Why are dystopias more popular than utopias? The growing genre of cli-fi, for instance, is almost universally pessimistic, and the TV phenomenon of The Handmaid’s Tale will continue to air its nightmares in a third series. And why, even when we imagine a utopia, does it typically slide into a dystopia? Think of Minority Report and Jurassic Park, in which a vision of an ideal world – where crimes are solved before they are committed, or where dinosaurs are brought back to miraculous life – quickly degenerates. Of course, this storytelling trope is hardly new: it can be traced back to Genesis, and the tale of Adam and Eve. Narratives of human failure, of corruption and greed, of promise going to seed, are foundational to Western culture.
As the example of Genesis suggests, dystopias serve as moral parables or warnings, driving home lessons about our failings. They thus secretly harbour utopian principles – a belief in our better natures. Sarah Hopkins’ new novel, The Subjects, offers a self-conscious and fascinating intervention in this narrative tradition.
The Subjects is a work of science fiction or speculative fiction in the way of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is to say that it doesn’t wear futuristic technology or any of the flamboyant trappings of the genre on its sleeve. It is a thought experiment that engages with medical – more specifically pharmacological – developments, with a specific interest in mental illness, described by some as the epidemic of our age.
The novel’s first-person narrator, the 16-year-old drug dealer Daniel, is sent from court to a mysterious rehabilitation facility in the outback. He joins a group of other juvenile offenders in a beautiful facility, designed “as if one day the whole building would take off into the sky”. In this detention-centre-cum-heaven, the youths are treated with respect and dignity, and given an interdisciplinary education. Using tablets, they observe and discuss images of figures from ancient myth and history. On headsets, they listen to “birds and waves, chimes, a wind instrument, a few strings”. They also have therapy sessions with the wise and enigmatic Dr J.
The facility parallels a heavenly paradise – Dr J is even described as having a “god complex” – but Daniel’s reprogramming is also reminiscent of Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange. Indeed, Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel provides an interesting counterpoint.
While A Clockwork Orange represents a masculinist revolt against middle-class civility, The Subjects is about Daniel’s genuine redemption from a background of poverty, domestic violence and drug abuse. Hopkins is a criminal lawyer in Sydney whose work addresses the over-representation of Indigenous youth in the justice system, and that real-world perspective undoubtedly informs her novel. In fact, Daniel’s salvation is not even a source of contention or tension. We know, from the outset, that Daniel overcomes his past, thanks to a narrative voice that merges – not always successfully – teenage Daniel with a 47-year-old Daniel who is looking back.
However, Daniel’s rage and rebelliousness, like Alex’s anarchic drives in A Clockwork Orange, are defended – though never senselessly glorified. While Alex’s instinctual self is repressed, Daniel is encouraged to understand his violent outbursts. Sometimes his anger is negatively theorised in terms of trauma: a “regularity of occurrence that forms our primordial perception”. At other times, though, it is optimistically conceived with reference to the “hyper-beta” brain waves that characterise both anger and intellectual energy, or supposedly useful feelings of “righteousness”.
We also learn that Daniel was previously diagnosed with and medicated for post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Dr J, however, rejects such labels and refuses to issue drugs: the world of mental illness and its corruption by “Big Pharma” is the dystopia against which this utopia makes sense.
While these categories of mental illness have become part of our everyday vocabulary, the ways in which they have been identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the “bible” of mental health practitioners) are compromised – some might even say beyond integrity. The manual, which has been continually updated in consultation with pharmaceutical companies, has evolved in ways that have tended to lower diagnostic thresholds for psychopathological conditions, while also introducing new conditions – all in tandem with pharmacological treatments.
The Subjects, as a thought experiment concerned with mental illness, basically asks: is there another way – a more optimistic way – to conceive of troubled human beings, such as juvenile offenders, other than through a pharmaceutical lens? This question is also explored through the character of Alex, who subverts his namesake from Burgess’s novel by being almost cripplingly aggrieved by human suffering. He collects statistics, pictures and videos of starving people, child slave labour and weaponised rape, all of which he shares with Daniel. Alex was treated for depression before arriving at the facility, but Dr J tells an alarmed Daniel that Alex’s distress “isn’t an illness … There are no pills for it.”
Chapters in The Subjects have didactic titles such as “Biology”, “History: the Origins of Tyranny”, “Microeconomics” and “HSIE (Human Studies and Its Environment)”. These titles are suggestive of the complexities of human problems and the need for a holistic remedy. In fact, the juvenile offenders begin brainstorming possible solutions to the dystopian situations of our contemporary reality, but utopia ultimately remains elusive.
To say that the characters are not endowed with “literary” depth or that the reveal of the ending is clunkily handled is to miss the point of a work of literature such as this. The Subjects is a novel with an agenda, enticing us to engage with what is wrong but also to imagine something better. I found it timely, thought-provoking and inspirational.
Text, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "Sarah Hopkins, The Subjects". Subscribe here.