Within the first few pages of Brave New World I felt an odd sense of déjà vu. At first I was like, why does this feel so familiar when I haven’t read it before? After some real soul-searching*, I found the answer. Of course it feels familiar. Because it’s a mid-twentieth century Western work of dystopian fiction. There are so many, and I have read many, and there are also many dystopian movies, etcetera; not unlike rom-coms, I’m pretty sure we all recognize the tropes and conventions and conceits of the genre (in the latter: rushing to the airport to stop a plane! writing a big-break magazine article but then falling in love with your subject! bearing your heart obtusely at a major press conference!)
*This is an exaggeration.
Not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The book, written in 1932 (my copy is from 1946! Isn’t it cute!), as might be expected, includes an uncomfortable portrayal of Native Americans, who are called “savages”, as in, Bernard and Lenina go to visit the Savage Reservation for vacation, though ultimately the word “savage” becomes an exercise in irony because the character saddled with the name the Savage (John, born of a white civilized mother but raised on the Savage Reservation) is the requisite Realizer (but then– double irony!– underneath his more-civilized uncivilizedness he’s just as savage as all humankind). I made up this term, Realizer, but essentially that’s the character in the dystopian novel who Realizes that all is not well, that this perfect society isn’t so perfect after all; and, because of his crazy different-ness, in some way seeks to challenge it. John is joined in his Realization by two male friends, born and raised civilized: the one, Bernard, comes to it because he is smaller, weaker, less handsome than the other Alphas (his high caste) and consequently resentful; the other, Helmholtz, because he loves to write but can’t find anything worth writing about. ‘Cause shit’s just too damn perfect! (I like Helmholtz. If I lived in this book and was a very handsome male, I would be Helmholtz.)
The conceit of each fictional dystopian society changes, but also seems to remain the same. Because I like making lists, and because lists are generally less demanding of the intellect as befits an Internet blog post, here are my top 7 dystopian societies from over the years.
1) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932, England)
The Conceit: No natural reproduction, no families, no relationships. Happiness, productivity are privileged over knowledge, meaning. People are genetically and conditionally placed into castes, Alpha down to Epsilon. Everyone knows their place and fits into it perfectly. Sex is casual and with many partners. Consumerism is rampant. Daily rations of soma (a hallucinatory drug) keep everybody happy.
But Then!: Bernard and his short-term partner Lenina bring John the Savage back to “civilization,” which John hopes will be a “brave new world” (he reads a lot of Shakespeare) but he is instead horrified by the callous, meaningless society he finds. After weeks of being paraded around town as a kind of fascinating curio, he spectacularly snaps and is consequently brought before Mustapha Mond, the Controller of the London district and the only other man who’s read Shakespeare.
How Much Would It Suck? (1-10, 10 being the suckiest): 6. At least everyone is incredibly superficially happy. Minus one (minus negative one, that is) for no books.
2) Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953, USA)
The Conceit: Books are considered offensive — every part of every book was offensive to some person or group— so they are banned. TVs take up walls and empty, unthinking entertainment is privileged. “Firemen” set fires instead of putting them out, and no one remembers anything different. They burn books and the houses of those who have books.
But Then!: Montag, a fireman, starts thinking critically about his society after meeting his misfit neighbor Clarisse, who disappears shortly after they meet. He begins taking the books he is supposed to burn and comes into conflict with the Fire Chief.
How Much Would It Suck?: 7. Burning books. Straight up not having books. Not my kind of place.
3) The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1993, USA)
The Conceit: Jobs are assigned, marriage partners are assigned, children are limited to two. Emotional attachments are downplayed, including between parents and children; pills are taken to suppress emotions called “Stirrings”. People cannot see color. A Committee of Elders runs the society; when people commit infractions, they can be “Released”, which (duh) actually means they are killed by lethal injection. Same thing happens when people reach a certain age.
But Then!: Jonas, a 12-year-old boy, is assigned to be the “Receiver of Memories” for his job, which is the one person in society who keeps the memories of what it was like before. When being trained by the current Receiver (now “the Giver”) he learns what love, color, knowledge, etc were like and questions whether it wasn’t better in the old days.
How Much Would It Suck?: 4. I don’t know. I mean, the whole job assignment thing is kinda cute. And black and white can be pretty. Plus it’s Young Adult so it can’ t be that bad.
4) “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut (1961, USA)
The Conceit: Everyone is made to wear “handicaps” to temper their natural gifts: beautiful people wear masks, strong people wear heavy weights, smart people wear buzzers that go off at regular intervals in their ears and disrupt their thoughts. This is regulated by a Handicapper General named Diana Moon Glampers.
But Then!: Harrison Bergeron, a larger-than-life 14-year-old boy recently imprisoned for handicap-related violations, escapes and makes his way to a TV ballet program, where he encourages the most beautiful, graceful ballerina there to shed her handicaps and they dance a soaring, gorgeous dance until the Handicapper General shows up.
How Much Would It Suck?: 9. The smartness-handicap George wears really freaks me out.
5) The Cure, by Sonia Levitin (1999, Germany/USA)
The Conceit: Again, no emotions, no diversity, no independent thought. People follow set career paths and live for 120 years. Society governed by Elders who keep everyone in check. For those who seem to deviate from societal dictates, there is a mysterious Cure that puts them back on the path. (I’m not actually sure how well-known this novel is. It’s YA, like The Giver, but The Giver was assigned reading in school and this wasn’t. It’s just that I remember reading The Cure recreationally in high school and enjoying it, and it is surely a worthwhile contribution to the genre.)
But Then!: The main character and his twin sister are assigned to the Cure because he has been having strange dreams and striking out with violence. Turns out, the Cure puts them in the bodies of two Jewish children living in 1348 Germany, at the onset of the Black Death. They see firsthand how horrible the old humanity was and why it’s better to live with no emotions, no diversity. Of course, despite this, by the end the twins still aren’t entirely convinced that humanity run rampant is worse than humanity kept in brutal check. (Science fiction-y AND historical! Fun.)
How Much Would It Suck?: 7. Not sure, but if 1348 Germany-as-a-Jew is better, this future can’t be very pleasant.
6) A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess (1962, England)
The Conceit: This is a relatively near future, so society isn’t so drastically different. Young people speak in Nadsat, a Russian-based slang language. Despite the apparent existence of law and order, chaos often reigns in the streets as teenagers like protagonist Alex and his friends engage in street fights, break enter and steal, sexually assault and rape.
But Then!: Alex is sent to prison for his crimes, where he is volunteered as the guinea pig for the Ludovico Technique, a cure that trains him to physiologically associate violence and rapine with feelings of horrible nausea.
How Much Would It Suck?: If the scenes in this book are at all representative, 9 if you’re a woman, 3 if you’re a man.
7) 1984, by George Orwell (1949, England)
I think the takeaway themes here are abhorrence of consumerism, capitalism, fascism, totalitarianism, socialism, anarchism– pretty much every -ism running rampant thru 20th-century societies– and implicit celebration of diversity, knowledge, BOOKS, and, I guess, reproducing and growing old the old-fashioned way. Kinda all over the spectrum, but also really similar. Any others I’m missing?