This novella takes place sometime in the far distant future in a totally controlled society and it will surely make you stop and think long after you turn the final page. It is about a dystopian society, yet I wonder if it is not really about what some would consider a utopian society. Everything is decided by a Council. There is no danger to speak of. There are no uprisings. There is no dissent. If there should be, it is halted immediately and the guilty one is subjected to severe physical punishment. There is no due process. All societal threats have been removed because of the severe consequences for infractions. Conversation is controlled and limited so no new ideas are generated. Children are raised in group homes. There is no parental involvement. Adults live in homes organized by profession. Older adults are consigned to Homes for the Useless to await the end of their days at about age 40. No one is educated unless they are chosen to be by the Council of Vocations. Careers are not chosen but assigned. Mating and procreation is strictly controlled. It is basically a slave society, but the slaves don’t know anything else but that life, and so they meekly obey.
The author has written a prescient tale of an America that becomes unrecognizable. The time of its publication is pertinent. Written in 1937 and published in 1938, it echoes the rising number of abuses instituted by Adolf Hitler, practices which were gaining enormous support. The theme of Arbeit Macht Frei on the gates of the Concentration Camps, “work will make you free” is a repetitive theme in the novella. Mating is conducted according to a strict schedule with mates chosen by the Council of Eugenics, This harkens back to Hitler’s Lebensborn program, created to raise a society of pure Aryans. It illuminates his effort to control thought and behavior with the rising popularity of the Hitler youth movement; the young were trained and taught to hate those that were different, those that were not pure Aryans. They were taught to blindly obey, even if it meant betraying their own family and friends for the benefit of Hitler’s Germany. The survival of the whole, the Fatherland, was of utmost importance.
In the society of the book, everyone is supposed to be the same. Individuals are identified by numbers because individuality is forbidden. The individual exists only for the benefit of the group, not for themselves. Free thought and free choice is forbidden. Feelings are forbidden. Strict schedules guide and govern daily life. Children are raised in group homes. At 15 a Council decides their futures. Hard work is the main goal in life. Ambition does not exist. There is no need for political correctness; politics, and conversation are both forbidden. Obedience is absolute. In this new world, it is forbidden to make mention of the past “Unmentionable Times”. History has disappeared entirely. The “we” is worshipped as a “G-d”. There is no “I” allowed. Nameless people are identified by a number and occupation, i.e. equality 7-2521 is a street cleaner. Others are in groups that are scholars, others are half-brains like Union 5-3992. Liberty 5-3000 is a woman. It is a crime to think, smile or walk about without purpose. It is a crime to be too tall because it makes you stand out, it makes you different. Even those who live past 40 are gaped at like animals in a zoo.
Men and women do not fraternize. This keeps emotions in check, which reminded me of religious rules forcing women to cover their bodies in burqas to prevent men from having sexual thoughts about them. Women are separated from men except at times of mating. Mates are chosen by the Council of Eugenics. Love does not exist, nor do any other human emotions because all opportunity to experience feelings has been removed. Equality 7-2521 refers to everyone as they and himself as we. He has no self-identification because everyone exists for the benefit of everyone else, not for one man alone.
Candles light the world. There are no mirrors so Equality does not know what he looks like. He has been told he is evil. He is too tall. His eyes are too bright. He thinks and it is not allowed. He knows that he is different. He thinks that hard work will redeem his sins, but he has no idea what his sins actually are. Soon, he begins to break rules. He believes he is doing something that is good, but he is not allowed to believe in what he does, only what the group does. He is committing more and more sins. He is learning and for him, further education has been forbidden. When he comes upon Liberty, during his work as street sweeper, he begins to feel something he has not felt before. It awakens something unknown in his body. Before long, she acknowledges similar feelings. They communicate without speaking.
How will their relationship change the existing society? With individualism will the sins of jealousy and greed renew again? Will humans form their own groups and will they shut others out or be inclusive? Will selfishness once again rear its head and survive? What new sins will be birthed by their transgressions? Will free will and choice bring about a new beginning that is doomed to end? Will the story of Adam and Eve be relived with Prometheus and Gaea, aka Equality and Liberty? Will they lose interest in the needs of others to further benefit only themselves? Will there be no happy medium? Will the “absolute and unbridled” thirst for knowledge ultimately corrupt them too, as in the Unmentionable Times? Will the desire to seek their own pleasure destroy their desire for righteousness and compassion? Will they be too naïve to make the necessary changes and march forward into a better future?
Is there a middle ground between dystopia and utopia? Can overregulation be curbed to the point where it does no harm? Can socialism find a way to fund all without benefitting the few at the top who are protected from the tentacles of its policies? Can non-conformity by positive before it becomes too negative and demanding of others for constant approval? Is it like the bible story of Adam and Eve? Will the sins of Gaea and Prometheus benefit or injure the new world they wish to create? If obsession with self becomes more prevalent, does it always mean selfishness will be the end result? Can obsession be prevented?
This book makes one think hard about society and its needs. In this brief little tale, the sins of our current society are evident. Our history is being rewritten, revised, as I write. Political Correctness demands it, as it has curbed free speech as well. Some think they have the one right way for all and demand to be followed. If they don’t get there way they find means to achieve it that may not be politic. Where the many ruled, times are changing, as in the tale. Now the individual has begun to take a supreme place in the dialogue of the day. Small groups of individuals band together and rise up, like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. They demand that everyone agree with their ideas or they riot or commit acts of civil disobedience which go unpunished. Some ideas are “over thought”. Fear rules most of our daily lives; there is the fear of terrorism, of some uses of science as in cloning and stem cell research, of some religious beliefs, some life choices, some alternate lifestyles, of the unknown, of change, and of those that make rules for others but exempt themselves. Is our Council of Elders, i.e. Congress, guilty of making too many rules, or of not following those they made? Will Americans have to find a place to “hide” to find peace and freedom eventually, like Equality and Liberty eventually did? What awaits us in the future?