BOOK REVIEW: HEDON- by Jason Werbeloff

In 2051, the Bhutanese Empire rules post-apocalyptic Shangri with iron-fisted Buddhist compassion. Happiness is compulsory, but making everyone happy isn’t easy in an overpopulated world. Breeders are ghettoed, homosexuality is mandatory, and Shangrians’ happiness levels are strictly monitored by hedometers implanted in their heads. Become depressed, or feel too happy without helping others feel the same, and The Tax Man will get angry. Very angry.

Gemini and Cyan, winners of the pregnancy lottery, are on the run. Cyan can’t fall pregnant, and Gemini is addicted to the Experience Machine. Will they evade The Tax Man, and find a way to end the brutal pleasures of Shangri?

The lovechild of Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale, HEDON is gritty satire on a dystopia drunk with bigotry and positive thinking.

Hedon is a dystopian novel set in far East Asia, where happiness is government mandated and anyone who fails to meet the correct quota of joy is quickly dispatched by the tax man. With most dystopian novels, the object is to look at problems with our own society and look at what would happen if they were taken to their logical extreme. Hedon does not do that.

Unlike the heavier and frighteningly prophetic The Handmaid’s Tale, the world of Hedon is a definitely not one that could feasibly exist (and I’ll get onto its innumerable plot holes later), but also unlike The Handmaiden’s Tale, it’s a fast paced, action heavy story about the struggle of the downtrodden to make a life in this police state.

The novel jumps from the point of view of our viewpoint characters; Cyan, Anand, Gemini, Donys, Chokyong and our gloriously crazy villain, the Taxman. The strength of these character plotlines greatly varied.

The character arks of Gemini and Taxman felt very rushed and uneven. Gemini went on a ridiculously quick marital breakdown that seemed ludicrous in the short time frame given. The tax man transformed into a batshit insane sadistic psychopath so fast that I actually thought I was reading about a different tax man for a while.

However, the leading (and breeding) pair, Anand and Cyan, whom take up most of the narrative, are both good characters. Anand follows the government in a sort of passive indifference because he doesn’t know anything else, quoting Master Dzogo in a similar way to how The Handmaiden quotes Aunt Lydia in The Handmaiden’s Tale. I absolutely loved how the lead female Cyan was portrayed, and how her experiences contrasted Anand’s. Although Anand’s world is constrained, he is at least allowed freedom of movement because he’s a citizen and a male; meanwhile, Cyan is treated like a commodity and has to worry about being home on time and having her movements accounted for because she is female.

Cyan is a very strong woman who wants to make a life for herself and does not suddenly become the maternal, passive wifely walking womb when pregnant but remains the same tough, fearless heroine. Because she has absolutely nothing to gain from the government system as a woman, she has the easiest time breaking through the government brainwashing compared with Anand, who though abused by it, still has a lot to lose if he rebels against the government’s grip.

Donys is the third most developed character, a gay man (and not because of the enforced homosexuality rule), which brings me  onto the first major problem with this novel: the reverse prejudice. This was the aspect I was most nervous about when I went in, because portrayals of reverse oppression are always complete disaster areas. It actually began well: Donys was a likable gay man and a model citizen; it looked like it was exploring how the brutality of the world meant even queer people could not be happy in this gay utopia. However, towards the end it went very, very downhill.

Even though it’s supposed to be a gay dominated world, we still have slurs like ‘faggot’ and ‘queen’ thrown around as insults. Why would these words even exist- or be common insults in a gay dominated world, especially from the mouth of a bisexual with a male harem?

One queer character is murdered with effemiphobic insults being thrown in his face, and Donys is gay bashed. What’s even more terrible about Donys’ scene is that this real life hate crime is justified in this world setting; Donys’ (and the gay Shangri citizens) are the oppressors, and the ‘breeders’ the oppressed, so this gay-bashing is justified in that it’s a case of the victims of prejudice taking revenge on the oppressor. It wasn’t even that bad at first, because throughout the novel Donys was portrayed shown to be a good person (though misguided), but right at the end we suddenly learn that his treatment of Anand was cruel, and his adult self is revealed to be a sexual abuser. Great. So the only queer people in this gay-dominated world are evil, abusers or dead. Can you see why I’m having problems?

