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Against dystopias, pt 1 [Feb. 5th, 2012|11:14 pm]
Scott
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After a recent discussion with a friend who really likes dystopian literature, I have decided I really hate dystopian literature. And here I'm not really talking about 1984-style giving-all-power-to-an-evil-tyrannical-government might-be-a-bad-idea literature. I'm talking about the kind where everything seems pretty nice until you realize everyone is the exact same height and gets raised by nurturebots.

It's not just that I hate it as literature. I mean, I do hate it as literature, and most dystopian books are about as creative and original as their genetically-engineered, identical-looking characters with names like John-140551 or Mary-20612. I hate it as pseudo-philosophy, the kind of thing that makes arguments which the average person would normally see through with five seconds' thought suddenly appear deep and profound, just by sticking them in novel format and making sure they challenge exactly zero of their readers' preconceptions.

The underlying moral of all dystopian fiction is that radical attempts to improve society using science and reason will in fact create horrible societies that lack everything good about being human. Anyone familiar with the Straw Vulcan trope - the idea that anyone who's good at science or analytical thought must speak in a monotone all the time, condemn music and humor and love as "illogical", and suggest improving efficiency 28% by killing puppies since they have no productive function - will recognize dystopian literature as basically Straw Vulcanism as applied to cultures rather than individuals.

And of course Straw Vulcanism is bunk - there's no logical proof that enjoying music is wrong, and there are plenty of logical arguments that if something makes you happy, you should do it. If I had to guess where the trope came from, it would be that scientists and logical people tend to seem unreasonably interested in things that can be quantified - like joules of energy, grams of sodium, billions of dollars of debt, and number of shoes produced per worker - but only because these are easy to analyze. But moving from "these things are easiest to analyze" to "and therefore analytical people will loathe everything else" makes about as much sense as expecting geometers to denounce everything not perfectly spherical, or physicists to hatch a plot to expel Earth's atmosphere into space and eliminate air resistance. Not only is it needlessly supervillainish, but it's utterly against the scientific spirit: good scientists know that when their theories can't explain the data it's time to devise better theories, not to denounce the data as "irrational". And great scientists tend to appreciate the principle Einstein called "make things as simple as possible, but no simpler."



But dystopian fiction also goes beyond this basic Straw Vulcanism. There's a much more active antipathy not just for logical people, but for logic itself; a feeling that anything which has been logically "optimized" is unclean, has necessarily lost whatever elements make it pure and good and human . Probably the best metaphor for this viewpoint since Frankenstein was Burgess' idea of "a clockwork orange", which he described as "an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into a mechanism".

And A Clockwork Orange is also the best example of how this kind of thinking lacks real substance. Recall the story: Alex, a violent criminal, is sentenced to prison after raping two ten-year-old girls and killing an old woman. There he undergoes a form of psychiatric conditioning called the Ludovico Technique. He is released from prison, and the technique successfully makes him unable to commit any more violent acts. But the conditioning also removes his ability to stand up for himself, and his ability to enjoy classical music. He now gets constantly abused and tortured, and his previous only source of solace, the music he loved, is removed from him, turning him into a pitiful husk of a human being. Finally, he manages to get the conditioning reversed, and becomes a normal nonviolent citizen of his own free will.

I don't want to be too hard on Burgess here, because he is a little better at being fair to both sides than some of his counterparts. But let's face it: the only reason there even are two sides is because he made his anti-violence conditioning also remove ability to enjoy classical music. Which in terms of subtlety, is only one step above "as a side effect, using science gives you an overwhelming urge to drown kittens"

But there's no reason conditioning should destroy music appreciation, and you could condemn anything with the same brush. Against genetically engineered food? Write a book in which eating genetically engineered tomatoes induces a loathing for classical music. Don't like antibiotics? Write a book in which antibiotics destroy taste for Beethoven. Against homosexuality? Maybe people who have gay sex one too many times stop enjoying Mozart.

