Brave New World is another dystopian novel regularly singled out for book challenges and bans, on the basis of a variety of things, depending on the school district and the era. I assume most readers are familiar with the basic content, and it’s a classic that’s been around long enough for many concepts from the book to have become cultural touchstones, even if people aren’t always aware of it. The book’s very title is a cultural reference.
A recent attempt to challenge the book was based on the grounds that it contains racist content, which is certainly true. Parents in Seattle argued that they weren’t attempting to ban the book, only to change the teaching curriculum to make sure the racist elements were handled appropriately. Given that this is a book where a large portion of the plot centres around going to a reservation of ‘primitive peoples,’ yeah, there are some definite grounds for concern here in terms of how that’s discussed and handled in a classroom.
Other bans have focused on things like the sexual content; this is a book where there’s sex, and a lot of it is casual, and indeed society is structured in a way to promote and facilitate casual sex, as well as sex under the influence of drugs. Some previous generations have objected to this kind of content in school, on the usual grounds; clearly, by reading Brave New World, young readers will be indoctrinated and promptly run out to do soma and have sex. Yet, again, young readers aren’t given nearly enough credit for their ability to handle literature.
It’s also been subjected to challenges on the grounds of being ‘anti-family.’ In Huxley’s dystopian future, the family as a concept doesn’t exist and indeed our modern, forward-thinking characters are horrified by concepts like ‘mothers,’ taking birth control to avoid pregnancy and bringing up progeny on giant assembly lines. But is the book really anti-family? I don’t really get the impression that Huxley was promoting this as a super-great vision of the future, people. Brave New World is a nightmare of an automated future, not a blueprint for a better society. To say that the book is anti-family is to argue that it is in some way promoting the events depicted. Indeed, one might argue it’s pro-family, by showing what society loses by eliminating family structures.
Furthermore, the book has also been hit with the anti-religion tag, since it makes a mockery of religion and challenges organised religion in a lot of ways. I’d say it’s pretty guilty as charged, but, again, I’m not necessarily sure that’s a bad thing. Admittedly, I am speaking from a position of bias, since I am not religious, but I think that Brave New World sparks interesting questions about religion and belief, and these questions could be grounds for, you know, fertile classroom discussion. This being why teachers assign the book in their classes, not with the goal of converting their students to Fordism, but with the goal of getting them to talk about dystopian visions of the future and how they play into our own world.
A lot of what I read in Brave New World does remind me of the world I’m living in now. Concepts in the book like warehousing older people in facilities where no family members visit them (in the case of the book, of course, because they have no families). Using subliminal messaging and sleep learning; this is widespread in advertising and there are a lot of programmes offering to sell people things they can learn in their sleep, with, you know, dubious results. Likewise with the conditioning scenes where children are taught to hate or love things through repeated exposure to various stimuli. Brave New World built on nascent scientific advances to paint a frightening vision of the future and in some ways it seems like we are already there.
Which makes it seem like a really great choice for classroom teaching, to talk both about what Huxley envisioned and what is happening now, how society has shifted and whether students think these changes are good and bad. To look, also, at the influences of this book on other works in this genre, and on society in general. As with 1984, most people in the English speaking world are familiar with this book even if they haven’t read it, because it is so much a part of the culture we have built, and it has had such a tremendous influence on a variety of works of art, not just in the dystopian science fiction genre, but in general.
Challenges to this book have met with varying degrees of success, again depending on time and place. Book challenges were more successful in an era when they didn’t get a lot of press. With the advent of the Internet, it is hard to try and get a book removed without attracting considerable attention, because even if it just gets covered in the local news, it will wind up online, and people will eventually find out. The push towards making more information readily available has done a direct service to libraries everywhere, in terms of making it much, much harder for people to get away with challenging items in the library collection.
Brave New World shows up on pretty much every list of frequently banned and challenged books. People do love to get their hate on for it, and it’s worth exploring what is so scary about challenging readers with a dystopian vision of the future, complete with embedded object lessons about the world, past and present.