In my experience, no one uses the word “utopian” correctly. The incorrect way is to do so in a hyperbolic sense rather than the literal one. For example, those who say that our tax system could use some progressive tweaking are being utopian. Not true, as the tax system gets tweaked all the time. The offenders intentionally misuse the word in order to halt the discussion.
Utopia comes from a pair of Greek words: ou, or ‘no’, and topos, or ‘place’. Utopia, therefore means ‘no place’. A perfect society is a logical and moral construct rather than an expression of reality, so it can’t exist. We don’t even really want to live there. We just like to dream about it.
Dystopia is the rhetorical opposite of Utopia. In this case the stem dys (also from Greek) means ‘bad’, so ‘bad place.’ Except in this sense, it’s a place as bad as we can imagine. That’s easy–work a shift in a Foxconn factory for a few weeks. Get yourself a cup and beg in the slums of Calcutta for a while. I guarantee a life lesson or two.
I sometimes tell my students that I think calling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dystopian is unfair. That gets a discussion going pretty quickly, as the allure of utopian societies remains subject to opinion. One writer’s paradise is another writer’s hell. There are elements of both extremes in this story, but the book isn’t usually taught that way in classrooms.
First a few historical bits. Brave New World is #52 on the ALA’s list of most frequently banned books. It’s been banned for its politics (communism, socialism) and for the sexual content (pornography). As far back as 1932 the book was being challenged for its language and for supposedly being anti-family and anti-religion. In 1980 it was removed from a classroom in Miller, Missouri, and in 1993 an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove it from California readings lists due to its “negative activity.”
The year is 2540 (or 632 A.F. –After Ford–as it’s known locally). In terms of physicality, it’s not that different from the world we see around us now. No flying cities (there are personal helicopters), no teleport booths. But . . . all aspects of human behavior and physiology have been standardized. People are cloned in factories, raised to specifications in education centers, and every aspect of their lives is predetermined by a centrally planned state. Society is completely managed, but the level of stimulus-response training people receive as they grow up avoids the need to micro-manage the population. Once grown, people are sent into careers of the government’s choice based on economic need and they live out their lives. They wake up, go to jobs, do their work, eat, sleep, and take a hangover-proof wonder drug called soma when they need a break from reality.
And that’s it. Literally, that’s all there is to this world. There are no new discoveries about the universe or insights about people themselves. No sexual hangups, no real problems other than deciding how to entertain oneself. No real skills except for those needed to do one’s job. No parents, no children, no psychological trauma. No emotions, which means no drama, so no comedy or tragedy. No illness. It’s a well managed world where where everyone is perfectly average. Everyone is happy, healthy, and productive literally until they day they die. The world is homeostatic.
So . . . what’s not to like?
Quite a lot, actually. For example, the happiness that is considered normal here is more like a self-reinforcing apathy. No one has any real worries about work because jobs are there, waiting for every human being who emerges from the education centers. Famine and disease are unknown. Personal relationships as we understand them don’t really exist. Death is inevitable, but the lack of connection between people makes grieving unnecessary. Monogamy is considered a social disease, and wanting to be alone is thought pathological. Sex is cheap and soma use is mandatory, at least, at certain times of the month. (A state pseudo-religion which glorifies sex and soma allows co-workers to bond and blow off steam on Friday nights.)
We learn about this world by watching Bernard Marx (Huxley named every character after a real life fascist or communist), a state-employed psychologist, run through the matrix as it were on his way toward what he thinks are laudable goals. Understanding how society operates curses him to awareness of just how low in the pecking order he is; he craves status, sex, and authority. Bernard is the physical and mental antithesis of what people expect: he’s short, smarmy, socially inept, and thinks much too much. He is a loser. And that’s what makes him wonderfully human, but that comes at the end of the book.
He pursues a co-worker, Lenina, who likes him well enough but no more than her other male partners. Bernard figures his chances with her will improve if they go on vacation together, but his idea of a vacation is a visit to a “savage reservation” in North America. When they arrive, they ooh and aah at the natives, but they get a surprise. They meet a young man named John who is the son of a civilized woman who was herself stranded there decades ago. Lenina is utterly fascinated by John, while Bernard plans to use him to bolster his career.
