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6. Science and violence in popular fiction: Four novels of Ira Levin
The problem of evil is intrinsic to human society. Satan presents himself in many guises and the regeneration of evil is faced anew by every age. Taking a dispensationalist view of time, one may argue that the problem of evil is transformed under the dispensation of science, and to understand the problem of science and violence is to understand the nature of this transformation.
Why should one, however, select popular fiction for such a study? It is my contention that in modern society, popular fiction plays a role similar to that of fairy tales in that it gives form to the uncanny, thereby not only bringing the repressed to the surface of consciousness but also performing a subversive function in relation to the dominant ideologies of the time.
In an excellent paper, Judith Wilt has discussed the processes by which Victorian Gothic changed into Victorian science fiction and the role it performed.
Counter-attack seems in a way the primary mode of the 'gothic'; though the term is a little difficult to define, the genre is most easily recognizable in works which dramatize a dark subversion of reigning public ideas, or a violent return to suppressed ideas. Victorian gothic texts are of special interest both to the historian of the period and to the literary critic because they display not only the return of suppressed historical doubts and fears but also a change in a literary genre as it responded to its task of subversion.1
She goes on to argue that for subversion, imperialism required three changes or renewed emphases in the ordinary processes of the Gothic. First, a greater emphasis had to be placed upon the future consequences of present actions than on anxieties about the consequences of past actions. Second, not only fears of progress but also fears of regression had to be given shape. Third, it was not only the fear of going out into the colonies penetrated by the imperial powers and meeting one's own dark self that had to be articulated, but also the more interesting fears of meeting the totally 'other'.
Through this dialectic of past and future, regression and progression, the self and the other, Victorian gothic seems to have been transformed into Victorian science fiction, which was important for the articulation of the anxieties engendered by imperialist enterprise. And it is in relation to the alliance between the ideology of science, statism, and the market, that science fiction, as an important literary genre, now performs a subversive function.
I have selected four novels of Ira Levin for analysis, as all of them deal with the question of regeneration of evil, beginning with a motif clearly located in the realm of the supernatural which may be regarded as 'regressive', and concluding with the problematic of scientific technology that, in contrast, is 'progressive'. Before discussing each novel in detail, let us note the kinds of transformation that take place as we move from one novel to the other. Rosemary's Baby is the story about Satan succeeding in begetting a son for himself to rival the son of God and to avenge, eventually, all the indignities heaped upon the followers of Satan in the past. The locale of action is modern New York, and in some senses the novel gives expression to the fear that the world may not have become as sterilized and scientific as the modern reader might have assumed or desired it to be. It is the curious juxtaposition of the modern and the obscurant, or what we assume has become part of the past, which gives the novel its uncanny character. In the second novel, Boys from Brazil, the context is explicitly political wherein Satan is represented by Hitler. The leader is dead, but his loyal follower, Mengele, the 'angel' of Auschwitz, uses his considerable scientific talents to devise and conceive of a demonic plan to rejuvenate the leader himself. The doctor employs the scientific knowledge gathered in his infamous researches on twins, to perfect the technique of mononuclear reproduction. And using this technique he creates ninety baby boys who have the perfect genetic endowment of Hitler (for Hitler had let the doctor preserve some of his body cells in anticipation of precisely such a project). The babies have been borne by tribal women, under strict medical supervision, in the jungles of Brazil where Mengele is in hiding. The role of the mothers has been similar to that of mere incubators. There is a Society of Comrades, consisting of ex-Nazis, which ensures that the babies are placed in families resembling Hitler's, so that heredity and environment may be replicated to the extent possible. It is the great hope of Mengele that at least one of the babies will be the exact reincarnation of Hitler, through whom the fascist programme will be completed.
Thus in these two novels, the people on the side of evil are clearly recognized as evil beings. The author also invests these characters with many symbols that help the reader to identify them as such. In contrast, Stepford Wives moves towards a new definition of evil. Here, it is not clearly-defined villains pursuing their designs in a clandestine manner but ordinary scientists living a suburban existence, who are so threatened by the particularity and individuality of their wives that they collaborate in a project to turn them into robots, designed after their own images of perfect feminity. This Perfect Day, the last novel that we shall consider, is frankly futuristic. In the new era established in this novel, hunger, conflict, and aggression have been weeded out of society. There is neither ambition nor desire for success there, so important in Rosemary's Baby. The whole society has been turned into a Stepford. Homogeneity is worshipped. Medicine and genetics have advanced to an extent that most kinds of variations can be controlled. Even rebellion and dissent, as we shall see, are put to use in the service of the perfect society and thus incorporated within its framework. The utopias of health and happiness for all have been realized. The place of mythic heroes has been filled by the four figures of Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei. The classification of historical figures as those who would be recognized as part of the historical past by the readers of the novel, with fictional or mythic ones, confounds the categories of the real and the fictive and gives the novel its uncanny character. The author uses the same device for place names. The reader feels that the past has not been repudiated as much as it has been reorganized.