(actually, the problems here go much further. What happens to Alex without this conditioning? Life in prison? Electric chair? Are either of those remotely better than losing the ability to appreciate music, even if we do accept that ridiculous side effect? The book doesn't even claim to be making a coherent argument against its own conditioning technique; it just wants to make you vaguely uneasy about psychiatry)

It was (appropriately enough) in a paper on John Rawls that I first read the phrase "rigging a thought experiment". And that's exactly what's going on here. You set up a thought experiment - what would happen if instead of keeping criminals in prison for a decade or two, we could just delete the ability to be violent from their brains? And this is an interesting thought experiment, and one could go on in detail about the implications for free will and personal identity how those criminals think of themselves. The only problem is, at the end of all of that, some people might think "Well, if it would save people decades in prison where they usually get physically and sexually abused and turned into even worse criminals, and it would make them productive members of society and save the lives of their future victims, I guess I'm okay with the free will implications". So instead of touching on any of that, Burgess just makes the technology destroy music and joy and personality so we know it's evil.

This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with my dystopia-reading friend about one of her books:

ME: So how come all Earth's countries have been renamed things like FRA-113 and JAP-289?
HER: Because all world affairs are processed by computer.
ME: Yes, and?
HER: And the standardized word lengths and numbers make it easier for the computer to process. Because it's more efficient.
ME: Even if that's the most efficient form for computer processing, wouldn't it have been easier just to write a lookup table that tells the computer something like "France" --> FRA-113?
HER: Maybe, but this culture worships efficiency above all else.
ME: And in what world is it more efficient to force everyone in the world to change the name of every single country to an unpronouncable alphanumeric mishmash than to spend five minutes writing a lookup table??

Again, rigged thought experiment. A good thought experiment would explore the benefits and costs of turning over government to a computer. But that sounds hard, so just scare people by telling them OH NO YOU WOULD HAVE TO CHANGE THE NAME OF EVERY COUNTRY TO SOMETHING MORE COMPUTER PROCESSABLE! And replace your name with a number! Because goodness knows the World Government Supercomputer would have less complicated software than the spam mail I get every single day which has no problem addressing me by name. This is propaganda plain and simple: "Logic? But those are the people who will make you replace your name with a number! And kill your puppy to raise efficiency 28%!"

Aside from the no-more-music trope and the change-your-name-to-a-number trope (and the everyone-is-average-height trope; I seriously don't know what's up with that one) the other two bread-and-butter staples of dystopian literature are Bureaucrats (or Computers) Choose Your Job, and Bureaucrats (or Computers) Choose Who You Can Marry.

Here there was originally a long argument about why this, too, was a rigged thought experiment, but in order to cut back on verbiage I have replaced it with this comic:



If you take away banning music, changing people's names to numbers, and being told whom to marry, pretty much all that's left of these "dystopias" is the part where there's no war or violence or povery or disease. The failure of most readers to pick up on the importance of this point is probably worth an essay in itself.

But for now I would say that one of the things stopping us from eliminating war and violence and poverty and disease is that we've all been raised on novels and movies teaching us that anyone who tries to do so has sinister motives. That it's either a ploy, or that it will work perfectly but we'll all have to sacrifice our music and our non-numerical names in the process. In the process of writing my non-libertarian FAQ I came across a lot of this: the belief that anyone who says they want to get rid of world hunger or war is necessarily a bad person plotting against you.

But in reality, sometimes even the most dystopian ideas just plain work. Take vaccination programs. The government decides to force everyone to get injected with certain microorganisms as young children, because they believe it will "improve society". This sounds ten times more sinister than most of what dystopian novels dream up, and yet it just went and improved society (when was the last time one of your relatives died of smallpox?) and there were pretty much no adverse effects, almost as if it didn't even know life was supposed to be a morality play about the dangers of hubris and human meddling. It didn't even destroy people's ability to enjoy classical music!

Also, did you know that when in vitro fertilization first became a thing, there were lots of people who genuinely objected to the procedure on the grounds that test tube babies would have no souls? It sounds stupid now, but that's the sort of thing that you naturally believe if you grow up absorbing all these toxic dystopian fiction tropes. And when the first test tube babies were born, and turned out to be like everyone else and with their classical-music-appreciation abilities totally intact as far as anyone could tell, people mostly forgot about these stupid objections, which also shows exactly the right way to deal with this kind of thinking.

