Dystopian fiction often paints a dark and gritty picture of a far away future. The masses usually become subjected to a small ruling class that maintains order with strict and barbaric methods. It’s strange to me that they found a pocket of relevance in recent years with the box office success of “The Hunger Games” film franchise and the critical lauding of the TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’m sure people of a certain political persuasion would say this has to do with the current climate we find ourselves in. Maybe that’s true. However, it could also be true that as technological advances push us further from our hunter/gatherer roots, the prospect of total societal collapse feels more eminent than it ever has.
“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley often finds itself on the “Best Dystopian Novels” list that beckon for clicks. I’m not sure it fits the mold.
Sure, there is a ruling class of sorts. Somewhere along the way, mankind decided that science could offer a better world. In this world, women no longer have children. Instead, kids are grown and conditioned in factories – creating predetermined castes in an attempt to achieve total global happiness. The different classes are taught to relish their particular lot in life. Sexual promiscuity is not only tolerated, it is celebrated and encouraged. Daily rations of a drug called soma keep the crowds in line and marching to the beat of whatever drum they were dictated to follow.
The funny thing is – it works. People are happy. The book begs the question – what matters more, happiness or freedom?
In that way, it’s really not dystopian at all. We never really are introduced to any ruling class. Sure, there are Alphas who seem to be leaders per se, but they view their day-to-day existence in a workman’s like manner. They look down on the lower castes, but they don’t really fear them. Similarly, the Deltas and Epsilons don’t seem to view their superiors in any negative light. Science has created a system of peace and machine-like precision.
While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to our modern world, the underlying themes did feel familiar. There are strict social expectations and a constant need for consumption of goods. The social structure swirls in a feedback loop of constantly changing sexual partners and a laser-like focus on the Id.
The first 50 or so pages are devoted to world building. We follow The Director as he leads an orientation of young scientists. The reader immediately becomes surrounded by the sterile – no pun intended – laboratory nature of existence. Many of the characters bleed into each other, reinforcing the cog-in-the-machine nature of their existence. When we are finally introduced to a strange outsider, the society greets him first with curiosity, then frustration and fear.
It paints a world with just enough shadows to be terrifying, and just enough light to feel familiar.
Ultimately, it shows that utopia – or dystopia – is really in the eyes of the beholder.