Around the middle of Marya Mannes’ 1968 quasi-sci-fi novel They, a conversation about what is considered “dirty” goes off on several different tangents. After pages and pages that mention everything from Shakespeare to the nature of clams, the pompous conductor Lev says, “It is very hard to keep on the track with this group. No discipline.”
Unfortunately, this is how one feels reading Mannes’ misguided vision of dystopia. Despite an intriguing premise – a world in which people over 50 are segregated from the rest of society for 15 years until they’re finally killed off – Mannes doesn’t really give us a story to match it.
The story is narrated by Kate, who lives with Lev and three other people along with their pets in an old beach house. They’re all between the ages of 50 and 65, torn away from their families and preparing for imminent death. They’re only allowed to leave the beach house at designated times for restocking on food or going for medical checkups. During these checkups, any patient with a serious illness would be put to death immediately. This is because “They” (always capitalized) declared that people over the age of 50 were no longer able to contribute to society, and so needed to be exiled.
How did They come to this determination? Well, Kate provides a rather convoluted explanation. It seems to have started with young people’s love of late-1960s pop culture, which ultimately led to a youth-obsessed society that rejected not only the past but any kind of human feeling.
We kept looking for meaning, for standards, for order…and we were told they were no longer relevant….
We were told daily that mind (logic, reason) meant nothing and that only sensation counted.
Words were of no importance, except to the intellectual arbiters who used them to tell us this.
And the man who told us writing was dead could not write.
Yet, after spending many pages attacking the youth and their lack of standards, Kate writes, “For you see, it wasn’t only Their doing, although perhaps I should have made it more clear that They applies not only to the young. The machines were part of the takeover, for they had invaded every function of daily life.” It gets worse: “For what really brought the sense of crisis that followed the chill was not merely domination by the young or by the machine but the brief return to political power of a reactionary coalition under a conservative President.” This government then started a war with China. Talk about slippery slopes!
So what do the residents do? Do they try to rally against the system? Do they attempt an escape into a world where they can live without restrictions? No, they just spend a lot of time talking about Them and their interests. And because of her experience as a writer and editor, Kate gets chosen by the rest of the group to be the chronicler. Yet her purpose for writing (like everything else in this book) is unclear, since “writing is dead,” even though the book begins with a preface written by Kate’s son, identified only as “6B8953A-411-Y.”
In all fairness, the residents do make some attempts to live on their own terms. One of the things they do besides arguing is to schedule days in which they deprive themselves of one of their senses. For example, they have “Blind Day,” where they are not allowed to use sight. The residents believe that by practicing such things, they can heighten their other senses in case they lose one in real life.
And, at the end of the book, the residents do create an incident that gets Their attention. But Mannes spends too much time on observations and arguments about what society has become and not enough time building up the story to its climax. (It doesn’t help that she mentions the climactic incident at the novel’s beginning.)
Much later in the story, a young mute enters the lives of the residents. Despite his youth and his inability to talk, he actually gets along with the residents, who name him Michael since they cannot determine his real name. The problem with Michael is he’s not really a character. When he first appears, he serves as a temporary distraction from all of the bickering about culture and politics. Then Mannes – rather blatantly – turns him into a device foreshadowing the incident at the end. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if Mannes had used him more in the story and given him more human characteristics.
In conclusion, Mannes’ novel serves neither as a warning about the dangers of technology nor an example of the human spirit overcoming adversity. And They has little to offer in the way of literary value or entertainment. Perhaps readers who are interested in social criticism from the late 1960s may appreciate this novel, but those who are looking for a great dystopian novel similar to 1984—or even one on a par with an average SF book—will be disappointed.
Written by Christopher Iacono