Into these idyllic surroundings, the author introduces the figures of Chip, through whose eyes we primarily see this society. It is his voyage of self-discovery that constitutes the action of the novel and we see how the process of this discovery also entails destruction of the mechanical order created by the agency of the machine. The accompanying chart summarizes some of the more important features of these transformations.
|Victim||Instrument of victimization||Temporal anxiety||Symbol of anxiety||Liberation through|
|Rosemary's Baby||Female body||Husband||Regressive||Satan||Motherhood|
|Stepford Wives||Person of the woman||Robotics||Progressive||Robot|
|Boys from Brazil||'Inferior' races||Genetic manipulation||Regressive||Hitler||Positing of an undeter mined future and moral choice|
|This Perfect Day||Mankind||Medical model of health||Progressive||Uni||Regressive return to (not of) the past|
The plot of Rosemary's Baby is very simple. Rosemary is a small-town girl who has married an up-and-coming young actor, Guy. They move into an old apartment house called Bramford, despite warnings from Rosemary's elderly friend Hutch that the apartment had been notorious for witchcraft in the nineteenth century, and continued to be so with an abnormal number of cases of murder, infanticide, and suicide. A series of weird incidents takes place. First, a young dope-addict, Terry, who had been given shelter by an elderly couple called the Castevets, commits suicide by a particularly violent method. Next, Rosemary seems to begin hearing strange unmusical chants at night emanating from one of the apartments. But so absorbed are the young couple in their careers and home that all these incidents are brushed aside. Rosemary and Guy befriend the Castevets who seem to be heartbroken and full of guilt at Terry's death. Initially, Guy is hesitant to spend much time with them, but is goaded by Rosemary into accepting an invitation for dinner in their house. Later on, to Rosemary's surprise, he develops an attachment to the old couple and begins to spend long periods with Mr Castevet.
Rosemary does not know that the Castevets are members of a satanic cult which is trying to find a woman for Satan to beget a son on. Terry's suicide had spoiled their plans to use her for this purpose. It is Guy who is now tempted into a pact with Mr Castevet, to drug Rosemary and allow Satan sexual intercourse with her. Rosemary would be told that the baby was stillborn, and the couple thereafter would be free to resume their normal life. In return, Guy is promised lead roles in important plays and films.
Since the story unfolds from Rosemary's viewpoint, we learn of this plot only gradually. Rosemary herself at first thinks she had a nightmare, in which she was carried into the Castevets' apartment, strangely altered by pictures of burning churches and a gathering of strange people reciting spells in unmusical chants. Her body is imprinted with weird designs and patterns and finally a huge man with completely yellow eyes makes love to her. When she wakes up in the morning, she does, indeed, find scars on her body. When she questions Guy about this, he admits rather shamefacedly that he had made love to her when he was drunk. In a fit of rage she leaves Guy for a while, to reflect on their deteriorating relationship. In this lonely period she is depressed, eats like a glutton; finally she decides to return to Guy, and finds to her delight that she is pregnant. The Castevets persuade her to go to a society doctor, and she endures every kind of hardship during her pregnancy. She loses weight, suffers from terrible pains, has cravings for strange foods, including raw meat, but is assured by the doctor that her pregnancy is normal. A friend, Hutch, drops in to see her one day and is shocked by the change in her. He soon discovers that Roman, alias Mr Castevet, is, in fact, the son of a notorious magician who had reputedly conjured up the Devil and been lynched to death outside the same apartment house. However, Roman gets wind of his suspicions, and Hutch dies in an inexplicable coma before he can warn Rosemary.
