By Anoushka Benbow
Shelley Thomas understands that the record-keepers in the communities claim that it is the year 2087 and humanity is two generations into the New World. The indulgent factoids of gilded life in the community carry little meaning to the people living in the ghettos and shanties of the city ruins, where life is brutish and short. Outside the structured societies of the wealthy communities, visceral individualism and violent self-interest reigns – undeterred by the iron fist of militia viciousness. Shelley has lived in the city since age twelve. At nineteen, she was considered middle-aged by city standards.
From the other side of her closed bedroom door, Danielle tells Shelley that it is her birth-date. She is thirty years of age.
Shelley doesn’t answer.
Danielle says she has special gifts waiting, and other women have been invited over later for something called cocktails. Danielle’s efforts to communicate with Shelley have been increasingly persistent lately. Faced with more silence, Danielle tells Shelley that her room needs cleaning and, at very least she might open a window to let out the cigarette smoke as it was getting into the drapes.
Shelley checks the door is locked and walks over to her writing desk.
Before Danielle invited her to stay permanently at their house in the community, once she had matured, Shelley lived in one of the three high-security apartment buildings in the city. A panopticon of rules and surveillance. She was supplied with meal replacements, bottled water and skin treatments by her first-caste benefactors. She spent most time in her bed, swathed in silk sheets, the air-conditioning humming. Steel shutters blocked the sun, but sometimes she opened them to peer out the large floor-to-ceiling windows and gaze upon the city. If the air was clean enough, she could see the dome of the community perhaps fifty miles away. An alarm notified security if she had the shield open for more than five minutes. She was always acutely aware of the staring black eye of the surveillance cameras in each room.
Shelley’s body is owned by Danielle Worthington.
When she was first moved in with Danielle and her husband, Stanley, Shelley tried to socialise, mostly because Danielle begged her to. The women her age were immaculate, never knowing labour or hardship. Their faces kept changing, a never-ending merry-go-round of plump new cheeks and wide bright eyes. They were also fixated with small communication devices and had retinal implants to make something called notifications immediate. Although they thought she was one of them – Danielle Worthington’s daughter– her differences quickly alienated her. At first Shelley wouldn’t drink the alcohol or smoke their cigarettes, even though, as one lady pointed out, body parts were easily replaceable. Shelley stopped leaving her house, happily ensconced in the reading and writing Stanley encouraged her with.
Shelley is a second-caste; genetically engineered from the DNA of beautiful movie stars and the world’s best minds. To ensure the benefactors receive quality biological materials, second-caste’s are required to submit digitised self-care reports daily to the same community bureaucracy who they see weekly for disease prevention injections, a weigh-in and health check. Shelley’s birth mother was taken from the city and artificially inseminated with a designer fertilised ovum. She was kept sedated in the facility and fed intravenously to support the baby’s growth. Her mother gave birth and was euthanised. RZ89765, or Shelley, eventually named after a famous author of the Old World, lived in a specially designed institution until she was twelve years of age; a legal adult in the city, but something called ‘teenager’ who received more schooling in the communities. She was placed into the apartment and followed a regime of self-care to ensure she is well-maintained.
At Danielle’s house, time melted into a meaningless passage of fake sunrises and sunsets. Months felt like years.
Sun collision or not, she doesn’t have much longer to live. When Danielle requires her eyes, cheekbones, lips and facial skin, Shelley will go to the facility, where a person ceases to exist.
At one luncheon, Danielle confessed to her that she couldn’t stand how she cries with a dead man’s eyes and smiles with a young girl’s mouth and cheeks. That was the first day she offered Shelley a fascinating gold liquid called champagne. Beyond the heady yeast smell, Shelley noticed the stench of ethanol – she reasoned that this fancy stuff is just like the liquid that made city people go crazy in the streets. Danielle was on her second bottle. She spoke breathlessly, her face flushed.
Stanley begged for Shelley’s forgiveness after the night, when she was in bed sleeping, he came into her room and tried to undress her. He stank of brandy, which also smelled like the city’s cheap ethanol. The cultured professor was gone, replaced with greedy grabbing hands and boorish lust. She felt herself go limp and submit. Danielle found him and interrupted, furiously expelling him from the room. She held Shelley and rocked her, like she would a distressed child – but Shelley was stoic, beleaguered by the strange rules of the community.
Once Danielle had some kind of mind doctor attempt to talk to her through the thick timber door. Danielle sobbed to the doctor, telling him, “I just want her to be happy…we’ve done so much for her, you know.”
Shelley confined herself inside this bedroom, chain-smoking and mixing medication with Danielle’s champagne from the cellar.
Behind the panel on her writing desk, Shelley notices there are only two bottles of medication left. A year ago, at Danielle’s insistence, Shelley received a replacement kidney. She had found the prescription pain medication beguiling and started a cache in her writing desk. As a woman of the community, doctors prescribe her whatever she requests. She opens her wardrobe to get champagne and catches sight of her reflection. She is unwashed and haggard in the face, her well-tailored clothing hanging off her bones. She takes one of the bags that had transported her city belongings to the community and she begins to load it with the remaining pills and bottles.
