Thursday, January 03, 2019

"The Happy Breed" (1967)

John T. Sladek's story is full of well-used science fiction tropes: the society dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, the utopia become dystopia, robot overlords, and the paradox that rational ideals are more often delusions (Dangerous Visions editor Harlan Ellison writes in his introduction to the story that it's the second he included without knowing anything about the writer, the other being James Cross's "The Doll-House"). In an unimaginably distant future, the 1980s, computers have evolved into artificial intelligence overseers, with absolute power to care for people. The priority is happiness and safety. The result, perhaps not surprisingly, is emotional retardation and helplessness. Your door locks if you attempt to leave home barefoot. Sedation and other measures are applied if you attempt to drink unpasteurized milk. I admit these are not things I am likely to do or even want to do, but you see the point. Eventually the human population is infantilized and pacified, and Earth resembles a kind of nursery. The tragedy here, such as it is, is that the people seem ignorant of their own intellectual regressions. Mostly they don't care, and anyone who does can expect to encounter behavior modification drills from the machines. By the end of the story the omniscient third-person narrator refers to them with contempt, using baby names. A Dave has become a Davie. There are some parallels here with Brave New World—on the surface, it's hard to make out the horrors exactly. On the other hand, the whole robot overlord "killing them with kindness" thing, taken to one of its furthest extremes for example in the Matrix movies, clearly goes too far, so I'll give the story that. But there is also a familiar idea here that something is problematic or wrong with bliss and utopia. It's possible that's true, but my position is that I'd rather learn it the hard way. Please give me bliss and utopia and I will work on the problems arising therefrom. As for the story, it's a pretty good piece, laying out the situation with a lot of clarity, and deftly teasing out the larger concepts and themes as it goes.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

No comments:

Post a Comment