Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Lottery: Government Control in Sci-Fi

The idea of an ominous lottery is no new concept – Shirley Jackson received horrified reactions after publishing a short story called “The Lottery” (1948), in which the “winner” gets stoned to death at the end of the piece. However, the concept has grown fiercely in popularity and made its way into some of the greatest works of science fiction.

On the surface, lotteries appear to be the perfect vehicle for equalization. Every single person has the exact same chances to win, giving the appearance of an egalitarian society. However, I the perceived equality is not always genuine. Instead, lotteries are often used as a mean of control. Philip K. Dick played with this idea in Solar Lottery (1955). The head of the world government, called the Quizmaster, is chosen through a computerized lottery where citizens’ power cards are picked at random. Since every citizen receives a power card at birth, the lottery appears to be equal. However, “P-cards” are often given to one of the five major corporations – or the five Hills – that run the planet’s industry as a sign of fealty, and thus the corporation heads hold the majority of the power cards, receiving a direct advantage. This basically mean that the corporations themselves have an imbalanced opportunity for control.

Some sci-fi novels depict lotteries used as a means for governmental genetic engineering. In Larry Niven’s Ringworld, an alien race called Pierson’s Puppeteers set up a program for breeding luck into human reproduction; luck is a trait the Puppeteers considered hereditary and, more importantly, vital to their expedition to Ringworld. In order to achieve their goal, they use the government’s control of overpopulation via strict fertility laws limiting families to only one offspring. Families who wanted more than one child enter the Birthright Lottery, which allowed the winners to have multiple children. Parents with better fortune were more likely to win and pass their hereditary good luck to their children. Teela Brown, one of the novel’s main characters and a crew member of the Puppeteers expedition, was the product of six generations of Birthright winners.

Speaking of genetic engineering, you may remember that I mentioned the movie The Island and its clones for my previous “I” post. In the film, the clones all live in a secluded underground compound where their daily lives are monitored and restricted by mysterious doctors. The one bright spot in their existence is the daily drawing, whereby they can win a chance to relocate to the idealistic “Island”. The scientists  running the facility use this lottery, and the hope that it provides, to keep   the clones from asking too many questions, or rising up against their oppressors and jeopardizing the entire operation. In other words, it’s control via hope.

Still, my favorite example of a lottery in science fiction comes from The Hunger Games series. Referred to as the Reaping, the lottery decides which children from the twelve districts will be forced to compete in the Games. The name of every child between the ages of twelve and eighteen gets put into the Reaping, with the option of entering additional times in exchange for extra food rations. The Hunger Games then acts not only as a form of punishment for the twelve districts' previous rebellion against the Capital, but, though the lottery, doubles as a tool for government monitoring. In essence it allows the Capitol to rule over a larger, and physically distant, subordinate populace.
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This post is part of the Blogging A through Z Challenge 2012. My theme is (in case you didn’t already guess) science fiction. Stay tuned for the rest of the alphabet, and if you’d like to check in on the rest of the participants, simply click here.

28 comments:

  1. Omg, I love how the aliens wanted to breed luck into the population by using a lottery system! That's awesome.

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  2. Brilliant post. Lotteries in all their forms is such an interesting subject.

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  3. There is also an Azimov story about elections as a lottery I think, but I may be remembering that wrong. Shirley Jackson's tale is a spinechiller I think. She's presents such a mundane world where the happenings are simply accepted.

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  4. I always liked that story, The Lottery. Our society has done this many times, it's the same as the Draft.

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  5. What an interesting comparison on the theme of control -- I particularly liked the concept of "control via hope". Also, great way to weave in Hunger Games!

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  6. In the bible, Matthew 13: 12 it says:

    For whosoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever has not, from him shall be taken away even what he has.

    Even for someone who isn't religious I think this concept holds very true for "luck" and real life. If someone is rich they'll have more opportunities and more advantages. When someone is poor they are often short on money and their options are limited. As they fall further in debt they are fined by the credit card companies and charged late fees on top of that, and end up having much more taken from them.

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  7. I've read Ringworld several times, and I remember the first time through, once the luck lottery evolutionary pressure was revealed, I was thinking... could that work?

