Monday, May 11, 2009

Presenting Lenore Presents...Dystopias (part 2): Who's dystopia is it anyway?

A couple of days ago, I was watching a documentary featuring Jim Jones and his cult The People’s Temple. In case you don’t know, he’s the crazy guy who convinced over 900 people to commit mass suicide by drinking kool-aid laced with cyanide in Jonestown, Guyana way back in 1978. By that point, the group was mired in controversy with relatives accusing Jones of brainwashing, but no one saw such a violent end coming. In the early days of his ministry, Jones was known for progressive views on racial integration, and his social enlightenment was one of the main selling points for people joining the group.

The documentary showed a propaganda film produced by the people’s temple starring a smiling guy proclaiming that Jonestown was a utopia. And he was not the only one at the isolated Jones compound who thought that. Which got me thinking: in life and in literature, one person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia.

Take Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER for example. The world Jonas lives in seems perfect. There is no war. No fear. No pain. Everyone contributes their share for the greater good. A person's mate and job are chosen for them. And when they are no longer useful, they are peacefully "released". Everyone seems happy. And yet when Jonas becomes a giver, the one person in society who holds memories of the past, he begins to realize that peaceful living comes at a great price. No freedom of choice, no familial bonds, no romantic love and worse than that, euthanasia and infanticide. Still, interview most anyone in the book and they’d tell you they were living in a utopia. (Do keep in mind though that they are all popping emotion suppressant drugs...)

Gemma Malley’s THE DECLARATION presents another type of perfect world. Modern science has found a way to grant mortals immortality via a longevity drug. There is a slight downside: to counter an unsustainable population explosion, anyone who takes the drug must sign a declaration that they won’t have children. But hey, who needs children when you can live forever right? I mean some pesky people are kind of disgruntled about not being allowed to procreate, and surpluses, children of rule breakers lead pretty crappy lives in unfriendly institutions. But yeah, ask the man on the street, and he’s going to smile and call the place a utopia.

In Neal Shusterman’s UNWIND, no one dies waiting for organ donation because high quality organs are readily available thanks to The Bill of Life, a result of the Heartland War between Pro-lifers and Pro-choicers. It declares that a person’s life cannot be legally terminated from conception to age thirteen. However, if someone doesn’t prove their worth by that age, they can be "unwound", allowing them to continue to “live” in a “divided state” and to contribute something more valuable to society than they ever would be able to in their "undivided state". So maybe not a such a great deal for those who prove unworthy, but think about how happy all the organ recipients are. Ask one of them if they are living in a dystopia, and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.

As you can see, sometimes it’s all a matter of point of view: One person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia.

18 comments:

susan said...

I vaguely knew about Jim Jones because I was a child when the mass suicide occurred. I also saw the documentary about his group.

I've read both The Giver and Unwind. Enjoyed them both. Of course, I love social commentary so these feed an interest for social critique.

I think I've recommend it before, if you haven't read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, do. The sequel, Parable of the Talents is good as well.

Taren said...

I was just referencing Jonestown to someone last night. I love learning about different kinds of cults, as well as real life and fictional dystopias. This was such a great post! Of the three books you talked about I've only read The Giver, so I'm going to track down the other two ASAP. Do you have a favorite dystopia, one that's still pretty bad that you'd take over all the others if you had a choice?

PJ Hoover said...

Very good examples! Pretties is another one that comes to mind.

Insert Book Title said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing!

Kami Garcia said...

Love the Giver, but I'm a huge fan of the old sci-fi novel, The White Mountains, & the ultimate utopian novels, 1984 & A Brave New World.

Melanie said...

Very interesting post! It really made me think.

Keri Mikulski said...

So true..

I was thinking PRETTIES too. :)

Actually, in general anything depending on the point of view.

Interesting post.

Heather Zundel said...

Fantastic post. I love looking at Utopian/Dystopian literature. And I love it all depends on the point of view. One I am planning on reading soon is called the The Sky Inside, by Clare B. Dunkle. About a six-year-old super genius and her annoyed older brother who has to save her when their world decides it's just not good having genetically engineered children around. As soon as it gets into the library :D

Linda J said...

I remember Jonestown in '78. I haven't seen the documentary tho.

Sadako said...

That's so creepy about the Jonestown quote. But so true.

I really loved the Giver; can't wait to read the other books that you mentioned.

Sadako said...

Oh, P.S., I think your link to part one of the dystopias is broken.

Lorin said...

I think it may be time for me to lay off the dystopian fiction for a while - I dreamt last night that I was living in a dystopia! It was very Big Brother with Brave New World thrown in, plus a dash of the Hunger Games. I think I need to read something happier next!

Joanne said...

Great post. I love dystopian literature and the debates it can inspire. I remember doing a class debate on Brave New World - it was shocking how divided the opinions were.

I've got Giver on my TBR and really need to read it soon. I hadn't realized it also contained themes on drug use as a way of controlling society.

Lenore said...

Taren - Do you mean a dystopia I actually wouldn't mind living in? That is a very tough question. As someone over 18, it wouldn't be too bad to live in the world of Unwind, I guess. Definitely no post-apocalyptic worlds like The Road though!

Jen Robinson said...

Hey Lenore. Interesting stuff! I do think that this "one man's utopia is another's dystopia" is an element of the distinction between dystopia and post-apocalypse. Because it's on some level created out of choice, vs. the societies like, say, in Exodus, where a natural disaster drives things. I think my preferred reading tends more towards the post-apoc, but obviously if I had to choose a place to live, something like Unwind would be a lot more palatable...

Zibilee said...

Really thought-provoking post. I haven't read much dystopian lit, but this post made me want to read all three of these books, especially The Giver.

Janssen said...

I LOVE dystopian books. .. next up, Unwind.

Anna said...

Interesting post. I haven't read any of these, but I'll keep them in mind.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric