’70s-style dystopia: This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

This Perfect Day is a dystopian sci-fi novel, published in 1970, in the vein of Brave New World and Logan’s Run. People are born into a happy (read: bland) unified society, ruled by UniComp, which is literally a giant computer. Over the generations heterogeneity has been genetically blended out, and every member of ‘The Family’ receives treatments to keep them ‘well’. Of course, there are aberrations. Chip, for example, was born with two different coloured eyes. In his formative years his ‘strange-acting’ grandfather and an artistic friend each have a lasting impact on him. Chip is slowly awakened to a world where one can smoke, learn French, and have orgasms more than once a week!

Aspects have dated, of course, but I never knew what was coming next. The plot is clever and action packed. I don’t know why it isn’t as well known as some of the other dystopias—perhaps because it was never filmed? Some of Ira Levin’s other works have become classic films: The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby.

It’s fun to read a retro futuristic novel and compare its speculations to the present. The aspect of ubiquitous computing—data everywhere—is prescient, but the fact the members have to scan themselves to get in and out of buildings, onto planes etc. wouldn’t work today. Their bracelets would, in a contemporary story, probably be implants, and the scanning would happen automatically (so, much of the plot would fall apart).

I did find the concept of one’s time as controlled and delegated to ‘useful’ pursuits relative to the present. At least, personally, this conversation between Karl and Chip, about Karl’s art, struck me:

‘I’d better get back to the group I’m with’ [Chip] said. ‘Those are top speed. It’s a shame you weren’t classified as an artist.’

Karl looked at him. ‘I wasn’t, though,’ he said, ‘so I only draw on Sundays and holidays and during the free hour. I never let it interfere with my work or whatever else I’m supposed to be doing.’

Anyone else explain their time like that?

One of my supervisors recommended this book to me, because my almost-finished-novel is set in the near future, and there are some similarities. But I think Brave New World may be closer, and I think (hope) there are some completely original aspects about my work (while I do deliberately play on the reader’s intertextual knowledge at some points). The main point is that in my work people do have choices, many choices, but they have been socialised by the media, dominant ideas etc. to watch over themselves. And they choose to, also, due to the anxiety of having so many choices. They need to feel in control. Contradiction is encapsulated by the mantra of ‘balance’. They are not forcefully drugged or anything, but they are socially pressured to ensure their ‘wellbeing’ and ‘functionality’ are intact. My society is not about uniformity, it is about controlled heterogeneity. It is not about efficiency in general—utopianism—but about efficient and controlled market growth. But my work is being written in the era of neo-liberal capitalist consumerism, not during the cold war, like this one…

If you’re a fan of dystopias, particularly kitschy ones (the sexy aspects are awesome) you’ll tear through this. And like any good sci-fi, it will still stir up political questions. Is it better to be happy or free, especially if ‘freedom’ is dirty and dangerous? What if you got to ‘reprogram’ the society so people lived longer and felt more, could you then be content with it? Isn’t it better than the uncivilised chaos that would otherwise descend?

You probably already know the answers, but Ira Levin definitely takes you to some intruiging, challenging places.

11 thoughts on “’70s-style dystopia: This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

  1. I love that quote. What an interesting writer Ira Levin is – don’t forget The Boys from Brazil. I haven’t read Stepford Wives or Rosemary’s Baby (have seen films) but what fascinates me about him is that he seems to be one of the strongest male feminist writers around – SW & RB are two of the most devastating critiques of patriarchy ever written. I’d love to know if that’s what he thought he was doing?

    I’d never heard of this book but it definitely sounds worth a look. Thanks.

    • I actually haven’t seen Stepford Wives yet, but I love the film of Rosemary’s Baby. This is the first book of his I’ve read, but the feminist aspect isn’t so strong in this one. The women are mainly sex/love interests but that’s all part of Chip’s ‘awakening’, too, because a woman with breasts is actually an aberration (!). I’d really like to read more of his work, especially now that you’ve said that. And the varied plots of his novels–what an imagination!

  2. Well, it’s a fascinating possibility that those aspects of his work are potentially unconscious…as a writer with such an imagination and playing around with social issues, as seems his main interest, I guess it’s not surprising he’d end up appearing to comment on or critique gender relations. All speculation on my part; I know nothing of him apart from his work. Which should be enough. Will you be looking at the first version of Stepford Wives? Deeply disturbing.

  3. As far as ‘controlled and useful delegated pursuits’ is concerned, I’d speculate that a lot of this is driven today by economics and consumerism, as well as a degree of insecurity and narcissism. I think it’s good that you’ve made that distinction in your own novel. But early modernity (as I’m sure you’re aware) was also quite concerned about ‘usefulness’ and ‘progress’ (a throwback to the Enlightenment and the Victorian relationship with technology) and this is where texts like “Brave New World” come in. Frederick Royce, who started Rolls-Royce at the turn of the 20th century, was a workaholic who’s only recreation was gardening…because he thought it was ‘useful’ and not frivolous like tennis or badminton. Given that he grew up in abject poverty, his relentless drive and his inflexibility are certainly. And I’m hardly a sports fan, so I have some sympathy with him there, too!

    Your question, “Is it better to be happy or free, especially if ‘freedom’ is dirty and dangerous?” reminds me of Clockwork Orange. I think it’s to Burgess’ credit that he didn’t equivocate with his own answer to that one.

    I get a giggle out of old Star Trek movies (which I loved as a kid) which refer to magnetic and video tape technology. Or the scenes in “Blade Runner” that show neon signs for Pan American Airlines in the year 2019…

    • Thanks for your considered comment, Glen. I agree with you re early modernity being concerned with efficiency and minimising waste (of time). It’s probably also an aspect of some personalities more than others. In consumer society it does seem that leisure time is something that’s acceptable, something we are even told we ‘deserve’ (and it’s also thus commodified), but (and maybe it’s that word–deserve) there’s a guilt complex around it. If we deserve to be idle, we have to have done something to deserve it…?

      Ah, I love A Clockwork Orange. And Blade Runner is one of the *best* films for retro-future deliciousness. I adore Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, though, for the way it very deliberately mixes aesthetics.

  4. Love dystopian novels, surprised I hadn’t heard of this one! I am going to try to locate it. Sounds like your novel is well and truly on its way.

    • Thanks Troy. It’s definitely available all over the net, and I’m sure local bookstores can order it in.

  5. I’m totally obsessed with anything like this and I too have an as yet unpublished manuscript in this genre. Hopefully we’ll see yours on the shelf soon (mine has been with the publisher for a second reading for four months now – groan). I think Brave New World and Nineteen-eighty-four etc. are the kind of books that stay under your skin for years, festering. I’ll be looking this one up. Have you read The Age of Miracles?

    • Hey Fiona, it’s great that your ms is getting a second reading, even if it is a frustratingly long wait. Best wishes with it! Let me know how it goes. Thanks for your wishes re mine. I haven’t read The Age of Miracles, no. Worth it?

      • Thanks, I will. Trying to focus on new ms to distract myself – in a love/hate relationship with it right now, funny how one day I’m Oscar Wilde and the next I’m really not! I really liked The Age of Miracles – I think it could be YA but not sure – I read it on the strength of a review I heard on Books and Arts Daily. If you get a chance to read it, I’d love to know what you think.

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