Dystopias are among my favorite kinds of literature. Things tend to go wrong in human society, and although we’ve made great progress over the past couple of centuries, in many ways we’ve set ourselves back. Dystopias are searching, thoughtful ways of addressing that slippage and they warn us of what me might become. (Especially if Republicans remain in power.) Lois Lowry’s The Giver is young adult literature, but I’ve been curious about it for some time. Set in an undefined time and place, a highly structured society exists where things seldom go wrong. There are no animals and people take pills to eliminate “stirrings” so that sex won’t complicate relationships. Families are constructed by algorithm and children are assigned from a pool so they will match expectations. In order to continue this bland lifestyle, memories have to be repressed in the person of the Receiver—the keeper of communal memories.
At first things seem pleasant enough. Life, however, lacks color and music. It lacks emotional engagement. Those who, in real life, idealize the 1950s as before the madness of the sixties began, have trouble conceiving of how societies go wrong. The dilemma is that no society is perfect and as time goes on we look for improvements. For a very long time in American history, for example, nobody had bosses. The majority of people were independent farmers. They prospered by luck and hard work, but they worked for no one but themselves. Now we mostly work for bosses who have bosses who have bosses in some kind of endless regression of power. Our ability to change things is quite limited, even in professional positions. Is this better than the uncertainty of farming? With all the rain this year it might seem so. Of such things dystopias are made.
The Giver follows a protagonist, Jonas, who when he becomes twelve is assigned to become the new Receiver. As he gains memories of how things used to be, he’s fascinated. Learning his society’s darkest secret, however, spurs him to try to make a change. A lot of questions remain at the end. (The novel is part of a series, as most young adult fiction tends to be, but it can be read as a stand-alone story.) Those of us who’ve been around the block a time or two might be able to guess where this is going, but for younger readers to be introduced into the way of human problem solving this is a gloves-off approach. Those accustomed to dystopias will find themselves in familiar territory. As will those who live under Republican regimes.