“Fitter, happier, more productive
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym
Three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries”
If you want to get a glimpse of a real life dystopia not far from your home, I suggest you visit a gym in the first couple months of the year. Gym memberships notoriously spike around the new year, and it isn’t pretty. It’s like “Mad Max,” except instead of everyone battling it out for water, they’re fighting over the last available treadmill. The year’s end is often a marker that prompts people to look back at the year with regret and that regret motivates them to get a gym membership or do other crazy things.
The desire for self improvement and the pursuit of our best selves is not a bad thing, but if you aren’t careful it can take an unfortunate turn. We’re probably all aware of the disastrous effects of eating disorders and examples of grotesque plastic surgery misadventures. Writers of dystopian fiction have explored this dark turn in various attempts to “be our best” — the pursuit of longevity, beauty and perfection. Utopian society is supposed to be the ideal society, so it is interesting to explore how a myopic pursuit of perfection could lead to the opposite result. Here are some examples of books that explore unfortunate consequences stemming from the pursuit of some of the very same goals we might put on our list of New Year’s resolutions.
The toll of the years on our bodies is one of the things that gets people to the gym. It’s inevitable, it happens to us all and yet we all fight it. The satirical novel “The Postmortal” is set in a world where a cure for aging has been discovered. What could go wrong? Government euthanasia programs and a new religious cult, for starters.
The graphic novel “Upgrade Soul” also explores the desire for prolonged life. In this case a married couple decides to try an experimental rejuvenation procedure. Unfortunately the results are disfigured, highly intelligent versions of themselves.
I’ll have to be cryptic to avoid spoilers for “Never Let Me Go.” Let’s just say as the main character reminisces about her idyllic childhood at a private school she uncovers the unsettling true purpose of the school and her role in society.
A popular New Year’s resolution is to meet society’s standards of beauty, which are often unrealistic. In the young adult series “Uglies” children are considered uglies until they turn 16 and have surgery to turn them pretty. When one of the uglies runs away just before her sixteenth birthday, a friend is forced to track her down so they can both be “made pretty.”
“Only Ever Yours” is another young adult book about societal pressures for beauty. Here women are manufactured by genetic engineers and taught in special schools that “where women are created for the pleasure of men, beauty is the first duty of every girl.”
What if you lived in a society obsessed with physical beauty and there was a sexually transmitted disease that could make you perfectly beautiful? That is the disturbing premise of the series, “The Beauty.” I’m sure it’s not a surprise to learn there are some terrible consequences from this development.
We all have bad habits we’d like to change and impulses we’d like to control. “A Clockwork Orange” chronicles a very aggressive approach to reforming criminal impulses and a dubious take on behavioral psychology. This effort at improvement works a little too well.
What if we collectively achieved this pursuit of perfection? Where could that takes us? I’ll let Mustapha Mond, the “World Controller” from the classic novel “Brave New World” handle that one: “The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers they feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave.” Sounds absolutely perfect, doesn’t it?
As this year comes to a close take some time to reflect. If you find room for improvement in your life, do not hesitate to improve, but you should also cut yourself some slack. As these books illustrate, if you get carried away things could go haywire. Happy New Year!