Guy's career has, meanwhile, prospered. He gets an important role, as his rival goes blind. Hutch's death, soon after the sudden blinding of Guy's competitor, perturbs Rosemary. She stumbles on the truth about Roman, but still unaware of Guy's role, she confides in him. Guy manages to convince her that her fears about her baby are unfounded, but then she discovers that her doctor, too, is part of the same group. Suspicious of everybody, she now goes to an ordinary doctor for help. The doctor, however, being the product of modern secular education, attributes her fears to hallucinations and mental illness. He calls her husband and her previous doctor and hands over the 'patient' to them. Thus trapped, Rosemary is compelled to give birth in the house under heavy sedatives. On regaining consciousness she is told that the baby died at birth. Guy assures her that she had simply suffered from hallucinations and her present condition was nothing but post-natal depression. But the seeds of doubt have sprouted. Rosemary refuses to believe that her baby died. She drugs the woman who is keeping watch over her; and armed with a knife to save her baby from the demonic people, who, she is convinced, were planning to sacrifice him in some rites, she discovers the infant wrapped in black, being rocked in a crib. As she reaches the crib, the baby opens his eyes and looks at her:
His eyes were golden-yellow, all golden-yellow, with neither whites nor irises; all golden-yellow, with vertical black slit pupils.
She looked at them watching her and knife-in-hand screamed at them,
'What have you done to his eyes?'
They stilted and looked to Roman.
'He has His Father's eyes', he said.
Rosemary finally has to acknowledge the truth. Her baby has been begotten by Satan himself. Her nightmare was real. Should she now throw the baby out of the window and follow him in a suicidal leap? Should she let him live and let the world go to God knows what - Satan knows what? But Rosemary cannot kill the baby. Not only is she seduced by his sweet and innocent look, by the fact that he is her baby even if the father was Satan, but also by the fact that she cannot believe that he can be all bad. Rosemary has accepted her fate, but without foreknowledge. No holy or unholy spirit had informed her that she was to become the mother of Satan's son. But now she cannot bring herself to destroy the baby. So the son of Satan finds a home with the most ordinary of women - Rosemary, the little Miss-Just-Out-of-Oklahama.
The story is told from Rosemary's viewpoint, which is always hovering between knowledge and truth. As ambitious as her actor husband, she even admires him for his successful lying:
And yes, he might lie now and then; wasn't that exactly what had attracted her and still did.? - that freedom and nonchalance so different from her own boxed-in propriety?
We could, perhaps, look at the characters in the novel in the following manner. Rosemary and Guy are term values for the people who sustain the modern world: they are progressive, modern, competitive. Rosemary is self-consciously so, as her rejection of her small-town Catholic identity reminds us. Guy, his name perhaps significant (just a guy), is an actor - and the theatrical world has no place for boxed-in propriety. Roman and Minnie, his wife, on the other hand, represent precisely that fear of regression that all forward-looking societies contain, the fear of the world of magic and witchcraft and lynching mobs, which has been excised from the modern consciousness. Evil is defined here as anxiety about the past which may, after all, still be in existence. Rosemary's name, 'red Mary', suggests the uncanny manner in which she will be defined, in contrast to the Virgin Mary. Thus, the anxiety about regressing to a past that may exploit the very desires to be modern and progressive, is crystallized in the opposing nature of the two couples. Mediating between these two pairs are other characters, the most prominent being Terry and Hutch. Both have to die, but their deaths are not in the nature of sacrificial resolutions. In fact, it is their deaths that signal important changes in the event-structure of the novel. If Terry had not found the idea of letting her body be used by Satan repulsive, Rosemary might never have been chosen to be the mother of Satan's child. She had been chosen by Satan himself, as Roman tells her, for why else would He have made a dopeaddict slut of a girl like Terry prefer suicide to the honour of bearing His child? Hutch's death, on the other hand, is important, for, had he not alerted Rosemary, she might well have believed that her baby was dead. It is Hutch's death, therefore, which leads on to the fundamental dilemma posed in the novel.
Rosemary is paradigmatic of the modern person who believes that the past cannot cast its shadows on the present. She always manages to still her doubts with a rational explanation: it is only Hutch's death that forces her finally to acknowledge the extraordinary evil in which she is being ensnared.
We may well ask, if Rosemary is so ordinary, from where does she derive the strength to confront the anxieties of regression, symbolized by the return of Satan in the modern, secularized world? One answer to this lies in her changing relationship to Guy. When she is drugged and taken for the ritual of consummation with Satan, Rosemary thinks she is in the middle of a horrible nightmare, but believes Guy when he confesses to having made love to her while she was asleep. This throws her into despair.
Guy had taken her without her knowledge, had made love to her as a mindless body ('kind of fun in a necrophile sort of way') rather than as the complete body and mind person that she was...
But she talks herself back into thinking that such easy morality was what she had liked about Guy. The narrative, therefore, moves to the next round of episodes, concluding with the revelation of Roman's true identity, and Hutch's inexplicable death.