I think the next century is going to be full of interesting ways we can use science to improve individuals or societies. Some of these will have benefits worth their costs, others will on net raise too many ethical issues and not be worth it. I look forward to reasonable debate about these sorts of issues.

...which is exactly what we will not have if people keep reading and writing these novels with rigged thought experiments where as soon as we try to eliminate a disease or give children a decent education or stop killing each other, the result is that we all instantly lose ability to appreciate music and have to change our names to Agricultural-Technician-651.

One last confession to make: I hate the f@^$ing Giver. I hated it ever since I was forced to read it in fourth grade, and I hated my fourth grade classmates who were all like "Oh this changed my life it's so deep". I hate all the girls on OKCupid who when asked to list their favorite books say "Well I don't really read much but I read The Giver in fourth grade and it was such an inspiration". An inspiration for what? For wanting to keep society frozen in exactly the way that created your privileged little existence? Wow, that takes so. much. courage.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: drethelin
2012-02-06 12:03 am (UTC)
I pretty much instantly dismiss anyone who lists a book people are forced to read in middle school as one of their favorite books.


Also you can kind of view people's love for post apocalyptic settings as the opposite of this. Everything sucks, there are no resources, the war of all against all etc, but it's so FUN, because the story just focuses on how awesome and badass the protagonists are.
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[User Picture]From: leecetheartist
2012-02-06 01:02 am (UTC)
Thank you, that was interesting reading.


By the way, did you ever see Pleasantville?
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[User Picture]From: mercureal
2012-02-06 01:57 am (UTC)
Are you sure you ever read The Giver?
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[User Picture]From: mercureal
2012-02-06 01:59 am (UTC)
Because I'm certain the message was the opposite of keeping society frozen.

And I read a lot.
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[User Picture]From: kickair8p
2012-02-06 02:58 am (UTC)
One interpretation: Keep society frozen the way it is now and don't dare consider improving on it, because all potential "improvements" inevitably lead to ultra-structured societies where we euthanize inconvenient people and suppress sloppy sexual desire because we don't really need it to reproduce.

~


Edited at 2012-02-06 02:59 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mercureal
2012-02-06 03:24 am (UTC)
Granted, I didn't read it in school, so maybe I'm mishearing the lyrics and loving the song for the wrong reason, but that take is seriously dark. Who would write a book with that message?

The moral I got is if you quit examining, stop considering/reaching/feeling, then you might wind up in an ultra-structured society void of what makes life worth living; think for yourself and help your children learn to, because to fail at that is to invite terribleness most pervasive down the line.

I did hate Gathering Blue.
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[User Picture]From: mercureal
2012-02-06 03:29 am (UTC)
I retract "Who would write a book with that message?" because, like I said, I read a lot, and some writers are awful. I just don't like to imagine someone would write a kid's book (ostensibly) with that message.
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[User Picture]From: mercureal
2012-02-06 03:30 am (UTC)
*kids'?
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-02-06 07:24 am (UTC)
The Giver was a dystopia in which the humans on that world were trapped in a frozen culture with no way of being more than mildly human and no easy way out.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-02-06 02:15 pm (UTC)
Well, what I got out of it was that it was many children's first introduction to a society radically different from ours...

...and then the moral is "oh no, different societies are terrible and everyone gets killed and lied to, never do that."

The book may have supported change in the Giver's society, but only to make it more like our society.
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[User Picture]From: mercureal
2012-02-06 08:09 pm (UTC)
The book may have supported change in the Giver's society, but only to make it more like our society.

That's a fair criticism.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-10 11:11 am (UTC)
Yeah, pretty much.

