There’s a scene in Mike Judge’s cinematic masterpiece Office Space where the central character reminisces:
Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
I’ve never heard that formula outside of the film, but it definitely sounds an awful lot like something you might hear in one of those starry-eyed public school career classes. The problem with the sentiment is immediately pointed out by another character:
That question is bullshit….If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.
Which is true. Michael Richards’ character in UHF aside, there aren’t that many people who enjoy cleaning up bodily fluids (which pretty much negates the callings not only of janitors, but also of stay-at-home parents as well). Our hero, though, gets to the heart of the matter when he finally answers the question for himself:
Nothing….I would relax. I would sit on my ass all day. I would do nothing.
And I when I heard that line, I died a little inside, because I realized it was me talking.
Am I alone in this sentiment? I hope not, but it often feels that way. On my days off, I never feel much like doing anything besides lying flat on my back, balancing a laptop on my hilariously deformed ribcage, and clicking from link to link on the Internet. If I psych myself up enough, I might find a movie on Netflix to watch or a book to read. People tell me all the time that I’m a good writer, a good singer, a good actor, but I’m not someone who’s so passionate about those things that I’ll actually get off my butt and do them. The amount of work it takes to do anything to the point that it’s profitable (in any sense of the word) never seems worth it to me.
And then I learned about Universe 25.
Cracked.com, my favorite website in the world (in fact, why are you here? go read articles on Cracked), posted a piece by Robert Brockway a few days ago entitled “5 Sci-Fi Dystopias We’ve Actually Created (For Animals).” Of the five he describes, only one, Universe 25, really fits the title, but it’s one that chilled me to the bone.
The box known as Universe 25 (a designation that indicates there were at least 24 terrifying predecessors) was a habitat for mice. It was kept at a comfortable 68°, furnished with unlimited food and water, and was self-cleaning. Essentially, it had everything a mouse could want. Scientist John B. Calhoun built it and placed four breeding pairs of lab mice into it in 1972, and sat back with a notepad to watch what happened.
Within two years, it had turned into hell:
Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers. Left on their own in nests subject to invasion, nursing females attacked their own young. Procreation slumped, infant abandonment and mortality soared. Lone females retreated to isolated nesting boxes on penthouse levels. Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought — they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Elsewhere, cannibalism, pansexualism, and violence became endemic. Mouse society had collapsed.
When I’m reading science fiction with my twelfth-graders, I always have to poke and prod them to get them to see that, at its core, science fiction is not about cool hypothetical technology — and isn’t even about the future. Science fiction is set in the future, but it’s always, always, always about the now. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be relevant. If it wasn’t, there would be no reason to write it. Science fiction — or science fact, in the case of Universe 25 — is chilling because it hits so close to home. U25 is a scenario that’s played out hundreds of times throughout history (ancient Rome and industrial-era London come to mind), and it’s probably playing out right in front of us now.
Calhoun blamed the breakdown of mouse society on simple overpopulation, and I think he was partially right. That explanation, though, ignores one other aspect endemic to his 25th Universe: idleness. In a world where their every need was taken care of, the mice were left with nothing to do but invent ways to kill time until their artificially prolonged deaths. In fact, Calhoun devised an equation for the whole thing, and it almost makes sense:
Mortality, bodily death = the second death
Drastic reduction of mortality
= death of the second death
= death squared
(Death)2 leads to dissolution of social organization
= death of the establishment
Death of the establishment leads to spiritual death
= loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival
= the first death
(Death)2 = the first death
The first couple chapters of Genesis are some of the most frequently mocked bits of Scripture (for entirely misguided reasons, I’d say — but that’s a discussion for another time), but there are truths at their core that are pretty much inescapable, and one of them is this: humankind was created to work. Even before the Fall, we were created to scrape and toil for necessities, for pleasure, for beauty. Life has never been anything other than hard work, and to deny that fact or to say that we can make it be about something else is to deny the essence of creation and the essence of humanity.
The end of Office Space is a fair compromise with reality, since the character in question ends up not doing “nothing,” but instead finds a job with a construction company. It’s a mildly jarring ending in a Hollywood film, for the simple reason that he doesn’t “find himself” by “following his dreams”; he simply finds something productive to do with his hands and is grateful for it. It’s something that I could probably learn from, but I won’t, because I’d rather waste time posting to a blog than write my paper that’s due tomorrow.