And also, why is homosexuality enforced? The reason given is because of a mass overpopulation. Why go to such lengths? Why not impose a one child rule (like China did) or mass sterilization? Why not only allow the richest and most skilled males to breed? Why not sterilize women and force them to work in brothels instead of making everyone gay? That would be the most plausible way to deal with the problem.

The opportunity to breed is done by way of ‘lottery’- a random pick of two ‘breeders’ in the ghetto (where they shove all the undesirable straight people) who are allowed to live openly and have children. I call bullshit. Since gay and bisexual people account for such a tiny percentage of the population, there’s no way that the main rulers are all gay men who somehow got to power. The majority of the men in power would be straight, and if sex with women and childbearing was limited to anyone it would be them.

Also, I call bullshit on overpopulation. Our lead characters are in the ghetto: the unregulated, poorest part of society. Are they struggling for food and resources?No, because here’s an example of their diet:

‘The trays of sandwiches and salmon and eggs and toast and roast-pork and creamed spinach and tortillas and honey-dripped-pancakes overflowed the dining-room table, and then onto the side-stools in the lounge, up the staircase to the bedroom.’

Okay, ignoring the fact that the novel has  forgotten it’s supposed to be set in Asia and our leads are eating western food (Hedon never makes any attempt to make it feel like its in the East except with the character of Chokyong and a few references to Buddha and Kwan Yin) This is a badly thought out depiction of marginalization and poverty. If the ghettos walled off from the rest of civilized society, where are they even getting these types of food? Wouldn’t they be on bare basics what they’re able to grow on the farm?

And what is so worrying about overpopulation anyway? No one seems to suffer from starvation, as there’s loads of luxury foods even in the ghetto, and there’s clearly no overcrowding if our leads are able to live in an isolated farm with loads of space. There is no sign of overpopulation being an issue at all. There is no reason for the random murders which happen (and why would a civilization obsessed with happiness gun down people in front of civilians? Surely they know such actions would risk inciting rebellion and would scar model citizens. Why not keep the murders hidden?)

Which brings me to the brings me to the biggest flaw of all: the main premise. The currency of this world is never explained, but it appears that instead of money people have credits called ‘Altruism’ and ‘Hedon’. You get Hedons from enjoying yourself, and Altruism credits from helping others, and you have to keep them above a certain level and in balance with each other in order to be successful.  You use Hedons to buy things, but if you have too many Hedons without enough Altruism credits, you become a ‘Pleasure Monster’ who needs to be stopped. My question is, how the hell could you become a pleasure monster? If you had too many Hedons, simply get rid of them by buying things and increase your altruism by giving the stuff to poorer people, which in turn, will increase your altruism.

Also, as merely working doesn’t increase your ‘altruism’ (evidenced by the fact that paramedic Donys’ doesn’t earn altruism points if he fails so save people), what motivation would there be for people to go into highly skilled but vital jobs like CEO, prosecutor or architects which aren’t as directly helpful and self sacrificing as, say, counsellor, day care assistant or cleaner? These are vital jobs, but because they are so time consuming (leaving little time for Hedons) and don’t directly help people the same way that a defence lawyer or a nurse or teacher would, those roles would be discouraged in spite of being vital for a successful society. How could the economy and business world thrive without self interest?

The plotholes in this are never ending and simply maddening. I don’t even have enough space to go into the rest of them (like why a society centered on happiness has its agents shoot people in front of civilians and traumatize them. Or why they don’t use their abilities to manipulate and erase memories more routinely?)

However, regardless of all of my problems with this novel, I did genuinely enjoy it, flaws and all. I genuinely loved Cyan as a female lead, and I liked Chokyong, Anand, and Donys too (although I hated how they treated him at the end). It was fast paced, had a good writing style. Part of my problem may have been that my main experience with police-state dystopias comes from 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale, so my standards are crushingly high for this genre.

Verdict: In spite of my critique of its world building, Hedon is a very readable, fast paced dystopia novel with two very likeable leads. However, the logic to this society is very, very flawed and full of crater sized plot holes that could swallow time and space. If you want an enjoyable story about characters cutting out a groove in an oppressive police state, then give this a shot, but don’t expect anything deeper.

Rating: 3 shouts of rebllion against an evil police state / 5

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