Max Barry on the Creepiest Mind Control Plots in Sci-Fi
Max Barry's novels "Syrup" and "Jennifer Government" satirize the power of advertising and America's dependency on corporations. However, in his new novel "Lexicon," Barry delves deeper into wordplay to present a world where "poets" manipulate the roots of human language to coerce and even kill unsuspecting people. Here, Barry shares his favorite sci-fi and fantasy mind control plots, from sneaky viruses to the most insidious emotional programming.
You make your own decisions, of course. You weigh the evidence and reach conclusions. No one tells you what to think.
Or do they? Because there seems to be a global half-trillion dollar advertising industry, which implies that someone somewhere is getting half a trillion dollars for persuading some poor suckers. Not you, presumably. Probably other people, who are less skilled at sorting facts from fiction and points from puffery. Regardless, there's a lot of money to be made from controlling people's thoughts. There's a lot of power to be won. And sometimes, it's not even that: Sometimes, they just want to make sure that what you're thinking is right. For your own good, of course.
How: They raise you
There's something deeply unsettling about children's blind faith, which Ishiguro exploits to devastating effect in this tale of young people who never quite recognize the cruelty of the world that's raising them. Unlike other characters listed here, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy aren’t persuaded against their will. They simply accept what they've always been told, and they believe it very deeply. It's this inability to abandon their indoctrination, even when confronted with hints of a starkly different reality, that stays with you.
How: They program you
Kind of a cheat, because this is a short story collection. Fortunately, no fewer than six of these stories qualify! Although that's no surprise, because Dick wrote 44 novels and 121 short stories that at least half concerned themselves with the main character's struggle to perceive truth. A particularly PKD-ish trope is the man who doesn't realize he’s a robot--because they've programmed him not to. How can you trust your thoughts when they've built your brain?
How: They conquer you
A religious order overthrows the U.S. government, imposing its own laws that relegate women to the status of kept objects. A violent resistance rages at the fringes of society, but most of the characters in the newly formed Republic of Gilead have no option but to comply. What's fascinating is how they adapt: Many develop sympathies for the new order, struggling to retain their old beliefs in a world that punishes any expression of them. Despite its obvious barbarism, people find virtues in the reality forced upon them.
How: They infect you
Language is a virus in Stephenson's breakout sci-fi classic, where a particularly virulent strain from ancient Sumeria threatens to get loose. This book is absolutely jam-packed with ideas, including an Internet-like Metaverse, a fully corporatized society, cybernetic "Rat Things" and Reason, a machine-gun that fires depleted uranium--so named as it forces one's enemies to "listen to Reason." Oh, and there’s a shadowy government that uses regular polygraph tests to ensure its employees only think appropriate thoughts. In "Snow Crash," you don't just need anti-virus software for your computer; you need it in your brain.
How: They persuade you (slowly)
There's Orwell's "1984," too, of course. But "Animal Farm" stands as the perfect allegory to the insidious nature of propaganda. Over the course of only 110 pages, we witness a belief system twist by small degrees until it becomes a complete inversion of the original. The genius of the novel is the pacing, as the ideological corruption occurs so subtly that the poor inhabitants of Manor Farm are never quite outraged enough to exert a full-blooded resistance.