    I decided that no, it could not. But it still didn't keep me from loving the novel, or from thinking that it was a brilliant thought experiment. I guess you just have to believe that luck exists as a real thing before you can accept the possibility of breeding for it.

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  8. I've never read Ringworld but it sounds like a great premise.

    And the first thing I thought after I read the opening bit about Shirley Jackson was "Hunger Games"...

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  9. Oo, I have to read Ringworld now.

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  10. You can trace the lottery idea all the way back to Greek mythology with the story of Theseus. If I remember the story right, every seven years or so the Greeks had to pay a retribution to King Minos. Seven young men and seven young women were chosen by lottery, sent to Crete, and sacrificed to the Minotaur. That is, until Theseus came along and Ariadne helped him. (It's been along time since I read Ringworld. I need to do it again.)

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  11. Great post. I have been want to read Ringworld for quite sometime now. I am not that sure why I have not read it yet. You show that lotteries sometimes are not so great, especially when Government Control is in play.

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  12. I agree. I loved the lottery part of the Hunger Games. Great post!

    Have a great weekend!

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  13. "The Lottery" is a brilliant story. It's one of those that helped form my view of the world. Probably, I also just read it at the right time in my life (middle school), but it's that powerful.

    However, I can't buy into the way Collins uses it in Hunger Games. I'd talk about it, but I already did in my review of the movie.

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  14. Killer post...I loved all the lottery examples. They were all such great stories!

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  15. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the read.

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  16. Linda – It didn’t work out exactly as they planned, but I always thought it was a really cool concept.

    Amanda – if Asimov wrote one, I really need to find it. I love his work but sadly have not read it all. Yet.

    SBT – I think it’s perhaps the most dangerous form of control. And thank you for the lottery suggestions :)

    Kimberlee – I have to admit I’ve never read that passage before, but I think you’re very right about its connection with luck. Thank you so much for posting it. It definitely gives me more to think about.

    Rusty – I think the idea of it “working” is much debated, even within the novel itself. But it certainly is a really interesting idea, right? I think it’s fascinating that the Puppeteers believed, as I doubt many humans do, that luck might be hereditary.

    MJ – yes, I think there’s a really interesting connection between The Lottery and Hunger Games. It was certainly on my mind the first time I read it.

    Bish – I think I read that Susanne Collins based a lot of the Hunger Games off of the Theseus mythology. I really do enjoy when novelists weave that sort of thing into their stories.

    Andrew – It was possibly my favorite school assigned reading in middle school. And I commented further about Hunger Games on your review…

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  17. The concept of the lottery to control people is such a powerful one! And used so well in these examples!! :)

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  18. The 1981 movie Dragonslayer used the lottery to determine who would be sacrificed to the dragon.

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  19. I'd totally forgotten about Jackson's story - loved that ending when I first read it in high school.
    Charter schools generally have lotteries for students who want to get in when there's fewer spots than students. Our school has one every May 1st. We have a waiting list of dozens for each class.

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  20. Shirley Jackson is my favorite horror writer, and The Hunger Games is on my list. I like your post on lotteries. Good examples.

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  21. I'm (finally!) seeing Hunger Games tomorrow - so excited!

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  22. I am so checking out Ringworld - it sounds like a great read.

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  23. Awesome picks. I love the original "Lottery" story from 1948. It was the influence behind an episode of SLIDERS that was done really well.

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  24. It's definitely a story that has stayed with me. I mean, it has really stayed with me, because I've never read it again since. It has made me constantly evaluate traditions, what they mean, and why we do them.

    And I just replied to your Hunger Games comment...

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  25. I saw someone else mention that they are finally seeing the Hunger Games movie - well, I finally saw it 2 days ago, and thought it was great! But I still like the book better. I guess you're just never going to get the same level of detail in a movie.

    That short story about the stoning to death sounds amazing, and groundbreaking. I'd have loved to see the shocked reactions ;)

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  26. My god, SUCH a good story. The first time I read it my jaw almost fell off my face.

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  27. I usually do not read much popular fiction (something I'm trying to change), but I did read the Hunger Games. Now I know what other books to read for comparison. :)

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