Particularly crucial disjunctions in the narrative are marked by deaths - the meaning of which eludes Rosemary until Hutch's death. Rosemary's dilemma - whether she should kill the baby who has been conceived as evil or let it live, on the assumption that even a being such as this must be given moral choices - becomes mankind's dilemma in the later works. The next two novels pursue these themes in two different directions.
The Stepford Wives
The Stepford Wives has been written from the perspective of Joanna, who, with her husband, Walter, moves to the suburban town of Stepford. Joanna is a feminist and also a professional photographer. In Stepford, she discovers, women have no interest in feminist issues, although there is a flourishing Men's Club, of which her husband, to her surprise, soon becomes an enthusiastic member. Although he explains that he hopes to change the attitudes of the men from within, Joanna becomes suspicious of the Men's Association. One of her two allies, Bobby, who had also recently moved to Stepford, shares her feeling of unreality of Stepford women. This feeling is compounded when they discover that there had earlier been a flourishing Women's Association, many of whose members had since turned into dedicated hausfraus. As Joanna watches Kit, a former president of the association, explaining why housework is more interesting and useful than women's issues, the truth about Stepford dawns upon Joanna:
Like an actress in a commercial.
That's what she [Kit] was, Joanna felt suddenly.
That's what they all were, all the Stepford Wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floorwax, with cleaners, shampoos and deodorants. Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicely-nice to be real.
Joanna and Bobby then witness a dramatic change in Charmian, their only other supporter. Returning from a second honeymoon with her husband, the charming, petulant, somewhat unconventional woman is transformed into a typical Stepford wife. She confesses to Joanna that she considers her former behaviour inexcusable and irresponsible!
Bobby suggests the possibility that emissions from various scientific establishments all along Route 9 had polluted the water in Stepford and acted as a tranquillizer on the women. Walter dismisses this, and says that a better explanation for Charmian's transformation was that her weak and indecisive husband had finally laid down the law to her. Joanna is herself now declared to be suffering from stress caused by the move to a new place and an unsuccessful career in photography. However, Bobby and Joanna both decide to insist that they move to another town. To their surprise, their husbands agree readily to their suggestion; they want their wives to be happy, they say.
Soon after, Joanna receives a request from Bobby to let her son stay over the weekend in her house since Bobby and her husband were going away for the weekend. Joanna has a strange feeling of déjà vu but is reassured to find Bobby after her brief holiday looking relaxed and happy. But Bobby's fresh and relaxed look was not indicative of a wonderful holiday as she had assumed, but of her transformation into a Stepford wife.
Bobby's transformation worries Joanna. What does the future hold in store for her? She works out that whatever the thing is that transforms normal women into wives from commercial ads, it takes exactly four months to accomplish: Joanna has only one more month to save herself from such a transformation. In a panic she decides to contact a house agent to immediately move out, but Walter rushes home and confines Joanna to a room arguing that she is very ill.
Joanna finally understands that Walter is himself involved in the process of imprisoning her in this new image. Suddenly things begin to fall in place - the fact that most men in Stepford are engaged in the manufacture of robots, that the Men's Association has never been open to women, that a famous artist had visited them one day and made sketches of her, that someone had recorded her speech for a whole day on the plea that it would help in his research on different dialects, that Walter had become secretive about money matters. Joanna manages to escape, but is found and brought back to Bobby's house. Bobby, to prove she is not a robot, offers to cut her finger and show Joanna that she bleeds like other human beings. Joanna now begins to wonder whether it is not she, herself, who has gone mad - and that Bobby really is not a robot:
Joanna went forward towards Bobby standing by the sink with a knife in her hand, so real-looking... that she couldn't be a robot, she simply couldn't be, and that was all there was to it.
In the concluding episode of the novel we see Joanna through the eyes of another woman - a young black writer who has recently moved into Stepford with her husband and children. Joanna is in the supermarket explaining to this young woman that photography is a waste of time, and that she prefers to spend her time looking after her home and children. Ajax country has found another victim!