Gathering Blue was WEIRD. And all magicky-mystical.
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[User Picture]From: ikadell
2012-02-06 02:52 am (UTC)
Sounds like you are giving these books more credit than they deserve.
In the simple reasoning of I do not read much and do not like to think much but I have to be better than this logical guy (who, btw seems better in every way) because otherwise I am f**ed the person needs to have a coherent answer as to why, otherwise it feels somehow dishonest. Okay, he is more like a computer than I am, because he can come up with associations and knows more of things, I'll bite that. What can I do that a machine can't? Okay: feel, have emotions. Hence, emotions are good and whoever does not feel them is a loser. So far so good. Small step: these machine-like guys must be somehow emotionally crippled (why? If they are smart they have to understand it's good and develop - oh, must be because they lack capacity to feel them: they think they loathe emotions but in fact grapes are green, haha!), therefore, I am better than they are, QED.
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[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-02-06 04:45 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think that's often the reasoning. To be fair, I have heard smart scientific people applying equally disdainful and skewed logic to people who are smart and nice but prefer art or something of that sort to reading: that person is talented and nice and popular - but I have to be better - so obviously that person has to be dumb.
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[User Picture]From: ikadell
2012-02-06 03:50 pm (UTC)
Fair enough.
Neal Stephenson came up with a catchy word "iconography" to describe these thought patterns...
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[User Picture]From: maniakes
2012-02-06 03:23 am (UTC)
ME: And in what world is it more efficient to force everyone in the world to change the name of every single country to an unpronouncable alphanumeric mishmash than to spend five minutes writing a lookup table??

That reminds me of thisdystopian world I read about the other day, where "scientists", in the name of "efficiency", were trying to force every to change all their units of measurement away from what they'd grown up with, what all their industrial processes were standardized on, etc, into this new system of measurement designed around make as many conversion factors as possible be powers of 10. As if a computer can't keep track of there being 12 inches in a foot or 5280 feet in mile.

The worst part was how heavy-handed the moralizing was. They had the movement start in this cliched evil empire, where "enlightened", "rationalist" revolutionaries had taken over from a bumbling, inept monarchy and replaced it with a "reign of terror", where in order to instill the new "enlightened" values on society, the revoluntaries started having everyone who disagreed with them about anything rounded up and beheaded. Then they went out and conquered most of Europe, imposing their laws and system of measurements on everyone along the way, and things spread from there.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-02-06 02:15 pm (UTC)
Just because computers can process perverse systems with ease doesn't mean humans can :)
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[User Picture]From: lpetrazickis
2012-02-06 03:21 pm (UTC)
I shall never call August Thermidor, so help me God Emperor Augustus Caesar!
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-02-09 01:08 am (UTC)

Truth is stranger than fiction. . . .

Because fiction has to make sense!
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[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-02-06 04:46 am (UTC)
Very interesting read. Thanks.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-02-06 06:13 am (UTC)

Wow

"The underlying moral of all dystopian fiction is that radical attempts to improve society using science and reason will in fact create horrible societies that lack everything good about being human."

You really, really haven't read much dystopian fiction. Read the short story collection Brave New Worlds compiled by John Joseph Adams. There are dystopians based on all kinds of ideas from extreme theocracy (IE: the religious right wins) to corporate states. Quit dismissing an entire genre because you're ignorant.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-02-06 02:16 pm (UTC)

Re: Wow

Perhaps I am defining the term "dystopian fiction" to refer to a certain narrow sort of dystopia - I did say I wasn't talking about eg 1984ish stories.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-28 01:13 am (UTC)

Re: Wow

It might be good to come up with a better term then; I think the way most people understand that word "dystopian" will necessarily include things like 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, and Heinlein's "If This Goes On...." (Incidentally, the election that brought Nehemiah Scudder to power in Heinlein's future history was that of 2012. We actually had some Scudderesque candidates running in the Republican primary -- Perry and Bachmann are Christian Dominionists, and Santorum seems to favor a Catholic theocracy. Mittens doesn't appear to fit the bill, though, White Horse Prophecy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Horse_Prophecy) or no, and anyway, he appears to be losing the general election.)
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[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-02-06 07:00 am (UTC)
Dystopias are a genre now? I thought they were just a trope.

