Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
As Rush Limbaugh labeled law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for supporting birth control coverage, it’s safe to say the divisiveness on sex in this country has gotten a little out of control. This is nothing new, but it is a disturbing new facet of the wars on ideas that have been flooding the news cycle over the past months, as we’ve moved from a focus on wars abroad (it doesn’t get much more conceptual than the “war on terror”) to fights over rights and women’s bodies in this country. So where is this all heading? Lauren Oliver’s young adult Delirium trilogy, with the newly-released Pandemonium, has some possible answers that center on removing all socially-disruptive emotions from the world. Her vision of a society that has labeled love as a disease–and invented a mandatory cure–is disturbingly in tune with the rhetoric of Limbaugh carried to an extreme, and a warning of where such reasoning leads.
Pandemonium continues the story begun in Delirium, which centered around a teenage girl, Lena, awaiting her “cure” from love who unintentionally falls in love herself. In Pandemonium, she’s left the orderly city for the wilds where the uncured hide. What begun as a sinister dystopia mixed with usual high school angst grows to new dimensions with this installment, taking on the idea of protest and the use of fear to keep a population ready to embrace the cure as the solution to all social ills. There’s echoes of The Giver in the split between the orderly society and the unknown space beyond the city gates, There’s plenty of normal YA conventions in the trilogy (and it seems you can’t have a dystopia in YA without love triangles), but the story of the uncured trying to survive and transform a society that viewed them as contagious is ultimately compelling and worth visiting
Ultimately, the debate on birth control in this country boils down to control. Women with birth control have an unprecedent sexual freedom, as historically the risks of becoming pregnant (and, indeed, the risks of pregnancy itself!) were ever present. Similarly, debates over abortion parallel these questions of control, with the ever-present question of whether control of the body rests with the individual or with the society. This same dispute carries over to the fear of homosexuallity, which in Lena’s world has continued with the label “unnaturals”–a prejudice she reasseses along with the rest of her socially-enforced viewpoints as she moves into open rebellion.
In the world of Pandemonium, the elimination of love is likewise about control. Those who don’t fit into the system, and either won’t or can’t be cured, are easily labeled as threats and used to reinforce the unity of those who remain in the pack. Interestingly, the family unit is preserved, but as a sterile support system operating more because it is socially convenient to have families than out of any deep desire among the participants. The coldness of such a world is appropriately chilling, but it seems to be a vision Rush Limbaugh and his cohorts would welcome: an all heterosexual yet fundametally asexual world where passion has been replaced by economic convenience and appropriately expressed, society approved affection.
I find such a vision chilling all the more-so because it is so easy to picture: it is not so far a leap from declaring that any woman who demands control over the physical expressions of her affection and sexuality is a “slut” or “prostitute” whom the social system should reject to saying that such women (and men) should not have such affections at all. The ultimate orderly society in A Wrinkle in Time foreshadows this notion, promising a “perfect world” as long as everyone is tied to a hive-mind that holds them in complete conformity with social needs.
On the bright side, the popularity of YA novels like Pandemonium offers some hope for the future, as the envisioning of societies at such an extreme of oppression helps to highlight the slippery slope that could take us there. And there’s more good news in the mass exodus of advertisers from Rush Limbaugh’s show as the corporations react to the backlash against this type of extremism. Yet the actual congressional debates on birth control (and the absence of women from the testifers) suggests that the dystopia of the Delirium trilogy might be a utopia in the eyes of some of the policy-makers and lobbyists helping to shape our real future.