The theme - woman as a body rather than a mind-and-body person - was initially stated in Rosemary's Baby, and it is amplified in Stepford Wives. In Rosemary's Baby, the fear was of regression whereas here it is of anxiety about progress. The magician and scientist are both shown to be tricksters, able to bring about fantastic transformations. But it would be a mistake to think Stepford Wives is only about the norms of a patriarchal society - the control which men exercise, or are supposed to exercise, over women. The husbands in Stepford use their new knowledge to implement dreams that have been formulated and perfected in a society overrun by commodity fetishism. It is the combination of patriarchal organization of power, eroticization of commodities, and use of scientific technology which gives Stepford homes that peculiar, picture-book quality, and the women bodies that neither sweat nor age, while their minds are completely tied to detergents and floor waxes. The fantasy bodies of these cherished wives are the body-made-whole or the body-without-organs of a capitalist, anti-oedipal society, living off commercials for detergents, soaps and deodorants. Whereas the household is vital in most traditional societies, in Stepford, household management has itself been transformed into ergs. When Walter returns sexually aroused from his visits to the Men's Association, Joanna wonders whether he has been seeing pornographic films. The full horror of the situation dawns only afterwards, when we realize that it was the robotic image of the wife being moulded in the Men's Association that had aroused the husband. Guy's use of Rosemary's body to further his own ambition appears benign in comparison.
The timeframe of the narrative has some significance in that there is an anxious awareness that the consequences of the present are imminent. Stepford is not a society of the future, but a place here-and-now, located in our present world. Science and the market-place have collaborated to make the nightmare of the future the present reality.
Boys from Brazil
In this book Levin describes how a new fascist regime will complete Hitler's unfinished enterprise. The protagonist, Libberman, has dedicated himself to tracking down important Nazi officials lest the world forget the horrors perpetrated by them on the Jews. Heading the Nazi plot is Dr Mengele, the 'angel of Auschwitz' who, in hiding in the jungles of Brazil, is using his exile to perfect and implement his science of genetic manipulation. Cells from Hitler's body, given to Dr Mengele for just such an eventuality, are implanted in the embryos of tribal women in the Brazilian jungles - and the ninety-one babies born thus have the exact genetic endowments of Hitler. There is then the problem of finding families resembling Hitler's so that the child Hitler's early experiences are replicated. A spy is therefore planted in an adoption agency to collect applications, rejected by the agency, from families in which the husband is about sixty and a minor civil servant, with a wife who is fortyish. She then has to place one boy in each family. The foster parents, conscious of the clandestine manner of obtaining the babies, readily agree to hide it from the children that they are adopted.
When the boys turn twelve, a plot is hatched to murder their foster fathers. The Society of Comrades, based in Brazil and consisting of ex-Nazis, sends out killers to the four continents in which the babies are scattered. Mengele hopes to replicate in this manner the early childhood trauma that Hitler underwent when his own father died. Other factors in the environment cannot be controlled, but, calculates Dr Mengele, at least one of the boys will have the complete mental makeup of Hitler.
To Mengele's annoyance, a young Jewish student from north America, influenced by Libberman's work, manages to get a tape-recording of Mengele's meeting in Japan at which the task of killing the ninety men had been explained to the killers. Mengele must trace and kill the boy, which he does without too much difficulty. However, Libberman has been warned that there is a plot, though he does not know quite what it is. Finally, through a series of accidents and some help from a young German, Libberman discovers the reason for it, but by that time, sixteen killings have already taken place. Mengele is so enraged by the Society withdrawing at this point that he decides to complete the assignment himself, and kill Libberman also.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Gorin, the leader of a militant Jewish organization, agrees to help Libberman in dealing with this plot. They know that one of the fathers lives in a small town in north America, but not that Mengele himself has taken charge of the killings.
The confrontation between Libberman and Mengele takes place in the home of Bobby, one of Mengele's creations, which Mengele contrives to enter, posing as Libberman. The house is protected by a pack of well-trained dogs. After cleverly neutralizing the dogs and killing Bobby's father, Mengele then encounters Libberman who mistakes him for Bobby's father and tries to persuade him to accept Gorin's bodyguards for protection. Mengele is prevented from killing him by the dogs, who hold them both imprisoned. When Bobby returns from school, Mengele is thrilled to see this incarnation of his Führer and urges Bobby to set the dogs on Libberman who, he tells him, has killed his foster father. The boy prefers to believe Libberman. He sets the Dobermanns on Mengele, who is killed. It is strange, Libberman reflects, that his helper was a 'Hitler'.
Libberman is now confronted with the problem that Rosemary had. Should a child with such parentage be allowed to live? Rabbi Gorin is convinced that all the children thus born must be murdered, for otherwise he would be submitting generations of Jews to the possibility of a horrible future. But Libberman destroys the list, arguing that there would be no difference between the Nazis and themselves if they too became 'child-killers'. Like Rosemary, Libberman decides that moral choices cannot be denied to anyone, and even the children of the modern Satan must be given an opportunity to exercise free will, and choose between good and evil. The possibility of a future Hitler is not denied by Levin. In the concluding chapter of the book we see one of the boys from Brazil painting a crowd scene. The crowd seems to be engaged in ecstatically cheering a leader, 'like in those old Hitler films'.