I wonder how much of America's (and to a lesser extent, Europe's) idea and worship of "rugged individualism" has to do with the theme of governmental/bureaucratic micromanaging you see in dystopian novels again and again. (In addition to the books you've mentioned, it also comes up in the Swedish SF book Kallocain.) It seems that too much in *either* direction would be a Bad Thing, but authors seem to drastically prefer to tackle the "government micromanaging" version far more than the "Hobbesian state of nature" version. Maybe, like, Mad Max?
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-02-06 07:26 am (UTC)
Read "Silent Leges" by Jerry Pournelle for a somewhat conservative libertarian take on why anarchy sucks. Or "Cloak of Anarchy" by Larry Niven on why the fun kind of "anarchy" requires the existence of an advanced non-anarchic host society to function.
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[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-02-06 07:51 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm always on the lookout for new reads.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-02-06 04:55 pm (UTC)
"Dystopias are a genre now? I thought they were just a trope."

The difference between a subgenre and a work-defining trope is generally pretty thin.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-02-06 07:22 am (UTC)
You're assuming that the choices are between freezing society as it is right now forever and attempting to create a better world. You're forgetting that in real life, revolutions usually lead to worse worlds. This was very, very amply demonstrated in the 20th century -- Russia, Italy, Germany, China and Iran -- of the dictators running these societies, only the Iranians did not claim to be creating a scientific and technological utopia, and they claimed to be creating a religious utopia. Dystopic science fiction is in part a reaction to this possiblity.

But yeah. There's nothing about scientific or technological progress per se that makes this inevitable. Especially not stupid alphanumerics. And really, absent the Conditioning process, Alex would have to be killed or locked up for life, and I don't think that it's really all that terrible to destroy a man's ability to enjoy classical music after he's destroyed other people's lives -- if anything, Alex was getting off fairly lightly (actually, he also lost the ability to engage in violence in any form, but then he'd pretty adequately demonstrated that he couldn't be trusted with that capacity).
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-02-06 02:18 pm (UTC)
It's odd that even though Communism is one of the obvious inspirations for dystopian literature, one common feature of all of them is that dystopias are really economically efficient and rarely have overt state-sponsored violence.

It's like they're conceding the point to Communism on all of the areas where they could actually fight it, and then inventing a bunch of fake accusations against it instead.
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-02-06 05:35 pm (UTC)
There's no excuse *now*, but in the early 20th century a lot of people didn't realize Communism was actually a nasty system to live under. It looked like it worked. The arguments against it were, by necessity, idealistic. And so a lot of anti-Communist memes come from there. Shuddering against enforced conformity. Add that to the mid-twentieth-century shudder against *American* forced conformity, and you have the modern YA dystopia. Forced conformity actually does suck. And teenagers and children are much more conscious of it, and pained by it, than adults. Somehow a lot of us stop worrying about it because we're busy worrying about other things.
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[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-02-06 08:55 am (UTC)
Being told who to marry is pretty much a standard feature of most traditional societies since forever
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[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-02-06 09:01 am (UTC)
By which I mean, most traditional societies people idealize unquestioningly are terribly dystopian when examined closely.

Had an argument recently in the comments of an article about uncontacted tribes. Everyone is on board with the notion this neolithic lifestyle must be preserved, and apparently I'm the only one that thinks living like a fucking caveman in the 21st century has to suck. But hey they don't have to worry about mortgages (<---actual argument used!) I'm sure that will be a great relief when they're dying of one of a thousand easily prevented maladies like a burst appendix.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-02-09 01:06 am (UTC)
That may rather reflect the prejudices of our times than any actual dystopian nature.

