In presenting a world where society has been perfected and people live happily and peacefully, Brave New World is an example of a utopian novel. Taking its name from Sir Thomas More’s 1516 novel Utopia, the genre of utopian novels posit that suffering can be eradicated through the perfection of society. Aldous Huxley literalizes this concept in the World State of Brave New World, imagining a future where genetic engineering and psychological conditioning have created a society of contented and happy citizens. Because each person in World State has been programmed to be perfectly suited to his or her occupation and to pity members of different social orders, drives like ambition, dissatisfaction, and envy no longer exist. Frequent, indiscriminate sexual activity prevents strong emotions of love and jealousy, and any momentary feelings other than contentment are relieved with drugs. In some ways, World State does appear preferable to our society, as disease, aging, crime, depression, and wars are all things of the past. Unlike the real world, less-advantaged characters in World State have no sense of injustice about their lives in relation to their more privileged counterparts, and the society exists in harmony.
While suggesting many societal ills may be solved through developments in science and psychology, Huxley also implicitly satirizes the idea of utopias. The residents of World State are happy, but they also lead meaningless lives, and most of the main characters have the sneaking suspicion that their way of life is not as idyllic as they’ve been taught. The absence of all art, history, religion, and familial ties suggests that their lives, while painless, are also empty. The necessity of the drug soma to keep citizens compliant and submissive indicates that their utopia is an artificial state that needs constant maintenance, and that, left to their own devices, humans would soon revert to fighting, crime, war, and misery. The tightly bound caste system, in which the majority of society is genetically engineered to serve a tiny, privileged minority, is morally reprehensible, even if the lower classes have been conditioned to accept and even embrace their oppression. Though universal happiness seems utopian, Huxley exposes the disturbing steps necessary to achieve it, and suggests that pain, suffering, and despair are integral to personal autonomy.
In presenting a so-called utopia that leads the most intelligent and free-thinking character to suicide, Brave New World can also be considered an example of dystopian fiction, although its vision of the future is less obviously bleak than many dystopian novels. Developed in direct critique of utopian novels, which posited that societal problems were solvable, dystopian novels maintain that human beings’ inherent flaws doom them to misery. In Brave New World, the only truly content characters are those who have blinded themselves to the reality of their situation by taking drugs. As soon as characters stop using drugs, they find their lives depressingly devoid of meaning. John, the most enlightened character in the novel, is so horrified by the World State he ends up killing himself. Huxley’s work is different from dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984, which was directly influenced by Huxley’s ideas and portrays a society plagued by violence, hunger, and mass surveillance. In many dystopian novels, there is a sinister secret to the government’s method of controlling its citizens. In Brave New World, there is no secret – the government openly controls the masses through the distribution of soma, which they willingly and eagerly consume. Though there is little violence in the book, its vision is as disturbing, bleak, and cautionary as other dystopian novels.
Brave New World creates an elaborate, scientifically grounded future where genetic engineering and psychological conditioning have supplanted biological processes, making it a work of science fiction. The genre of science fiction describes possible future worlds where advances in science and technology have altered the experience of being human. Published in 1932, Brave New World uses futuristic technology like high-speed travel and cloning to portray society in the year 2540, or 632 A.F. “A.F.” stands for “After Ford,” referring to Henry Ford, the automobile maker who invented the assembly line method of production. In Brave New World, biotechnology and laboratories replace many natural functions like birth and death. The state also implements more subtle forms of control like emotional manipulation and brainwashing. Huxley includes less disturbing forms of science fiction, like rapid air travel and advanced medicine, which seem futuristic but not necessarily dangerous. While these feats of bioengineering reflected the research and theories of Huxley's contemporaries and predecessors, including Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Ivan Pavlov, they take ideas regarding human evolution and psychological conditioning to a further extreme than is realistically possible or ethically defensible, raising questions about the dark side of technological advancement.