Shelley chases her pills with an open bottle of champagne. The delicious warmth of stupefaction tingles over her skull, unfurling over her body. She feels safe, like a baby swaddled in a blanket. She returns to her desk and turns up the television. The woozy slip into semi-consciousness blots out the memories of crying and pleading.
As a teenager, Shelley only ate vitamin-fortified meal replacements and had to keep her face slack to avoid all facial expressions. She avoided the natural air and shielded herself from the sun at all times. The nuns at her boarding school called lines of the skin, the sagging and marking, ‘wrinkles’. They were abominable in the community society, to be cured and avoided at all costs. She learned that her face was her most valuable asset and could be ruined by a multitude of external factors, of which she diligently avoided. She did not want to be euthanised. The life expectancy of lower-castes is about thirty years. People in the cities lie about their age due to the voluntary, and often involuntary, euthanasia program designed to cull the elderly. The community also unleashed exotic lab-borne germs on to the city for population control and experimentation. Her immunisation injections saw her avoid these plagues of death.
With the pills, her lucidity slips. She cannot read anymore so she burns her book collection in the fireplace. She incinerates the banned books by female authors last, holding each one tenderly before their fiery departure. Burn the witches, she thinks and pauses to gaze at the dustcover photograph of Plath. “The really smart girls know we go into the oven,” she says, tearing the book in twine and throwing the dismembered pieces into the hungry flames.
Danielle had once begged Shelley to visit a lonely girl in the facility, but Shelley refused. The girl has a red raw face – muscles, bones and sinew exposed. Doctors graft skin on it sometimes, so rich people can have facial updates. Life support breathes for her and a mechanical heart beats in her breastless chest. She has been picked apart over the years; a living corpse for parts. A lady even took her pretty delicate hands. Apparently, the frontal lobotomy administered upon admittance to the facility makes one existentially unaware. Shelley is thankful for this. She hopes Danielle doesn’t bring her flowers.
Her bag packed and the fire starting to dwindle, Shelley peers out the velvet drapes to watch Danielle get into her luxury car and leave. Danielle’s defeat and sadness are palpable even from the distance. Slinging the bag over her shoulder, she is about to leave her room when she pauses and looks back at her nightstand. The pile of blank journals that Stanley has been slipping under the door beckon. She takes one, flicks through the empty pages and then finds a pen. Her writing is messy; shaky: Danielle, Stanley – I am so sorry I let you down. I cannot do this.
Shelley leaves the room, staggering down the hallway as she chases more pills with a bottle of champagne. Her mind feels like it floats above her, witnessing the actions of this sloppy uncontrollable body.
Calm acceptance overtakes her as she finds the keys to her driverless luxury sedan. Unlocking the entrance door, she ignores the domestic robot who asks her whether she wants her notifications. Outside, the air is warm and smells like flowers. The fake sun bathes the fake garden in its golden light and the eggshell blue of the dome encases her. She moves to climb into the car, but falls over onto the slate driveway. She is so numb that she is unaware of the ripped flesh on her legs. She gets to her knees and crawls into the dark interior of the car. She slurs as she instructs it to take her to the community gate. As it moves through the mansions and greenery of the community, she lights a new cigarette with the butt of another and tosses it on the car floor. The car stops at the gate and Shelley opens a window to show the armed guards her identification.
“What is the purpose of your visit, Miss Worthington?” one asks.
“Pleasure,” she says, swigging from her open bottle.
They pass back her cards, nodding respectfully and waving her through.
Ninety-nine per cent of humanity live in the sun-scorched wasteland that was once a modern and civilised society. The air is gritty and the weather unpredictable, with temperatures swelling to extreme heat or exploding into wild thunderstorms, sometimes with week-long torrential downpours that flood the dusty ruins. The science personnel in the communities’ report that the earth is getting dragged by the gravitational pull of the sun, that it could be devoured by its photosphere in just a few years if the current trends persist. The engorged dying sun pulls what remains of the earth in, a kind of murder-suicide, one last fuck-you from Mother Nature.
The contrast between the community and what remains of the New World hits her as the car drives through the yawning desert. The horizon is murky grey and swirls with dust storms. The sun is now enormous, hanging above the cowering earth in its flame red and mountainous fury. She gazes at it and her eyes burn. She scrolls her window down and tosses her sunglasses and oxygen mask into the rabid hot wind. She breathes the rough gritty air, coughing and choking, and lights another cigarette.
The car runs out of hydrogen and electric charge on the city limits and it rolls to a stop, its alarms screeching. Shelley opens the door, stepping onto the crunching sand, unsteady on her legs. She swallows five, maybe seven, pills and washes it down with champagne. The gang of scruffy sickly youths seem to materialise from the dust storm and she laughs at them and their guns. Some of them get into her car, three of them surround her, pacing like hungry dogs.
Shelley finds her knife and flicks the blade out. One grabs for her and she slashes at him. “Actually, no,” she says and takes a fistful of her own coiffed honey blonde hair. She severs it, tearing out some by the roots and tosses it at them. Their faces are masks of frozen terror as they watch the strands scatter like falling feathers, dancing in the screaming wind.
