For a long time I thought my favourite dystopic-future novel (and indeed one of my all-time favourite books) was Aldous Huxley’s classic, Brave New World, but when I re-read BNW a year or so ago I couldn’t find the island scenes I remembered. I had somehow conflated the prestigious and favourite-book-worthy Brave New World with the less acclaimed (though I believe superior) novel by the author of The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin. While reading GemX I was strongly reminded of both novels, and was inspired to re-read, after an absence of perhaps a decade, Levin’s master work.
LiRM (his full nameber is LiRM35M4419) is a happy and productive member of the Family. His parents, after permission from UniComp, married and produced him and younger sister, Peace KD. The only thing unusual about LiRM, apart from his one green eye, is his grandfather – like all grandparents, Papa Jan looks unusual (he’s taller and darker than usual, and his hair had reddish patches), but he also thinks differently. For a start, he’s given all the family nicknames (Li is ‘Chip’ for ‘chip off the old block, because Li reminds Papa Jan of his grandfather), and he says strange things, like how in his day there were more than four names for boys or asking Chip what it would be like if he could choose what he’d do, rather than having his career determined by Uni. Most unusual is the way he says things that sound right seem odd: as though “somehow it wasn’t silly and ridiculous to have forty or fifty names different names for boys alone.”
In Levin’s future humanity is homogenised and individuals are interchangeable – all boys are named for one of the four Fathers of the Family: Karl (Marx), Jesus (Christ), Bob (Wood) and Li (Wei), and there are therefore four names for girls (Anna, Peace, Mary and Yin). While there are minor variations, members look like one another – tan skin, dark hair, slanted brown eyes, androgenous bodies; they all wear identity bracelets that allow Uni to grant or refuse permission: to enter buildings, request supplies, board transport; they all live to around age sixty two (and with progress this life expectancy is even slowly increasing); and they all have monthly treatments to protect them from infection, prevent unauthorised reproduction, inhibit facial hair etc. Members who are troubled must contact their adviser, who will help them determine whether they need an extra treatment from time to time.
The novel follows Chip from his earliest encounter with dissident thinking, at the age of six (where he hears about the Incurables from a playmate), through his first experiments in thinking differently (always easiest a few days before his next treatment), to his encounter with a subversive group that ultimately and irrevocably changes Chip’s life.
This Perfect Day unquestionably owes homage to Brave New World, as do all dystopian FSF novels of this type. Like BNW, TPD describes a vision where a master plan, faceless puppet masters, and computers form not just society, but the way individuals think. In both novels an individual from this homogenised ‘improved’ world contrasts his (no powerful female protagonists here) life with that of the uncivilised, wild world, and both novels are reflections of their time – no writer today, in the era of laptops and BlackBerrys, would posit a future with one giant computer, but that was certainly a standard for pre-1980 SF.
The hero of BNW is perhaps more realistic – when reading it at school I had to admit that I would most likely, like Bernard, rejoin the status quo and drink my share of soma. TPD actually gives us more hope, that even with everything agin us, humanity can struggle with what we today believe are important attributes – freedoms of choice and expression, individuality, pluralism, diversity.
Reading through what I’ve written I am struck by how often I’ve referenced BNW, and I wonder how TPD would read to someone unfamiliar with its forebear. And I realise how little I’ve written about what makes me prefer the later creation. I must acknowledge that part of it is probably due to the fact that I discovered TPD on my own, rather than having it assigned (and tediously analysed) for school. But I also found the story more involving, the main character more interesting and nuanced, the world more complex, the safeguards more likely, the ‘wilderness’ more believable, and the climax both less predictable and more invigorating. I really am surprised that This Perfect Day isn’t required reading for it, too, is a classic. – Alex