“Do you love me?”
There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas, You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”
The above quote is from The Giver, one of the originals of the Dystopian YA genre, and still a gold standard, especially with how insidiously it sucks the reader in by offering a world that, on the surface, looks to be seductively good. Everyone gets a good education, there’s no unemployment, everyone has parents, everyone’s given a well-cared for retirement, and there’s not even any dirty dishes to do!
But the ugly truth of the cost is eventually revealed in a horrifying scene that still, with all of today’s gratuitous violence in movies and on TV, could leave the reader sick, and even before the true cost of a perfectly calculated community is shown, the rigidity of the society is made clear. There are Rules, and everyone must adhere to them.
They are rigid, inflexible, punished with corporeal violence, and worse, drenched in a theme of For the Greater Good. To make the community function as designed, one of the rules is Precision of Language, in which no exaggerated or vague language is allowed. A child is told that to say “I’m starving,” is to tell a lie, a lie that, though unintentional, could destabilize the community by implying an untruth. Precise language is demanded at all times to ensure proper communication and prevent misunderstandings. So reasonable. So well intentioned.
The flip side being the language of poetry, of song, of drama, of deep emotional feelings, is all forbidden. I could not say to someone: “My love for you is as big as the full harvest moon and you make me glow like the Milky Way.” No. That would be imprecise. I would be expected to say: “I appreciated the fact you remembered the date of my birth and I found the movie you took me to an enjoyable event.” It’s more definite – and it drains deep feelings out of the users, making them more malleable as cogs in a machine that work for a whole rather than individuals with specific dreams, desires, hates, and passions.
So all the basic needs of food, housing, employment, child care and elder care is taken care of… but this society has no performance troupe, no artists circle, no slam poetry club. It is truly an insidious set up. Much, much worse than just sending in the storm-troopers to burn down the village. No, these are rules that occupy your head, and that is an occupation a thousand times harder to revolt against.
Sticking the heads of your enemies on pikes to cow the rest of the population is the pumpkin spice latte of tyranny. Real oppression is getting inside someone’s head.
My point to all this being that I found myself in brief agreement with the argument for Precise of Language when I got a rejection email in which the editor passed on the story in the most vaguest of terms, of it just not being quite….
I know an editor is under no obligation to give a reason why something is rejected, let alone a detailed list of suggested edits, but it was still briefly maddening to have nothing to work with that I could use to try and make the story better.
Exasperating, to be more precise.