They bring John “home”. Things get worse when Bernard’s supervisor threatens to send him to an island, i.e., banish him to the equivalent of a leper colony in the North Sea. Things get horrible when Bernard exposes his supervisor as John’s father, which to civilized morals is so freakish that the gentleman resigns in disgrace and the matter is literally never mentioned again.
Bernard shows John around the equivalent of high society and gets his status (and Lenina for a while), then mishandles it rather badly when he mistakes his new admirers for friends. John’s mother dies in hospital, and John handles it badly. John stops co-operating with Bernard. Barnard handles it even more ineptly. Mustafah Mond, the World Controller of West Europe, finally takes an interest in the savage’s integration into civilization, and things end badly for everyone.
Or do they?
John and Bernard have a lot in common: neither belongs in civilized company, and both try to use the other to access what they want (status for Bernard, Lenina for John). Both exacerbate their own misery and make the people around them miserable in turn. Square pegs jammed into round holes tend to do that.
One of the more absorbing aspects of this novel is the fact that the protagonists are the State’s failed subjects. Think about it. Bernard is responsible for maintaining paradise but is physically and mentally ill-suited to living in it. Lenina’s perfect man is one that was born outside civilized society. John wants no more than to be accepted by the tribe of natives he was born into, and is rejected out of hand due to his foreign origin. Even Mustafah Mond, the Guy In Charge of Western Europe, began his career in social control by being too smart for his own good. The fact that he was offered an out by going into politics was a fluke. Had things really worked properly, he should have been banished decades ago.
There are holes in the plot. Giant holes that you could drive a UPS truck through. One is John’s exposure to the English language by way of an old Shakespeare collection his mother just happened to be stranded with way back when. There is no way that John could have learned his absorbing command of the bard just by reading it. For that matter, his mother is described as a twit, and the idea that she’d have any book in her bag when they arrived is not exactly credible. As Neil Postman noted in Amused to Death, Orwell feared the banning of books, where Huxley feared a lack of respect for and interest in them. The only books we ever see live in Mustafah Monnd’s office safe.
Another problem (and one that Huxley acknowledges in the introduction) is the either/or nature of the world as presented in the text. There is civilization and there is savagery, but there’s no in-between. Neither universe informs or acknowledges the other. We’re told that the islands are numerous enough to house the total sum of all social misfits but we don’t get to see what life there is like. We’re told by Mond that an entire society of elites was sent to an island to carve out what life they could and have to take his word that the situation imploded rather quickly.
There are similarities to our here and now, too. Economics is the reason given for everything that happens in BNW. The economy isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. A person’s entire meaning in this world is the sum total value they can add to the machinery of commerce. His labor feeds it, his money lubricates its guts, his leaders direct it. In Huxley’s world, the economy is purely mechanical. All humans are its servants, one way or another. Worse, there is no place on Earth to get away from it. Our current political discourse, where the lower orders are placed in the position of defending their right to eat at every turn, differs from the reality of BNW in degree only.
So. Are we there yet? Well, yes and no. The book assumes that all the wacky assumptions of utopian science fiction–unlimited energy, resources, and perfect balance with nature–have already been achieved, in defiance of history and the laws of physics. Since new inventions that don’t directly serve consumption are illegal–you will be banished if you try to pursue what Mond calls “real science”–it’s expected that there’s no new information about the world or the universe is being discovered, either. Material concerns reign supreme. Clone people, give them jobs, feed them, extract their labor, convert the dead to fertilizer for crops, repeat as necessary. The modern idea of economic growth has no place in a world that depends on homeostasis. I doubt we’ll go there.
On the other hand, in the respect that iron-clad social control is maintained by a central authority standardizing human behavior for the sake of the wheels of commerce, you can argue the details all you like, but I think we’ve been there for at least 50 years.