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Sunday
Jun102012

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

First published in 1970 (digital version distributed by Open Road Media)

In the future that Ira Levin envisions, the world has been unified, lasting peace has been achieved, and poverty has been erased. Guns and prisons exist only as museum exhibits. Of course, this comes with a cost. "Members" of this worldwide family wear bracelets that are connected to UniComp, the computer that controls their lives. By touching their bracelets to every scanner they pass, UniComp always knows where they are. It decides whether and whom they will wed, what they will name their kids, where they live and work, and when they will have sex (Saturday nights for ten minutes). Genetic manipulation assures that, with each passing generation, members grow to look more and more alike, assuring ultimate conformity.

A kid (nicknamed Chip by a grandfather who still believes in individuality) is concerned about his grandfather's desire to exercise free will -- a sure sign of sickness that needs to be treated. His grandfather encourages Chip to want something ... anything. Despite his grandfather's transfer to a place far away, Chip still thinks about the concept of choice and wonders what it would be like to choose his own career, although his mild desire to do so vanishes after the monthly "treatment" that each member receives. Of course, once he reaches age 14 and UniComp assigns him a sex partner, it's difficult for Chip to think about anything else. The novel follows Chip into early adulthood, when he comes to understand his grandfather's wisdom.

Dystopian ideas, echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, abound in This Perfect Day. Via UniComp, the government controls the media. Tranquilizers assure that the population remains docile while other drugs suppress the sex drive. Aggression and passion are diseases. When someone fails to conform or even expresses a nonconforming thought, members who notice will snitch in the belief that they are helping the nonconformist achieve better health. Any hint of individuality is considered selfish -- after all, if there are too many artists and not enough plumbers, all of society suffers. Death as the age of 62 is regarded as natural; it never occurs to members that a longer lifespan is possible.

The plot differs from Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian tomes, however, in its focus on Chip's effort to unravel the past, a task that requires him to translate books published in French and Italian before Unification imposed a common language -- before UniComp took control of the literary world. His work leads to a more familiar theme: the search for others who value freedom over conformity, for a place in the world that remains untouched by Unification. Ironically, when Chip finds such a place, he learns that oppression takes many forms, that freedom may be an illusion, just another instrument of control.

As the story evolves, it takes the guise of an action-adventure story before it twists and, toward the end, returns to its philosophical roots. It reminds us that in any conformist society, there are two kinds of nonconformists: those who rebel against the system and those are privileged to control it. It also reminds us how easy it is to be seduced and co-opted by power and the relative luxury it brings.

Some aspects of This Perfect Day are amusing but ring true. Rebellious members are particularly motivated to free others from tranquilizing drugs so that they can enjoy more frequent and better sex. Even after being freed from the drugs, members are discomforted by the possibility of violence and chaos inherent in free will. There are advantages to being comfortably numb, to living a decision-free life. Freedom has its costs, including anxiety and stress. Many will inevitably prefer the drugs.

This Perfect Day is a product of its time. It takes an obvious shot at Marxism, an ideology that seemed more threatening in 1970 than it does today. The concept of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is carried to an extreme, with the government (via UniComp) deciding what each person needs and what each should give. Although the notion of a single computer in a single location controlling everything that UniComp controls probably seemed more realistic in 1970 than it does today, the story stands up well. It continues to be a relevant celebration of individualism and free thought. Its significance aside, This Perfect Day tells a good story.

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