Reynolds) was a popular American science fiction writer who was active from the 1950s until his death in 1983. His novella Status Quo was originally published in the August 1961 issue of the pulp magazine Analog Science Fact and Fiction. I had previously read a couple of Reynolds’s short stories—“The Business, As Usual” and “Compounded Interest,” included in Wildside Press’s Second Time Travel Megapack—and found them remarkably creative and delightfully unconventional. Wanting to explore more of this intriguing author’s work, I arbitrarily chose Status Quo from among the Reynolds titles available for free download. This particular work, however, turned out not to be such a wise choice.

The story is set in the near future, probably around the 1970s, yet there are already flying cars, hover-cabs, and “TriD” television. Lawrence Woolford works for a U.S. government agency referred to only as “the department” which handles matters of intelligence and national security. Larry is called into his boss’s office and presented with a $50 bill. The money is neither a gift nor a bonus, but evidence in an ongoing investigation. Someone has been passing counterfeit notes, so perfect that they are indistinguishable from real money but for the use of duplicate serial numbers. Though normally counterfeiting falls under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service, there is concern that the Russians may be producing these phony bills in an attempt to destabilize the American economy. The chief assigns Woolford to investigate the matter. He soon discovers that a noted Soviet spy has recently entered the U.S. Suspecting this Russian agent may be behind the counterfeiting plot, Woolford sets out to track him down.

The America that Reynolds creates in Status Quo is an exaggerated parody of Cold War paranoia. It also satirizes a society absolutely obsessed with status symbols. Woolford makes a decent living as a g-man, but he’s in debt from keeping up with the Joneses. He must drive the right car, wear the right clothes, fill his home with the proper furnishings, or else he will be branded as a “weird,” or nonconformist. Reynolds broadens this obsession with status to include what he calls “social labels.” He asserts that when it comes to making decisions about who to employ, who to do business with, or who to place in positions of authority, we place far more emphasis on social labels—the aforementioned status symbols, for example, or where someone went to school, their familial or socioeconomic background, or the degrees they hold—than on competency, intelligence, or integrity. Reynolds seems to be advocating that we replace this unfair and inefficient system with a meritocracy in which everyone succeeds according to his or her capabilities. The problem with Reynolds’s cultural criticism is that his definition of social labels is way to broad. Does anyone really consider an MD or a PhD to be nothing more than a status symbol? In Reynolds’s meritocratic utopia, occupational experience would be worthless. Everyone must be solely judged on their present competency, but how would such judgments be made, and by whom?

The mystery of the counterfeiting plot is well-thought out, and there are a few fun surprises along the way. The ending of the story is particularly good, but getting there is often a dull ride. Status Quo is about three times longer than it needs to be. Despite my dissatisfaction with this novella, however, I still plan to seek out more work by Reynolds. Even amid the tedious plot and misguided message of this failed experiment, his lovably weird imagination shines through.

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