Boys from Brazil plays with the notion of time in a subtle fashion. On the one hand is fear of the past - fear that political figures like Hitler may not really be dead but just waiting for the opportune time to reappear. On the other, this fear of regressive forces is matched with a fear for the future. All over the world there may be boys with Hitler's genes growing up in ordinary families ultimately to take over our future. Further, Hitler may turn out to be, not a stranger at all but our own dark self - when, for example, Gorin proposes to follow the very methods that the Nazis had used. The anxiety about regressing to a state which presumably belongs to the past, and anxiety about a future that may reproduce that past because the sources of evil in the present were not controlled - both or either state could lead to the elimination of free will, and of moral choice. This, ironically, would lead to a repetition of the fascist past while apparently trying to prevent its recurrence. It is precisely this kind of possibility that Levin's next novel explores.
This Perfect Day
This novel is about a society that the reader recognizes as one of the future, but it is narrated in the present, while our own present is seen as the past. In this ideal society, the sources of 'disorder' and 'chaos' have been removed by eliminating individual choice. Homogeneity is the model - all human beings look alike, with the same slanting eyes, tan skin, black hair. The distinct markers of gender have been erased. Genetic engineering has taken care of all sources of variation, including that between the sexes, although mutations sometimes do occur. We are told that disease has been eliminated, but epidemics sometimes do occur, and at least one colony, on Mars, which is suddenly wiped out by disease, has had to be repopulated.
Names as well as bodies have been standardized. There are four names for boys and four for girls to choose from. The individuality and particularity of a person is relevant only in relation to Uni, the master computer, that makes all the decisions for an individual. The particularity of an individual is indicated by a 'namember',1 a combination of name and number by which individuals are identified. It is important to understand that in their mutual relationships, people are substitutable. But, in relation to the great machine, each individual has a personal history, known in all its detail only to Uni.
'Uni knows best' and 'thank Uni' are the two most frequently used phrases. It is Uni that decides what work would be, whether one should reproduce or not, go on holiday or not. Even the toys and sketch pads for an individual are selected by Uni. Everyone wears a bracelet which informs Uni of their requests and also about their movements. Surveillance follows the medical model in that no individual is 'good' or 'bad', but simply 'healthy' or 'sick'. Medicines are injected to regulate the rhythms of body and mind. Similarly, everyone is assigned a counsellor whose job it is to detect signs of 'sickness', defined as conflict, friction or individualized desire. The bodily needs of the people are simple and easily fulfilled. Physical hunger is met by 'totalcakes', the need for sex by intercourse once a week with anyone, girl or boy, since they are all alike. The needs of the mind are similarly met by regulated television, required to be seen at certain hours. The surveillance of individuals is carried out not only through computers and counsellors but also through an ideology, any deviation from which has to be reported. Every man is his brother's keeper and must help preserve the health of others.
In this environment, we meet Chip. His official namember is Li RM35 M4419, but Chip is the secret name given him by his grandfather who belonged to the older generation that had helped build Uni, and who still retained some memories of the life before the Uni age set in. Chip finds his grandfather somewhat strange and exciting. The grandfather, in turn, has a very special relationship with Chip who, he hopes, will prove to be a 'chip off the old block'. Thus Chip is differentiated from the others not only by having a name but by his link with the past, and also by a physical peculiarity - a green eye - which is converted by him from a source of shame into a matter of pride.
Early in his childhood, Chip develops doubts about the perfect society in which he lives. He learns from his grandfather of some twenty different names for boys used before society came to be unified under Uni. People ate different kinds of food, rather than the now universal totalcakes. They chose their own professions. On a visit to the site where Uni is located - a visit that has the quality of a pilgrimage - Chip is taken by his grandfather to see laid bare the machines behind the façade of Uni. This not only unbares the mystique of Uni, but also teaches Chip ways in which Uni can be cheated. For he has, for the first time, entered a place without permission, just by daring not to touch the scanner, as is obligatory.
The most significant event in Chip's childhood is his farewell to his grandfather, who is transferred to another continent, presumably after Chip blurts out some of their discussions to his counsellor. Before leaving, his grandfather tells him to try and want something of his own - for instance, to think of what sort of work he would like to do, rather than assume that Uni was the best judge in all matters. Even to want to choose something for oneself, Chip realizes, is no easy task in a society where individual desire is taboo and resistance to Uni a sign of disease.
