This Perfect Day (1970) is the first dystopia I ever read, and one of the first science fiction books I read, before I knew what science fiction was. My grandfather confiscated it when I was halfway through, saying it wasn’t suitable for children, and I argued at great length that it was too suitable, because it’s set in a future world where people say “fight” and “hate” when they curse and so there isn’t a single swear word in it, which is true as far as it goes. It’s full of dubious sex, of which more later, but I was seven or eight and honestly had no idea that I wasn’t supposed to read about sex. I had to climb right up on top of the armchair to steal it back, teetering at a dangerous stretch. I don’t remember if that was the time I fell off, and lay stunned for a second, covered in Alistair Macleans. But I know I got it back and found out what happened, because I remember playing what happened next with my Lego people.
It would be hard to argue I wasn’t too young for it. But I really liked it. As a child I liked things like that, things where things are awful but everything comes out all right in the end. In many ways. This Perfect Day made a perfectly good children’s book, apart from the sex which I didn’t notice anyway.
Ira Levin is brilliant at writing things that are immediately absorbing, that you can’t bear to look up from, and that tend to come out all right in the end. Most of his books are on the edges of our genre. This Perfect Day remains as unputdownable as it was when I first read it. The sexism fairy has been at it, the speculation is all wrong and the computer is laughable, but the “I-want-to-read-it” quotient remains really really high. I’d climb on another armchair for it any time.
It’s the future of 1970, eight or ten generations into the future or more. The world is perfectly communist, with genetic engineering working on making everyone look identical and medication and conditioning making everyone act and feel identical too. There’s a huge worldwide computer in Geneva called Uni that controls everything, and everyone wears bracelets that connect to it, bracelets you press to scanners to go through a door or take goods. Uni also tells you what job you can do and who you can marry and issues numbers to your children — there are four names for boys and four for girls. Everybody has weekly meetings with an advisor, to help them live the way they are supposed to. Everybody is happy and uniform, eating their totalcakes, wearing their coveralls, singing their anthems at Christmas and Marxmas, working, playing, having sex on Saturday nights. The solar system is being colonized, and there are interstellar ships on the way. The weather is under control. Everything is getting better and better. And with the wonders of modern science, everyone lives to be sixty-two.
Into this world where everybody is happy and perfect and has their monthly treatment that contains just what Uni says it should, is born Chip, whose real name is Li, but whose deviant grandfather calls him Chip, for “Chip off the old block” because he has one green eye, like his grandfather’s grandfather, one of the men on the first Mars expedition. Chip’s just a little bit different, just a little bit discontent. And we follow him through his world, from childhood to becoming a dissident, to escape and revolt.
Uni is laughable, of course. It’s a giant supercooled mainframe, controlling every aspect of the world every second, and it doesn’t even have a hard drive or backups—if you take out the cooling plant it will wipe the memory. And what ubiquitous computing has given us is the marvellous liberty and creativity enhancing presence of the net. Chemotherapy has given us depressed people who can function for the first time in their lives. But these could be the tools of oppression and it wasn’t foolish for Levin to think that. The fear Levin is playing on is communism, the planned society of gentle happy people who call each other brother and sister and hope they’ll sing “One Mighty Family.” They help each other by reporting on their friends, and are free from all kinds of bad things at the cost of not being free to make their own choices. Levin explicitly sets contentment against the possibility of joy and pain, and comes down strongly in favour of the latter. And these are people who are genetically and chemically really content—there’s none of the backbiting or fear of Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Their lives are as bland as the totalcake they eat, all being well they’ll have sixty-two years of being a kind gentle automaton.
Levin manages to make this planned future in which everyone looks the same and thinks the same and says “No, thank Uni” when anybody thanks them quite horrific, in a way I understood when I was a kid and which still works. I recommend it with some reservations, which I can’t discuss without spoilers.
Actual spoilers coming up now.
When I was a kid, and still when I was a teenager when I re-read this book frequently, I thought Levin was a genius for making the island enclaves to which the malcontents could escape horrible. Now it seems obvious. And then there’s the equally clever idea that the whole thing is selecting for programmers, treated people don’t make good programmers, Uni needs programmers, they can live for centuries inside the mountain, getting away and then attacking Uni is the necessary requirement. It’s another twist, of the kind Levin did so well, and it provides the complete dystopian shape to the story. It makes it a much cleverer world—the only thing wrong with it is Wei saying they’re going to do away with it. If it’s necessary, it ought to remain necessary—at least until Chip successfully fights Uni.
Warning: discussion of sexual violence in the next paragraph.
The sexism fairy has been at the book while it was sitting on the shelf. There’s a rape scene, and after the rape the woman loves her rapist. I’d completely forgotten about it and it blindsided me. I had remembered that Chip fell in love with Lilac, and that they escaped together, but this surprised me and horrified me, and it stands in the way of me wholeheartedly recommending the book. It’s particularly bad because their society is in other ways egalitarian—everybody has sex on Saturday nights but there isn’t any double standard, men and women work at the same jobs and both do childcare. (Homosexuality doesn’t seem to exist except for a couple of women making do with each other when they have no man. Maybe it’s the conditioning.) Chip’s weird obsessive love for Lilac is seen by the text as positive, as one of the things leading him towards freedom, and she settles down and loves him back after he rapes her. Ick. No wonder my grandfather thought it wasn’t suitable for me! How could I so completely have failed to notice this?
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.