Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World continues a long tradition of utopian literature. As far back as Plato’s Republic, visions of a world in which everything is in its place have tantalized writers, philosophers, and sociologists. In the nineteenth century, utopias were not long written about, but some were attempted. The realization that any imagined perfect world would be doomed to fail (combined with the fact that most of the attempted utopias did fail) gave rise to the dystopian – or anti-utopian – novel. Other popular dystopian novels include George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Although relatively few utopian or dystopian novels have been written, the genre has developed certain conventions and devices.
Everything goes; nothing goes: Dystopian novels usually contain an extreme dichotomy of rules, as in Brave New World where sexual morals have been abolished, yet almost all real knowledge has been banned. Similarly, in most utopian novels, the characters are either free to do as they please – worship as they please, have as many sexual partners as they please, and take for themselves what is needed to survive (the “communal village” idea) – or they are blindly obedient to a higher power that is ruthlessly setting an unbending policy or order (the “World State” idea).
Satirical: Most dystopian writers make heavy use of satire as a means of pointing out the wrongs of the current, real society; that is, they exaggerate the current politics and public opinions in order to show just how misguided they are. For example, in Brave New World, Huxley takes the fascist, totalitarian policies of leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin to their extremes by creating a World State in which only a handful of people are left to make any decisions at all. He also satirizes the apathy of the people by creating characters who seem oblivious to the fact that they are simply consumers of meaningless products and ideas.
Futuristic: Not quite science fiction and not quite present day, most utopian and dystopian novels take place in the near future. The worlds created are often very similar to actuality and seem to have their reference points in the author’s “real present,” as in Brave New World, which takes place in A.F. 632, 600 years from when it was written (which would make it, to us, 2532 A.D.). The reference point (A.F.) in history for the novel is Henry Ford and his assembly line for automobile manufacturing. Similar works following this model include George Orwell’s 1984, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.
Attempts at Utopian Alternate Societies:
Struggling under the pressures of urbanization and other consequences of the Industrial Revolution, many people rebelled against the traditional norms of nineteenth-century society, where capitalism, industrialization, and immigration threatened to destroy the old order of an agrarian society in which “gentleman landowners” held the most economic and political power.
Some early attempts at Utopian “counter-societies” include:
Scottish social reformer Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Western Indiana: Established in 1825, this was a socialist community, in which everyone was to share equally in labor and profit. Less than a year after the writing of the community’s constitution, the residents split into sub-communities that then disintegrated into chaos.
Also in 1825, Francis Wright established a community, modeled after Owen’s ideals, called Nashoba, in Tennessee. Wright had hoped to show that free labor was economically and morally superior to slavery, but few settlers embraced the experiment, and the community shut down within a year.
Another form of Utopian society was envisioned by transcendentalist philosophers and writers, who believed that perfecting society lay in perfecting the individual. They hoped to teach others how to “transcend” the concrete world of…