Despite stupendous obstacles, Chip manages to keep his grandfather's spirit alive. He is now classified as a genetic researcher and has been instructed not to reproduce. A small group of rebels, 'sick members', according to the society, manages to contact him, and invite him to join them. The group meet clandestinely but regularly in a museum where they play games, crack jokes, smoke tobacco, and make love in the pre-Uni-fication mode, with passionate attachment to the partner, rather than for the satisfaction of a generalized desire. The particularity of their passions and desires surprises Chip who discovers that it is possible to have desires entirely of one's own, free of Uni.
The leader of this group has given himself the name King. He works in the medi-centre and devises a plan to hoodwink Uni so that members can get mild treatment prescribed for themselves. King is satisfied with the small personal space they have created for themselves, where they can indulge in their fantasies for a while every week. His girlfriend, Lilac, however, is keen to explore further, to the islands where the 'incurables' live, the utterly sick people whom Uni does not even try to cure. They are, instead, exiled to the islands on the peripheries of the unified land where they have a different kind of existence. Chip's ambition is pitched even higher. They should try and recruit more members and ultimately destroy Uni!
Chip teaches himself French from old books. One bit of information shocks him profoundly. They had all been led to believe that life-expectancy had gone up to sixty-two only with the progress of medical science, but the old books mentioned not just early deaths but also people who lived to be seventy and even eighty! Chip now realizes the reason why most people died at the age of sixty-two: they were people who would otherwise have been an economic burden on Uni and the society.
Chip is also persuaded that although King knows all this, he prefers to keep it to himself, so that they can preserve the small comforts that they have managed to achieve, rather than risk them in an actual struggle. This is especially repulsive because two of the rebel members are close on sixty-two.
After more research, Chip succeeds in locating the probable geographical sites of the colonies of the 'incurables'. Tragedy strikes at precisely this moment. A minor lie of Chip's is discovered and the whole group is then found out and 'treated'. All, that is, except King who commits suicide. Thus rehabilitated, they are scattered in new cities, and return to their life of regulated jobs and regulated sex. Six years elapse before memories of the short-lived rebellion begin to stir again in Chip's mind. Slowly, he begins to make new plans to resist the treatment. The imprint of a leaf on a wet rock gives him an idea. Every time he goes for treatment, he covers his arms with foil from his totalcake, which prevents the medicine from being absorbed into his body. As memories return, Chip is able to trace his girlfriend who is now Anne with a number, and coerces her to escape with him. Finally, the two arrive in Madagascar, one of the colonies that they have sought all their sane lives.
The first thing they discover about the island is that it is no paradise. There is hunger, racial hatred, crime, and snobbery, but there is also freedom there to dream, have children, change professions. Chip and his girlfriend get married, make friends, find jobs, and have a baby. But Chip is still-haunted by memories of Uni, and will be satisfied with nothing but his destruction. With the help of friends, he charts out a way to reach Uni. After many hardships, when some of the group reach Uni, they are taken aback; they are greeted by Wei who is alive - or at least the head of Wei, old and wizened, attached to the splendid young body of an athlete. Chip learns that one of his 'friends', who had helped plan and implement their mission, is in fact a spy or 'shepherd' whose job it is to shepherd such lost sheep back into the fold. Further, instead of severe punishment they get a reward. They are told that this is how people are brought to the decision-making jobs, such as programmers. The colonies function as a constant challenge to the curious and persistent, and those who have the skill and determination to reach Uni in order to destroy it, constitute the élite, and are of great use to the system. So the group is elevated from being the controlled to being the controllers. The programmers not only lead a life of luxury, some of them are also promised immortality, for many people consider it a privilege that their limbs will be used to replace their leaders' ageing bodies. In sum, the makers of this advanced society do not punish those who have shown courage, imagination and resourcefulness.
This is the crucial moment for Chip. It is also the final triumph of the controlled society, for it manages to incorporate rebellion within its fold. But Chip is not to be lured by power, even the power to do good. He kills Wei and blows up the machine. He opts for hunger, disease, crime, and the consequent disorder, rather than Uni's perfectly ordered society.
Many of the problems posed in the first three novels are brought to a conclusion in This Perfect Day. The fantasy body underlying the alliance between state and science is shown to be the body of the population which is completely healthy, homogeneous, and subject to no pathology. This corresponds at the individual level to the body without organs - for dirt and disease that might sully the body come from functioning organs. The needs of the body are in a one-to-one relationship with the organs of the body. Hunger involves the urge to eat, but food must not appeal to any other sense. While having a sexual orgasm is obligatory, only the genitals have been retained in the body as the seats and instruments of sexual gratification. Other sexual markers, such as breasts, or hair on the face, have been eliminated from the new design of the body. The treatment meted to the mind is analogous to that for the body.