“I told you she’d be crazy!” one of them in the car shouts. “She has the new virus, get in the fucking car!”
“It doesn’t work,” Shelley says.
She smashes her bottle onto the windscreen. Gold fluid explodes and glass skewered into her hand. She licks her blood, entwined with the alcohol and exposes her red teeth. Two of the young men have run away – Shelley pushes the remaining one against the vehicle, pressing the blade of her knife against his face. She wonders how young he is and smells urine as it patters down onto the dirt. “You know we’re all gonna die anyway,” she says, pressing the blade hard enough to cut. He starts to sob, to beg for his life, his words unintelligible. With a laugh, Shelley draws back and presses the blade into her own face, cutting into her cheek deep. She feels hot blood cascade onto the front of her dress. The young man sinks to his knees, sobbing at her feet. She laughs again, her fingers penetrating the new hole in her face.
“Stop or we shoot! Get on the ground, face first!”
Unsteady on her feet, Shelley turns to see militia in riot gear, machine guns aimed. The men scramble to comply, getting out of the car. Some of them are crying, pleading. Shelley is barely aware of the guards or the gang as she runs the knife through her other cheek. Her gaze is on the horizon; the dust, the raging dead sun.
“Oh, fuck me,” a guard squawks, repulsed and she feels them get closer, guns stabbing forward.
“Scan says Miss Shelley Worthington, community member 9635698. We better back off.”
“I stole her chip,” Shelley says. “I’m from the city and I’m thirty years old. So, kill me.”
“She’s got the virus!” one of the gang shouts. Two officers discharge their guns repeatedly into his facedown body.
Shelley turns to the other militia men, wobbling. She can see their eyes through their armour, they are frightened, wide – their nostrils flaring.
“Freeze! No closer!” one of them yells.
Shelley walks towards them, covered in her own gushing blood. She sees flames shoot from the skinny barrels as they fire and the reports deafen her. She sees the sky whirl upwards as she hits the dirt. No wrinkles, she thinks. I die with no wrinkles. A smile begins to tug at her bloody mouth and becomes a hysterical laugh. She stares up at the red sun and passes into death, a horrendous grin etched into her cut-up face.
Thinking with Dystopias – Contextualising ‘Smiling Gives You Wrinkles’
Recently, The New Yorker claimed that we live in a Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction. Citing the Trump era as provoking this new wave of ‘radical pessimism’, the author argues that whereas the 2000s were characterised by a sense of endless possibility, recent years have seen the emergence of a mood that envisions human progress as having a terrible social and ecological cost. In a 2014 podcast for Wired magazine, author Naomi Klein expresses concern that dystopian fiction is becoming increasingly popular, as it suggests that people may simply see environmental destruction, and the unequal outcomes of rampant capitalism as inevitable. She hints that this nihilism could be seen as people giving up. In my sociological fiction short story Smiling Gives You Wrinkles, I utilise the dystopia as a thinking tool to explore this mood of hopelessness and inevitability.
The title was taken from my 2013 study of women’s consumption of anti-ageing products. The younger participants (aged <40) showed high identification with commoditised beauty. Poignantly, an 18-year old participant solemnly noted that the models in beauty images did not smile, as “smiles show wrinkles” (see page 63). The participant, who I gave the pseudonym of Ashleigh, communicated that a woman’s beauty declines at age 23, after which she is rendered socially worthless. These ideas implicitly support media, and social media, folklore that suggests women’s value is attached to their bodies. Such thoughts propose that maybe beauty capital might be all these younger women think they have. For my fictional story, I took this notion to what might been seen as its extreme conclusion.
My writing remains influenced by post-World War II thinkers. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and its denunciation of culture as a tool of domination continues to guide my scholarly and fictional work. Concepts such as reification, false consciousness and technocratic rationalities underpin dystopian fiction such as Smiling Gives You Wrinkles. Furthermore, the politically charged science fiction of the post-war period also informs my work. George Orwell’s dystopic writing can be seen to be a product of growing up in “the ‘blitzed’ landscape of immediately post-war London”. Although current climes pale in comparison to the ravaged wasteland of post-war Europe, I propose that, right now, a similar sense of defeat prevails. The current rising popularity of Orwell, Huxley and other dystopian writers from this period is no coincidence.
To conclude, I venture that dystopian fiction can be regarded as ‘good to think [with]’. Dystopias tend to amplify the perceived injustices and fears of the society; they caricature current trends and themes, inviting critique and reflection. Additionally, the genre contains a variety of political viewpoints (for example, consider the worldview explored in the right-wing work of Ayn Rand as opposed to Orwell et al). Thus, it may be argued that dystopian fiction provides a philosophical arena in which to discuss the challenging questions of our time.
Anoushka Benbow is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Monash University, Australia. Her current doctoral research investigates the political economy of the anti-ageing treatment (AAT) market. She is interested in consumer culture, markets, commodification and how individuals create meaning via consumption practices. Anoushka also writes sociological, dystopian, and transgressive fiction.
Want to submit your own sociological fiction? The Sociological Review is seeking submissions of sociological short stories that critically and creatively explore the social as well as the politics and consequences of sociology itself. Please see submission guidelines and other information here.