Dystopian novels are a guilty pleasure. For a few hundred pages, readers can lose themselves in a bleak landscape where humans have gone virtually extinct, or where a vindictive government regularly tosses children into a gladiatorial arena, or where most folks remain oblivious to the environmental wasteland just outside their protective city-sheltering domes–or why not all three at once? As horrific as these worlds would be to live in, they are fun for readers to explore for a while before returning to a reality that won’t become genuinely dystopian for at least a couple more election cycles.
I recently spent some time with one of the great-granddaddies of modern dystopian novels, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Actually, considering that book was first published eighty years ago, it literally might have been your great-granddaddy’s dystopian novel.
Huxley was playing against the long-established tradition of utopian novels, based in worlds so idealized and theoretical that not even an English professor could find fault in them. (As an aside, I once thought my professor had an inappropriate crush on The Republic, but it turned out to be platonic. Ha!)
Brave New World wasn’t the first novel to show the dark side of a utopia, but it was an early example and has influenced decades of dark futures that have come along ever since. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading and studying. The more we learn about our past dark futures, the better we will be able to understand our present dark futures and prepare for our future dark futures.
Lesson 1: Coming of Age Is Even Harder in a Dystopia
A typical coming of age story involves a character who learns valuable lessons, changes and evolves, tests social boundaries, experiences inner growth, and finally finds his or her own special place in the world. In a dystopian coming of age story, there’s an added difficulty. How do you find a special place in a world that’s completely dysfunctional? Would you even want to?
To answer this challenge, authors have come up with a number of alternatives. One popular approach is for the main character to develop so much integrity and inner fortitude that it’s the rest of the world that ends up changing, evolving, and coming of age to accommodate them. The characters are brave, the world is new, so why wouldn’t this “brave new world” outcome appear in a book calling itself Brave New World? I spent the entire book wondering how Huxley would pull off the inevitable downfall and transformation of his dystopia. I kept wondering up until the very last page when–if a book from 1932 gets a spoiler warning, consider yourself warned–our coming of age character kills himself, and the horrific future world of 26th Century London continues unchanged. Unless that part is handled in the sequel, in which case don’t spoil it for me!
Which leads us to…
Lesson 2: Dystopia and Other Genre Tropes Evolve Over Time
This is probably obvious to everyone else, but I lost sight of it for a while. Most dystopian fiction I’ve read lately has been new and modern, so going back toward the root of the tree really helped me to get a better appreciation for the branches and leaves. While reading Brave New World, I was reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 and other books that bridge the gap and form the trend lines between then and now.
I’d studied 1984 in high school and college, like everyone else in the world, but not in the context of genre. Probably because the professors thought it would seem more impressive and literary if we thought the book descended from the clouds directly into Orwell’s brain. It would have been so much more interesting to see how much 1949′s 1984 was inspired by 1932′s Brave New World, which was itself inspired by something else I’ll have to read someday (We by Yevgeny Zamyatin from 1921, if you’re keeping score at home).
Brave New World is a 1930s dystopia that ends with a character escaping into death. 1984 is a 1940s dystopia that ends with the main character staying alive but surrendering his soul to Big Brother, at least for the time being. A 1950s dystopia, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, ends with the character finding a hopeful solution to someday fight back against his society. Finally the “brave new transformative world” ending becomes common in the 1960s, as in the Tripods trilogy by John Christopher and Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. Then came decades of further refinement, and the rest is all those branches and leaves I was talking about.
Lesson 3: Dystopias Are Meant for the Ages They Are Written In
Aside from the ending, it was jarring that this proto-dystopia didn’t include some familiar modern anxieties. The 26th Century world of Brave New World suffered no environmental problems, climate change, religious conflict, nuclear war, mutated supergerms, zombies, killer robots, or technological singularities. Instead, Brave New World reflects the anxieties of the early 1930s: the rise of fascism, the spread of mass production, social conditioning, and the eugenics practiced before the discovery of DNA.
One world war later, we have 1984 with its all-powerful combination of propaganda and perpetual global conflict (“We were always at war with Oceania… We were never at war with Eurasia…”). Oh, and television! There hadn’t been any TVs in Huxley’s 1932 book because there hadn’t been any TVs in 1932, but Orwell sure put them to good use. During the Cold War came dystopias set in radioactive post-nuclear hellscapes, and zombies to represent communism. (Including some where survivors gather in a shopping mall that represents capitalism. What, you thought it was just about monsters?)
To have a successful dystopia, you need to tap into the worries of the day, preferably fresh ones that haven’t been tackled before. Recently, Suzanne Collins successfully combined the Patriot Act with reality TV to create The Hunger Games. Looking ahead, there have to be some even fresher fears on the horizon.
Lesson 4: Dystopias Can Adjust to Technological Changes
There’s a device described in Brave New World that functions something like a cell phone, except that it’s ridiculously clunky and only journalists seem to use them. The battery is worn on a belt holster, the transmitter is located in an aluminum stovepipe hat, and a microphone pops out of the hat and dangles in front of the user’s face when in use. It sounds exactly like the car phones we had back in the 1980s! Unfortunately, this is for a story set in 2540.
A common problem in science fiction is that technology outpaces speculation. Captain Kirk’s communicator that seemed so far-futuristic in 1967 is like a toy compared to my early-2012-and-already-obsolete smartphone. Three-year-olds are walking around today with beeping, flashing devices that sing songs and play videos. Captain Kirk would have been amazed!
But having a dystopia can actually solve this problem. In Brave New World, science is controlled by the government. Technological innovation and labor-saving devices are withheld, unless they serve to increase the stability of society. R&D is channeled into better human cloning, subconscious conditioning, better drugs, and distracting sports. In a world such as this, we can assume that smartphones have been considered and rejected in favor of stovepipe hats with dangly bits. Because the technology is chosen by the society to fit the society, the book holds up internally and remains fairly immune to tech changes even after eighty years. My 2007 book with the click-wheel iPod, on the other hand, not so much.
Those are my lessons from this book. Now go forth and create some brave new worlds of your own!
Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the “Galaxy Games” series of midgrade sports and sci-fi from Tu Books at Lee & Low Books. Visit him at http://gfishbone.com.