Booked: Love and dystopia

Today I read Delirium by Lauren Oliver and it got me thinking about dystopias and love. Delirium‘s premise is that love is a fatal disease, amor deliria nervosa, that puts the whole of society at risk. Scientists have found a “cure” for love — some form of brain surgery — which is compulsorily administered to everyone once they turn 18. Of course, it doesn’t always work, plus teenagers (and children) still have the capacity for love and don’t necessarily submit to the cure willingly. To try and prevent this, the totalitarian regime prohibits “uncureds” of different sexes from mixing, and certainly no touching is allowed. They also ban most kinds of music, all poetry and even laughing too loudly. Crying is disapproved of and Romeo and Juliet is viewed as a cautionary tale of the dangers of love.

Over-18s, the “cureds”, are paired with a partner chosen for them by the state and married either immediately after university or high school if they are not permitted to do tertiary education. The state also determines the job of each adult, the number of children a couple can have, and their ranking in society. Because the capacity for love is removed, married couples have minimal physical interaction with each other beyond the necessary, and parental detachment from their children is common, even to the point of infanticide.

Reading something where love is so clearly painted as the cause of society’s problems made me think about the way love and sex are portrayed in dystopian imaginings. (As an aside, I’m choosing to call these worlds dystopias because of their restrictive, totalitarian regimes. But I know that to their inhabitants, apart from the inevitable dissenters, they could well be seen as utopias since the majority of the populace is happy.) I realised a common theme in those books I’ve read is the suppression or regulation of love. While in Delirium this is the main theme, it’s also very present, for instance, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s Gilead sex is turned into a clinical matter and women’s fertility is a commodity. Contact between men and women is restricted and again the idea of marrying or pairing for love is illicit.

There are also dystopias where the restrictions on love are more subtle. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, while sex is not explicitly forbidden it is certainly discouraged (through the Anti-Sex League). The sole reason for marriage is the production of children and family members are actively encouraged to spy on each other. Again, love or intermingling of sexes is discouraged though not entirely forbidden (although Winston and Julia’s affair in the bookshop in the proles’ area is). Plus the concept of love has been subverted by the Ministry of Love — responsible for war — and the promotion of hate as a desirable emotion.

Another dystopia with less explicit restrictions is Jasper Fforde’s vision of a far future Britain in Shades of Grey. In this world citizens are ranked according to how much of a particular colour they can see and marriage is a marketable commodity. While marrying for love is not unheard of, it is strongly discouraged and those who run away to do so in defiance of their parents risk being sent to “reboot” for punishment.

I think all of this control of love as part of total control of a population must be because it’s a very powerful emotion. You could argue that if you can’t feel love then it’s also hard to feel hate (similar to how if you don’t have light then you can’t have dark because it’s the absence of light) and so hard to then feel hatred towards the regime. It’s a strong, raw, uncontrollable feeling and if you want total control over a population, you can’t have them doing unpredictable things just because they’ve formed a particular attachment to another person. So if you suppress or dull people’s emotions then they won’t be prone to such raw, instinctual behaviours and are probably less likely to revolt. The “cureds” in Delirium are often described as having glazed over eyes and a blank expression. They are indifferent to their surroundings and other people and because they form no attachments, they are more easily ordered around and manipulated. They have nothing to lose — but also nothing to gain by not obeying the regime. To control the people, you have to control their emotions and thus behaviour.

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