This post originally appeared on the Ploughshares blog in May 2019.
Philosophies for achieving genuine happiness and a good life are never intended to create dystopias. Nevertheless, many writers enjoy taking these ideas to their extremes, creating in their fictions worlds where ethical theories are subverted into the dark and uncanny. Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY is one such work.
In this novel, which won the Goldsmiths Prize (sponsored by the University of London), in 2017, Barker explores the dystopian extreme of a recognizably Epicurean understanding of happiness. She does so, however, in a slightly different way from many dystopian writers. Rather than presenting the dystopian vision of a “happy” society in easy opposition to an implied non-dystopic iteration, Barker interrogates the boundaries between the two, asking if there is, in fact, something desirable in the dystopic vision, and if the alternative—perhaps a society we recognize—is really any better.
As a hedonist, Epicurus’ views on happiness are often misconstrued as calls to excess and indulgence. (This has not been helped by Epicurus’ delight in rhetoric designed to shock: “I spit on the noble and those who emptily admire it, when it doesn’t make any pleasure.”) In fact, the opposite is true. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus explains:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.
Happiness, for Epicurus, is grounded not in appetites and desires, but in ataraxia, or tranquility, which is achieved through the absence of bodily pain and mental stresses. This absence of pain and stress, taken to its extreme, is the foundation on which “The System” in Barker’s novel is built.
Set in a post-post-apocalyptic world, Barker’s novel follows the daily life of the protagonist, Mira A. Mira is one of “The Young,” a society of humans who have achieved “perfection.” For them, disease and aging have been eradicated and violence and pain are things of the past.
The harmonious equilibrium in which The Young live is maintained through their adherence to The System, which seeks to uphold the happiness of the population by restricting emotion, and, as a precursor to emotion, narrative. The quest for narrative often drives patterns of questioning, which, as Mira discovers, can cause mental distress through feelings of irresolution, or, in the extreme, obsession and paranoia. Alternatively, narratives—as Epicurus acknowledges—can cause people to live in the past, thereby generating pain or anguish, or to project into the future, inviting uncertainty and doubt. The Young, therefore, are encouraged to live only in “This Moment,” and to push away unhelpful thoughts.
As part of The System, The Young have their thoughts, actions, and emotions recorded on an “Information Stream.” The data from this Stream is plotted onto “The Graph,” (both one graph and many graphs) which “shows us how In Balance we are.” Within The System, any deviation from calmness and tranquility is immediately modified, either chemically—“when darkness threatens…they simply adjust the chemicals”—or, more insidiously, through the ever-present threat of social disapproval.
Within the openness and interconnectivity of The System, each individual has access, if they so wish, to anyone else’s Stream. There is no privacy, and no space to entertain thoughts or ideas that diverge from the expectations of The System. Moreover, each member of The Young is responsible not just for their own personal Graph, but for the Graphs that relate to each of the social and community groups they are part of, and for The Graph of their society as a whole. Thus, each individual’s thoughts and actions have ramifications for the wider community. Due to this structure, Mira experiences the shame of mass societal disapproval when she unwittingly defies the tenets of The System and is unable to prevent an EOE, or an “Excess of Emotion”:
An alarm goes off. The Sensor is temporarily disabled. The graph is purpled, is flashing. I see a series of people on my Information Stream—alerted to this situation, this sudden crisis on The Graph—tuning in to find out what on earth might have happened. There is a flurry of concern, an atmosphere of confusion. I am under close observation. I am in turmoil. What was I thinking? To have been so thoughtless, so inconsiderate, so…so careless!
In obvious mental distress, and with everyone tuning in to watch and to judge, Mira is punished for her transgression without so much as a whisper of a threat being made against her:
I see other people’s anger washing through The Stream. A dreadful bruise. And I am at the core of it. I am its origin, its heart, its locus. The purpling extends way further than I could ever have considered feasible. A little tsunami of disapproval, of disappointment. The weight of it is unendurable.
From the reader’s perspective, the pressured and constricted life offered by The System is utterly dystopian. The things we value in contemporary society—privacy, independence, freedom—are not, however, the things Mira and her society value. The threat Mira perceives is not the oppression of The System, but the threat of ejection from it.
Unlike traditional dystopian novels, where escape into freedom is desired, Mira is terrified of “The Unknown,” a place of “filth and degradation” beyond The System, where pain and want and decay persist. Temporarily removed from The System to discuss her troubling behavior, Mira begins to panic. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe without The Graph! Not out here! In this awful, pointless, hollow realm. This haunted, broken, shapeless place. This lonely hinterland.” Mira, like the rest of The Young, believes in The System. They believe that adhering to its rules and ideals will create a happy life. It is this unshakeable belief that causes the reader to question their assumptions and interrogate their own perspectives.
Is what The Young have a form of happiness? How different is their conditioning from our own obsessions with “self-care” and “wellness”—the idea that if we conform to certain thought-patterns and behaviors, we can achieve happiness, or at least lessen the agony of, “this awful, pointless, hollow realm. This haunted, broken, shapeless place”? With those words, Mira throws back at us the judgmental gaze through which we have viewed her society.
The dystopian extreme of Epicurean happiness is a world in which technological advancements have shifted the basis of the pleasure/pain calculations on which this thinking is based by artificially eradicating physical and mental pain for an entire society. In H(A)PPY, Barker shows us this world of supposed perfect happiness, and it is unsettling. For all of Mira’s desperation to remain in this world, to exist forever in moments of perfect happiness, one is finally left with the overwhelming sense that there is much more to life than being happy.