I like dystopian fiction. From young-adult novels like The Giver and House of Stairs to literary classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451, there’s something morbidly fascinating about governments and societies gone wrong.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is considered one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written. Is this grim tale of bad society a good book?
The purpose of most dystopian fiction isn’t merely to tell a story, but to convey an idea. Dystopian stories aren’t just stories, but fables. Brave New World is no exception. It does a fantastic job of depicting a dysfunctional society, and a less fantastic—but still competent—job of creating an engaging plot and well-developed characters.
Nineteen Eighty-Four shows a society controlled by fear. Fahrenheit 451 depicts a society controlled by censorship. Brave New World is different. Its society is controlled by pleasure. People aren’t forced to obey. They’re conditioned to obey. The government doesn’t need to burn books or monitor its citizens. It promotes promiscuous sexuality, hands out recreational drugs and makes sure everyone has such a good time that no one ever bothers to ask questions.
Brave New World introduces its horrifying society in a brilliantly calm, matter-of-fact way. (The novel is full of exposition, which is conveyed pretty smoothly through dialogue.) Children are conceived artificially in factories and preconditioned to their future careers. Infants are taught through painful operant conditioning (involving shrill sirens and electric shocks) to despise books and flowers. The early chapters of the novel describe the brave new world of Aldous Huxley in an incongruously cheerful—and chillingly effective—manner.
Having established its dystopian background, the novel introduces an outsider: the ironically-named Savage, who ultimately takes a stand against the unrestrained hedonism and vapid amorality of his world. Does he succeed? I won’t spoil the ending, but you can probably guess what happens.
As an illustration of a dystopian society, Brave New World devotes many pages to exposition. It’s a novel about ideas. Elements like plot and characterization are secondary. Not much happens in the novel—its plot could be summed up in a paragraph—and most of its characters aren’t terribly well-developed.
In the end, these shortcomings aren’t all that important. As a work of literature, Brave New World may have some faults, but it fulfills its purpose: depicting a dysfunctional society and evoking a reaction (whether disgust, dislike or horrified fascination) from the reader.
It’s not a cheerful read, but I recommend Brave New World—particularly as a complement to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. These novels give radically different takes on how society can go wrong: government by fear and government by pleasure.