Brave New World and 7 Horrifying Dystopias

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)

brave new world, aldous huxley, sci fi, dystopia
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)

ray bradbury, sci fi, dystopia, novels
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)

lois lowry, the giver, young adult, sci fi

A cover that screams “I’ve won a Newbery.”

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)

kurt vonnegut, monkey house, short story, harrison bergeron

As found in Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut’s compilation of short stories.

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)

sonia levitin, sci fi, dystopia, fiction, young adult
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)

a clockwork orange, anthony burgess, san francisco, dystopia
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)

george orwell, big brother, sci fi, dystopia, novel
Well, shit. I haven’t read it.

Big Brother, yada yada yada.

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?

a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick, film

I have to say though the droogie outfits from A Clockwork Orange’s Kubrickian adaptation are pretty effing awesome, not to mention the bottom layer mascara.


8 responses

  1. As you hint at, it’s obvious by the end of the book that the word “savage” is to be read as if surrounded by invisible inverted commas. Brave New World‘s stock-in-trade, after all, is its (sometimes heavy-handed) ironic reversal:

    “The Savage,” wrote Bernard, “refuses to take soma, and seems much distressed because of the woman Linda, his m — — — , remains permanently on holiday. It is worthy of note that, in spite of his m — — — ’s senility and the extreme repulsiveness of her appearance, the Savage frequently goes to see her and appears to be much attached to her — an interesting example of the way in which early conditioning can be made to modify and even run counter to natural impulses (in this case, the impulse to recoil from an unpleasant object).”

    Ha ha! I see what he did there. Or this:

    “Of course he does. Trust Henry Foster to be the perfect gentleman — always correct. And then there’s the Director to think of. You know what a stickler…”

    Nodding, “He patted me on the behind this afternoon,” said Lenina.

    “There, you see!” Fanny was triumphant. “That shows what he stands for. The strictest conventionality.”

    Huxley’s clearly calling something savage, but it’s not the Zuñi or John. (Who’s actually addressed as “Mr. Savage” — see what I mean about heavy handed?) A few years before writing BNW, Huxley read Malinowski’s Sexual Life of Savages and joked that he’d like to write a companion piece on the Sexual Life of Gentlemen and Ladies, as “There’d be much odder customs to record than among those extraordinarily rational Trobrianders.”

    What differentiates BNW from the other books on the list is how close it still hits to home. It’s about the nightmare that results when traditional religion and sexual morality are dismantled in the name of rationality — a project that his readers are just as invested in today as in 1932. And it is all perfectly rational: the World State is a resounding success on its own terms. Its leaders freely admit what they’ve sacrificed in building their Wellsian utopia. (Recall that Mond wins the final argument with John.) By contrast, many of the other authors are forced to cook the books by suggesting that the denizens of Dystopia are secretly dissatisfied or hunhappy. (Guy Montag’s wife attempts suicide, Winston’s neighbors in 1984 are wrecks.) The World State’s counterpart isn’t so much Big Brother as the Catholic Church of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

    1. Nice analysis (which, you probably noticed, I didn’t really attempt with this book… too lazy!). I know you said you’re a better blog commenter than blogger, but maybe you should marry the concepts and have a blog where you respond to other people’s blog posts… And then link back to them. +trackbacks for me!

  2. Anthem, Minority Report, Fifth Element, Equilibrium, Book of Eli =). Thats what I got, excuse me if i’m a little off topic.

    1. Ah yes. I’d thought of Minority Report (though I haven’t seen it) and I forgot about Equilibrium, good example. Fifth Element is a little more sci-fi adventure than dystopian cautionary tale… and Book of Eli from what I understand is a little more post-apocalyptic wasteland a la Mad Max isn’t it? I’m very picky about my dystopias :P what’s Anthem?

      1. It’s a libertarian dystopian novel by Ayn Rand. Here’s an addition to your listicle:
        8) Anthem, by Ayn Rand (1938, England)

        The Conceit: Rigidly collectivist society, in which people are assigned to jobs and the first person pronoun is unknown. While society has an intellectual class (called “Scholars”), technology is stuck at a premodern level.
        But Then!: Our Hero, Equality 7-2521, discovers a subway tunnel and begins conducting scientific experiments there, despite the fact that as a street sweeper, he’s forbidden from doing so. He eventually invents electricity, which is greeted by horror from the Scholars, and flees to a cottage from pre-dystopian times (where he’s joined by his love interest). Reading the old books there, he discovers the word that the society of Anthem has attempted to abolish: “I”.
        How Much Would It Suck?: 5.57. If I picked something else, you’d just ask me why that.

        All in all, it’s kind of like other “political” dystopias (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale or The Camp of Saints): Sort of trashy, but if you can take the heavy didacticism and paranoia, it’s actually enjoyable to let the ideological fervor drag you bumpily along by the scruff of the neck.

  3. Ooops…I haven’t read any of these. I better get cracking on them.

    1. no worries, I’ve only read 6 of them! :) if you’re not sure if you like dystopian fiction, start with Harrison Bergeron… it’s only like 10 pages.

  4. […] at all. Reading his chapter, I felt like George in “Harrison Bergeron” (mentioned briefly in this post); an intelligence handicap sending a cacophony of noise into my ear every few minutes to send all […]

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