Sunday 17 February 2019

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

This Perfect Day was the third novel by Ira Levin, published in 1970, after both A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby, and before The Stepford Wives, and it's rather a daring departure. 

As I've discussed elsewhere, Levin was fearless at crossing genre boundaries. 

He wrote Rosemary's Baby, a novel of supernatural horror at a time when such things were generally considered worthless potboilers.

But with This Perfect Day he took an even greater risk, because it is science fiction. And even more than horror, SF was considered then (and, to an extent, now) commercial suicide in publishing.

It is a classic dystopian novel, following the likes of Brave New World and 1984, and preceding The Handmaid's Tale and Never Let Me Go.

Interestingly, the film script for Never Let Me Go, written by Alex Garland, borrowed an element from This Perfect Day — the use of identification bracelets, as a kind of electronic tag to keep track of a subjugated populace.

(Never Let Me Go comes to mind again when we meet Levin's compliant, brainwashed citizens who "vie with one another to give parts of themselves for transplants" for the ruling elite.)
Levin sets up his futuristic world very quickly and concisely in the first chapter — a mere nine pages. This is a society where "hate" is a curse word and the word "fighting" is troubling and offensive — indeed, it stands in for another f-word... "brother-fighting" is an amusing obscenity here.

Our hero is a boy nicknamed Chip. Chip lives in a medicated brave new world where you receive regular treatments by sticking your arm into a machine "through a rubber-rimmed opening... the infusion disc nuzzled warm and smooth...and... tickled-buzzed-stung his arm." 

Amongst other things, this regime of medication keeps you tranquilised and obedient. Poor Chip is eager to get his treatment, to obliterate disturbing thoughts he is having that call into question the perfect world where he lives.

Levin gives us a chilling depiction of brainwashed children obediently parroting the approved responses. It is scary and and all too convincing. 

This is a world effectively run by a supercomputer called Uni. Levin clearly did some impeccable research for his novel, and shows considerable prescience — he got the cooling of this computer just right; it's super conductive and operates at a temperature close to absolute zero. 
But not surprisingly he got the size wrong. Uni is huge compared to the server farms we know today, some of which are busy administering our own modest attempts at totalitarian states.

One of the book covers you see here shows a shaven headed woman being menaced by the heavy black glove of authority, emblazoned 'Uni'. 

This imagery seems to have been drawn from the film THX-1138, and while it's a striking piece of design, it isn't really accurate. 

Because the dystopia Levin depicts is all the more frightening since it doesn't use a heavy black glove. It's insidious and soft. Every citizen has an 'adviser' to go to if they are troubled by doubts. And the advisers see that they receive the proper treatments to keep them perfect, compliant members of their perfect society.

Or, you might say, slaves. Levin shows the true nature of this supposed paradise in a staggering throwaway line: Chip "thought of getting married, but he was told he wasn't to reproduce and so there didn't seem much point."

The treatments kill all originality and imagination and desire, not to mention any stirrings of rebellion. But Chip works out a way to dodge the treatments — in a truly brilliant moment when someone spills a drink at a picnic and he sees "a flat leaf lying on the wet stone." And that gives him the vital clue he needs...
Soon he is having "dreams more vivid and convincing than any of the five or six he had had in the past." And so he begins a process which will end with our hero, and a small band of fellow misfits, seeking to overthrow the entire totalitarian apparatus of this placid, smiling, tyranny.

This is a story you won't be able to stop reading.

Essentially Ira Levin has taken a dystopia in the manner of Brave New World and 1984 and rewired it as a thriller. And the result is often, intensely, unbearably suspenseful — which is Levin's hallmark, of course. 

He dedicated the book to his three sons and, no doubt, to the hopes of a future very different from the one he depicted.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from our good friends at Good Reads. The Pan edition with the woman's face and the glove is from Modspil. The Fawcett version with the lovely Gene Szafran cover art, and the pink lettering, is from Flickr.)


  1. Okay. This one gets added to the TBR list.

    I spent a few minutes running the non-English titles through an online translator, to see what THEY called it:
    Russian: "Perfect Day"
    Russian: "Such a Wonderful Day"
    French: "An Unsustainable Happiness"
    German: "The Gentle Monsters"

    I *really* want to know what the German translator was thinking.

  2. One of my all time favorites.
    Well done adroitly evading those spoilers, Andrew.
    James, put this at the top of your list.

    1. Hey Al! I'm delighted to hear this is a favourite of yours! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Regarding the german translation: Sanft means gentle as in a gentle touch. Sanfte Gewalt (gentle force) is a common figure of speech, implying an not overtly cruel or violent but still iressistible force or influence.

    The monsters refered to could thus be the oppressors as well as the oppressed.