Has the reign of free choice in marriage brought a reign of matrimonial bliss?
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[User Picture]From: mantic_angel
2012-02-13 12:23 pm (UTC)
Everything I've read actually suggests forced marriages are happier and more successful, since both parties realize they'll actually have to put energy in to making it work.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-02-13 11:54 pm (UTC)
There's also the little assistance of not going into it with grotesquely inflated expectations.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-10 11:16 am (UTC)
In addition, there is a middle ground between Romantic Passionate Mairrages, and Forced Arranged (or even Arranged With The Minimum Acceptable Level Of Consent) mairrages.
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[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-02-06 09:09 am (UTC)
Very interesting, thanks for writing! One nitpick: in the movie, and I think in the book A Clockwork Orange, the Beethoven thing isn't a necessary side effect of the treatment; when they realise it's happening, instead of changing the soundtrack, they say "Here's your punishment element perhaps".
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-02-06 02:19 pm (UTC)
I only read the book, but I definitely don't remember that. In fact, I seem to remember an ad hoc explanation that classical music has a lot of passion and "violence" to it, and so activated the conditioning that way.
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[User Picture]From: baal_ammon
2012-02-06 05:04 pm (UTC)
Burgess was not really writing a dystopia...
One of the problems of discussing this is the vagueness of the word dystopia itself.
If you define it as a work which describes a society, a culture, fundamentally different from ours in a negative way, then A Clockwork Orange is not much of a dystopia.
At no point does it explain anything about the current state of affairs or even what kind of political regime it is set in.
The point of the novel is that an extremely antipathic character becomes, because his free will is mutilated, a pathetic figure, worthy of compassion, a toy in the hand of the people he encounters.

I find it strange, though, that this entry doesn't mention Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451.
« Oh noes, if people watch too much television, they're gonna end up in a haze of confused stupidity and the government will somehow burn all the books for the lulz »

Typhon
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[User Picture]From: lpetrazickis
2012-02-06 05:37 pm (UTC)
Can't get a Roomba lest the Terminator kill me.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-02-07 04:50 pm (UTC)
I loved the Giver! I got it at a book giveaway at my school when I was about eight. But I loved it because I missed the message of the book. I thought it was about a society that was different and homogeneous and restricted and generally disturbing, but far better than our own. Making sacrifices (bureaucrats choosing your life for you, etc.) and stupid mistakes (the twin thing isn't even necessary) and having seriously odd ways of solving problems (suppressing genetic variation as a cure for racism) and yet still completely worth it.

I like it much less now, because I can see the cheap shots, the parts where the writing is less than stellar, the narration clutching its pearls at OMG THEY BAN SEX, the drawbacks that Lowry missed (so they just Release people who can't ride bikes?). But when you're eight and you don't even know what autonomy or sexual thoughts are, a society where people lack them makes you go "Ooh, strange and nifty!", not "Pass the smelling salts.".
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[User Picture]From: cynicalcleric
2012-02-10 02:31 am (UTC)
There was actually a logical reason behind the classical music thing in "Clockwork Orange" related to the aversion-therapy/conditioning/brainwashing. If a movie without a Beethoven soundtrack had been used he should have been able to still enjoy classical music (though his inability to defend himself would still have been an issue).

I would interested to see a study comparing people conceived with in vitro fertilization vs the regular way had any statistically quantifiable differences.

I never read "The Giver" in school; I read it in my early 20s and thought it was a pretty good buildup but just sort of fizzles at the end. Much like "Catcher In The Rye", it strikes me as one of those things that needed to be read at a certain age to 'get it' (and clearly not everyone gets it then). The idea from that book that interested me the most were the pills the character took to avoid having sexual attraction to others. We need those pills in real life, although I suppose the people who would most need to take them probably wouldn't. I suppose parents could start slipping them to their kids as "vitamins" when they hit puberty. (And I'm talking separately from some kind of chemical castration pill, which is kinda permanent.)
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[User Picture]From: atreic
2012-11-07 09:41 am (UTC)
Weird, I entirely agree with all the criticism and warnings in this essay, and yet am absolutely addicted to reading this sort of distopia and love them. Why would I seek out an entire genre of books that I rationally hate the moral philosophy of? *goes off to ponder*
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-07 06:00 pm (UTC)
One way of parsing WWII is that the Allies were actually efficient and ruthless in pursuit of their goals of victory, whereas the Nazis had made efficiency and ruthlessness into goals themselves.

One way of parsing your utopian fiction is that its against efficiency or logical and orderly social arrangements as goals in themselves.
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