Catherine Fisher explores the idea of a utopian prison in her book, Incarceron. Utopian prison!? What! Is that possible?
Basically, in a nut shell, the novel contains two constructed utopias, the Outside and Incarceron. The Outside is ruled by Protocol, which was decreed by King Endor “as a world free from the anxiety of change.” The rulers have chosen an Era from the past and require that all who live within the realm follow the strict protocol of that particular era. Imagine an amusement park where all of the employees are forbidden to break character (See “Super Fun Time” a South Park episode which makes fun of these parks). The people living in the Outside must adhere to the rules of a Victorian-like Era, however, there are instances when highly advanced technology (or even just washing machines) are referenced but such technology is forbidden. The big caveat to the law/Protocol forbidding the use of advanced technology is that the government can spy on you using highly sophisticated listening and visual devices. Basically, technology is used, but only when it is to enforce control over the people.
Incarceron has been created to hold prisoners. At the start of each chapter there are brief illuminations on why and how the world is the way it is. At the beginning of Chapter 6 the Court Archives describe Incarceron as a Utopian experiment:
“All criminals , undesirables, political extremists, degenerates, lunatics would be transported [to Incarceron]. The Gate would be sealed and the Experiment commence. It was vital that nothing should disturb the delicate balance of Incarceron’s programming, which would provide everything needed—education, balanced diet, exercise, spiritual welfare, and purposeful work—to create a paradise.”
Early on in the novel, like in the first twenty pages, the reader realizes that Incarceron is much closer to a dystopia* rather than a utopia. In fact, both worlds, the Outside and Incarceron, appear to be struggling under government control. This sets up the worlds Fisher creates but not the characters. Claudia, daughter of the warden, finds herself rebelling against the Protocol within the Kingdom, while seventeen-year-old Finn attempts to break free from the clutches of the prison, which by the way is alive (Please imagine Gene Wilder playing Dr. Frankenstein and crying “It’s alive!”). Incarceron is so sophisticated that it is actually alive and considers all of the prisoners it’s children. The book focuses on Claudia and Finn as they attempt to upset the “utopian” balance of their worlds and in the end must help each other to break free.
The creation of these worlds highlights the improbability of ever having a utopian society. While the world of Incarceron is much more dramatic in emphasizing the troubles with government control and the ridiculous idea of utopian societies, the Outside kingdom’s idea of Protocol, of essentially banning progress and change from ever occurring, creates just as much of a dystopia as Incarceron. Can a government find a policy to make everyone happy, to create a utopia without restricting the rights of others? An excellent short story that further explores the idea of utopias is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. If you haven’t read it, then you should! Along with Incarceron. Fisher does an amazing job at creating the worlds in this book. I found myself fighting against my body’s need for sleep, especially towards the end! I wanted more than anything to find out what happens at the end and I was not disappointed.
Expect the sequel, Sapphique, in December 2010!
*Dystopia: –noun– a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding. Dictionary .com
Age Group: 13 and up
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Themes: Fantasy, Utopia, Friendship, Adventure, Prison
Publisher: Dial Books, imprint of Penguin