Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: Logan's Run

I don't think it comes as a big surprise to anyone that I'm huge sci-fi/fantasy fan.  Therefore, I'm occasionally asked what's my favorite book in that arena. But like most avid readers, there's no single novel I could point to and say with absolute certainty that it's my all-time favorite (and that goes for any genre).  However, there is one book that I always thought was an incredible read: Logan's Run, by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.

Let me be perfectly frank: the book completely blew my mind.  I've never read anything like it before or since.

First of all - before the story itself even begins - there was the incredible dedication page.  On it, the authors list a host of individuals, characters, and even other books, dedicating the novel to everyone from Frankenstein and Jiminy Cricket to the Marx Brothers and The Most Dangerous Game.  I interpret this as the authors thanking those people (factual and fictional) and stories that inspired them.  Like the rest of the book, I've never come across anything else like it.

The novel itself was originally published in 1967 and takes place in a future when human society seems to have achieved Utopia.  Everyone is young and beautiful.  (And if you don't like your appearance, you can easily change it.) You can have anything you want, go anywhere you want, do anything you want. In short, it's a sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll culture where personal bliss can be obtained either naturally or artificially. There's only one catch: you have to die at age 21.    

In the world of Logan's Run, everyone has a crystal flower embedded in their palm at birth that tracks their age: up until age 7, the cyrstal is yellow.  From 7-14, it's blue.  After age 14, it becomes red.

On your 21st birthday, the crystal starts to flash, alternating between it's normal red color and black.  This means that you are on "Lastday" and have twenty-four hours before reporting for mandatory "Sleep." After twenty-four hours, the crystal goes permanently dark.  If you haven't reported for Sleep by that point, you are said to be "on Black" and are considered the worst kind of criminal - a "Runner." Agents of the Deep Sleep organization - popularly known as "Sandmen" - rigorously enforce the law by hunting down and mercilessly killing all Runners, with no exceptions. 

Logan is a Sandman - one of the best. But when his own crystal starts to blink he has a critical decision to make. By almost blind luck, he stumbles across information about a legendary place called Sanctuary, where people can allegedly live out their lives in peace and die of old age. Eventually he teams up with another Runner named Jessica, and they decide to seek out Sanctuary together.

In terms of characterization, Jessica is a fairly straightforward individual whose motivations are easy to understand: she wants to live, plain and simple. Logan, on the other hand, is clearly a tortured soul.  He's dedicated and devoted everything he is to being a Sandman and upholding the law, but at the same time he clearly has reverence for his own life.  For much of the novel - as he and Jessica traverse an exotically dangerous futuristic landscape that includes everything from undersea cities to arctic prisons to killer cyborgs - it's not entirely clear whether Logan wants to find Sanctuary in order to save himself...or destroy it.  Further complicating matters is the fact that the two Runners are being relentlessly pursued by Logan's friend and colleague, Francis (whom even Logan admits is probably the most competent Sandman alive).

Of course, the novel can be seen as an allegory of contemporary society in a lot of ways.  In the book, almost nobody cares or seems to understand that they're living in an oppressive culture.  Few are attentive enough to see that they are under the control of a dystopian regime until they're on Lastday, at which point it's too late. (How much societal change can you realistically effectuate in 24 hours?)  

Likewise, in the real world, people often don't realize that they're part of an oppressive society until they experience that oppression themselves.  Even worse, in Logan's Run there are constant signs that the current system - which is run by a gigantic computer known as the Thinker - is corrupt (in the sense of decaying, as opposed to being dishonest) and breaking down, but  no one seems willing to do anything about it.

Now that it's pushing up on 50 years of age, you don't hear a lot about Logan's Run these days. However, the novel was popular enough to have spawned two sequels, a major motion picture (which I personally consider a sci-fi classic), a television series, a comic, graphic novels and other adaptations. A remake of the movie has supposedly been in development hell for years, but hopefully it will eventually get the green light.  (On a side note, I penned my own version of a Logan's Run screenplay years ago, but that's a story unto itself.)

In essence, the novel is a depiction of a world that had to deal with an ever-expanding population in the face of limited resources.  The result is a society where mandatory death is the only way to ensure that everyone has at least a chance at life - even if it's greatly curtailed. Thus, one of the fascinating things about the novel, I think, is the question that it silently proposes: Would you be willing to die at a designated time in exchange for a life of constant pleasure? Is the trade-off worth it - no worries in exchange for cashing in your chips on a date that you can circle on the calendar? 

And, in a completely hedonistic society, do you eventually tire of it all? Also, what motivates you to do anything when almost everything you want is at your fingertips?  (I  think this is the issue that some people see in the concept of inherited wealth. I believe it was Warren Buffett who said that you should leave your kids enough money so that they could do anything, but not enough so that they can do nothing.)

In short, Logan's Run is an absolutely fantastic piece of science fiction and probably the best dystopian novel I've ever read.  It can certainly be viewed as a representation of some of the problems in the modern-day world, but I think you'll get the most enjoyment out of it by treating it as the exciting, action-packed yarn the writers seemed to have wanted it to be.

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