Review: Brave New World

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Today’s read is one that has been on my list for ages.  Really, since I was a freshman in college – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

This dystopian classic is a perennial favorite, and it’s not hard to figure out why:

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress… (via Goodreads)

This was a really tough one.  I wanted to love it. It seems that everyone loves it.  My friends, my colleagues from library school, my peers from college – all of them give it four or five stars. I just didn’t love it.  I am giving Brave New World a reluctant three stars.

First, let’s address my reading challenge. This was a book published before I was born.  Remarkably, this book was first published in 1932, well before I was born.  And if I consider nothing else, I can honestly say that this dystopian novel is remarkable. Huxley’s vision for a fearful future is sharp and not entirely unfamiliar.  It is ahead of its time, and ahead of the dozens of dystopian bestsellers that I’ve read now. But for me, ‘ahead of its time’ isn’t enough.

Perhaps I’ve been inundated with dystopian literature. 1984. Lord of the Flies. The Handmaid’s Tale. The Hunger Games trilogy. The Bone Season series. The Divergent series. Heck, I’ve even read other dystopian literature this year – The Giver. Oryx and Crake.  There are others on my list, too (I’m looking at you, It Can’t Happen Here), and while I may not love every one of those books, the bar is set pretty high because of them.

What makes fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale truly great is that yes, it’s about a dystopian world, and yes, it’s about disillusionment and rediscovering what it means to be human, but it is also about something deeper.  With The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood wrote a masterpiece of fiction, a rich dystopian story, and the feminist call to arms that fueled a generation.

What makes a dystopian novel truly great is its ability to draw parallels to present day, regardless of when the book is being read, and to make connections beyond that which is obvious, beyond what is expected.  Unfortunately, that’s where Brave New World falls short. There is so much potential there to flesh out and develop; the tribal roots, the fertility issues, issues of power and social anxiety, but those themes are largely unexplored.  The prose is marvelous, the descriptions vivid, but there just isn’t enough there for me to give it more than a shrug and a checkmark on my “read” list.  On this one, I’ll have to stand in opposition to the masses.

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