This weekend, Lois Lowry’s old-school YA novel The Giver arrives in the form of a big-deal movie complete with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, the latter of whom is definitely not playing the Dude, but rather the title character. He’s the Giver, who, in this future dystopia, hangs onto all the relevant information that makes life interesting while everyone else has a boring, colorless, almost emotionless life.
In hit-you-over-the-head allegorical dystopian sci-fi, the repression of emotions and basic regulation of thoughts comes up a lot. But do these styles of dystopias actually make narrative and logistical sense, or are they only allegorical? Further, does their own self-importance make them ironically oppressive?
Euphemism rules the world of The Giver insofar as the idea of “releasing” a citizen in this particular community actually means killing them, but you don’t know that at the start of the book. The basic premise of The Giver is an almost paint-by-numbers version of dystopia masquerading as a utopia. This isn’t a dis against the book per se, but simply a fact. A positive 1993 review of the book in The New York Times called the prose “appropriately flat.” Everything about a society hell-bent on maintaining order, but in the end repressing freedom and “humanity,” is spelled out like a school lesson. In The Giver, Jonas is surprised to see books that aren’t just full of rules, and because this is a book that posits its own opinions about how to think—and little else—it’s sort of like a rule book, too. Except novels aren’t only supposed to have allegory; they should have plots and stakes, and characters and action. And in good dystopian stories, there are secrets.
From Logan’s Run to The Time Machine, to almost every other episode of the classic Star Trek, this sort of “too-good-to-be-true,” utopia is familiar to even someone with a passing interest in science fiction. TV Tropes calls this tendency to hide certain truths in dystopian narratives the “Empires With a Dark Secret” trope, which means some sort of supposedly happy-go-lucky perfect utopia is actually founded on a “lie.” In an emotional dystopia there’s often a technological component used to suppress people’s emotions. In The Giver, there’s the general sense of eugenics plus a daily injection. In Equilibrium—essentially a martial-arts, shoot-em-up movie remake of The Giver—everyone takes an injection. In Gattaca, eugenics, again. And in the most mind blowing emotional dystopia ever—Brave New World—everything is controlled by eugenics and the famous emotional control drug, soma.
Huxley’s soma, like the rest of his novel, is dripping in intentional irony. The origin of both the word “soma” and the idea of soma comes from a Hindu proto-Iranian drink which was thought to have produced immortality. In Brave New World soma is the opposite of the numbing drugs in Equilibrium and The Giver and is described as having “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, none of their defects.” Instead of having crazy lives, soma allows crazy trips to go down in someone’s head. The irony then, is that it’s not offering immortality at all, but rather, seemingly shortening everyone’s lives and making everyone boring people without any ambition and/or desire to do anything creative.
But the greater irony of these kinds of dystopias is that, for the most part, the struggle against this sort of oppression is manufactured for the purposes of the novel. Regardless of how prescient 1984 supposedly is, or how symbolic The Giver might be, there often aren’t suitable science fiction reasons actually given as to why and how these societies came into being. They’re created as allegories for the purposes of being torn down, so we can all assert our beliefs that individuality trumps nearly everything. And while that is probably true, and correct and wonderful—individuality rocks—it’s still a little jarring how similar stories like The Giver, 1984, and Brave New World are to each other. It’s as if in developing these sorts of emotional dystopias we’ve created our own comforting version of literary soma, and the stories themselves become cautionary placebos. They make us think, for a little bit, and then they’re over.
As simple as popping a pill or taking an injection, a story like The Giver has already made its point like two chapters in. Is it possible these emotional dystopias serve the same function as soma or the injections in The Giver? If I were Jonas in The Giver and those rows of books were populated by nothing but books like The Giver, I would wonder if I really was seeing the world anew, or whether this was just another form of control. Allegorical stories like this are fantastic because they begin certain conversations. But if they don’t explain themselves, and are only popular because of the big messages they convey, then are these stories about destroying emotional dystopias any better than the dystopias they supposedly hate?
More succinctly, if The Giver or 1984 or Brave New World are all “required reading,” doesn’t that defeat the point?
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.