If modern science has replaced the notion of the soul by the notion of health, we ought to take the implication seriously. In a world where health becomes the ruling concept, any transgression, whether in the nature of a sin or a moral disagreement, is likely to be assimilated into the category of disease. The individual, then, cannot be held responsible for his error. Chip is assured by his counsellor that he need not blame himself for joining the rebel group any more than if he had fallen down and broken his ankle.
The anxiety crystallized in this novel is anxiety about a future in which the dream of perfect health will have been realized, and all individuals would be in a state of perfect adjustment. Echoes of the theme of the 'superman' or the 'perfect race' are not incidental here. They seem to be inevitable to a dream of the perfect body, completely free from disease and old age.2 the perfectly non-violent world of this conception, hatred and conflict are terms of abuse, and Satan seems to be finally dead. However, it is precisely because the society does not acknowledge the existence of evil that evil remains completely hidden from it. Surveillance, which is a necessary part of all state systems - and in surveillance science plays a crucial role - defines normality in such a way that all sources of deviance, variation, or moral quest disappear. It is of interest to probe into how the character of Chip has been constructed, for here is one who can resist the temptation of desiring his own repression. In Rosemary's Baby and Boys from Brazil, the author gave expression to fears of regression in a progressive society. In this novel, regression is transformed into a positive force through which a progressive society is defeated. Chip has been placed quite explicitly as a backward-looking character: he has an individual name; his green eye relates him to his great-grandfather; he attempts to learn a foreign language which has been forgotten; he loves the pre-Uni-fication museum. But, most importantly, he accepts the regressive factors of disease and crime, and makes his choice, in which a certain amount of disorder is inherent, of a society where individuals are permitted to be different. Acceptance of the uncertainty and chaos of an unregulated society seem to be the only defences against the dreadful dream of 'perfect health'.
In what sense do the popular novels of Ira Levin provide a critique of the official ideologies of statism, science, and the market? First of all, we should notice that the 'characters', in the sense in which Macintyre uses this term, do offer the term values.3 The success-drunk nonchalant actor, wives modelled on commercials, the lover of the 'superman', the counsellor handling friction, and the robot - they are all products of the alliance between the market, the state and the world of scientific technology. In a society like this, two kinds of fears seem to be important. The first is the fear that the past which has been repudiated or forgotten may not have passed away but, in a significant sense, may still be part of our present life. The second is the fear of progress itself. The two are brought into an interesting interaction when the fear of regression becomes a force of liberation in relation to the progressive society.
Ira Levin uses the notion of the perfectly designed body to articulate some of the fears of the progressive society. It may be recalled that Wilt, in her analysis of the anxieties generated by the imperialist project and the manner in which these were expressed in the science fiction of the Victorian era, had noted that the metaphor of digestion was used quite often. The Martians were able to rule the Earth, they said, in the same manner as the Western imperialists ruled the colonies and yet they did not suffer any consequences because the Martians had no entrails and therefore, metaphorically speaking, did not have to digest the consequences of their actions. Bodies burdened with entrails could not be expected to be so successful. It is interesting, therefore, to see how the image of the body is altered in Ira Levin's fiction. Here the prime feature of the body is that it is a manufactured body - modelled on the images of the perfect body of commercials, given the perfect genetic endowments of supermen, or the dream bodies of the science of health. The connection between the individual body and the social body is not very difficult to see, for the modelling of the individual body corresponds to the modelling of the social body. Just as the sources of pollution, dirt, and disease are controlled in the individual, the sources of variation and deviance in the body collective are also controlled.
The only liberating force in relation to the dream of perfection, Levin's novels seem to indicate, is the desire to eliminate machines that are entrusted with the task of manufacturing desire and legislating morality. In Rosemary's Baby, Rosemary's liberation occurs as soon as she is able to discover her own eros in her love for her baby. Chip rediscovers individual desire in his love for a woman. Just as desire must be liberated from machines, so must the fears be liberated from images. Libberman dares to tear up the list of children with Hitler's genetic endowment, precisely because he cannot take away the right of the child to engage in moral choices. By this act he acknowledges that the future, even a future to be made by a child Hitler, might not be simply a repetition of the dreadful past. A radical redefinition of our fantasies and our fears seems to be called for, so that the individuality of our desires is rehabilitated. Whether it is at all possible in a world in which fears and fantasies are themselves being manufactured by machines is another question.
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