Last week was Banned Books Week, and I celebrated by reading one of the books in the list of the top ten books challenged in 2011: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Fair warning: This review does contain some spoilers!
Some friends and I had a discussion the other day about why there is almost always at least one classic on the list every year. I'm pretty sure it's because most instances of books being challenged occur in the schools -- patrons of public libraries don't typically challenge books being on the shelves, but parents and other adults are constantly trying to dictate what kids ought to be able to read.
They usually challenge books that are being taught in the classroom, or contest whether certain books ought to be accessible in the school library. I'm sure that most, if not all, of the classics that make it onto the list were part of the curriculum.
Anyway, Brave New World is often on the list, as are a few other classics. The reasons given for the book being challenged in 2011, according to the ALA (American Library Association), were: "insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit." Of course, the nature of the dystopian world is such that the people are conditioned to be highly racist, irreligious and rather callous about sex, so you simply couldn't have the story (or the message, which is the whole point of teaching the book) without the aspects that are so often challenged.
I didn't know anything about Brave New World before reading it, except that it is about a dystopian future and one of the early classics of science fiction. In the book, society has eliminated people's unhappiness almost entirely, at the same time creating a perfectly functioning society. The society holds Henry Ford, the creator of things like assembly lines and interchangeable parts, in the highest esteem -- he is essentially their messiah, and a book about him is held in the same regard as religious texts are today.
In order to achieve this perfect society, however, where no one is ever unhappy and everyone's work gets done, the engineers of the society had to do away with things such as free will, love, compassion, religion, and -- except in an elite minority -- intelligence. People can have sex with whomever they want, and in fact, are expected to do so with a wide variety of people, since intense relationships are viewed as a source of unhappiness. Babies are not born anymore, but are grown in a lab environment, and children are raised via strict conditioning, a.k.a. mind control, according to their place in society. The harder-working castes are also genetically engineered to be ugly and unintelligent, so that they will never question their lot in life. In short, the castes are designed to work together as in a well-oiled machine (hence all the references to Ford) in order to produce the seemingly perfect society.
The story is a bit slow to get started, since the author has to make you really see and feel what society has become before introducing his character, John, also known as the Savage, who was accidentally born at a "Reservation" -- a place where Indians still live in the old ways (and are essentially locked in so that they won't contaminate the perfectly controlled society around them). John's parents were both higher-caste people, so he is intelligent but untouched by the conditioning that controls everyone in "civilized" society. The result is that, when he rejoins civilization, he finds a world that -- to him -- holds no hope.
It's an excellent piece of early science fiction, but even better is the commentary on society -- as pertinent to today's society as it no doubt was when it was first published in the 1930s!