Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian novel set in 2540 London. The book opens with the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning explaining the institution’s processes to new students. Babies aren’t “born” any more: they’re “decanted.” In fact, the students are embarrassed when the director refers to the “old” way of conception and childbirth. Now ova and spermatozoa are joined in the lab and treated to become Alphas (the highest intelligence and functions), Betas, and so on, down to the nearly automaton Epsilons. Children are raised in the hatchery and conditioned against love of art or books or discomfort about death. The nuclear family is no more: the word “mother” is an obscenity.
The goal of the world controllers is that everyone be happy. Everyone works for the good of society. They spend their evenings in fun encounters and rarely are alone. Without the stresses of family and relationships, they’re free to just be . . . happy. If they’re not, there’s always soma—a drug that does anything from relax you a bit to keep you on a “holiday” for days.
Yet Bernard Marx isn’t happy. He’s in the highest caste for intelligence, but his physique is smaller than other Alphas. Rumor has it that alcohol was accidentally poured into his test tube, stunting his growth.
He feels inferior about his body, but he’s also out of step with a lot of society. He likes to be alone. He doesn’t like that men look at women like meat, and women seem to expect and like it. He has a crush on the popular Lenina, but is embarrassed when she wants to discuss plans for a date in an elevator full of other people.
Part of Bernard’s discomfiture stems from the fact that he’s a sleep-learning specialist. He helps program hypnopedia, the maxims and slogans that are repeated to the children in the hatchery while they sleep. So he knows much of society’s values come from this kind of conditioning.
Bernard and Lenina take a trip to a Native American-type reservation where some people have been allowed to live untouched by the new civilization. They live in family groups and their worship is an amalgam of religions. Bernard discovers a woman there who had come from the outside world several years earlier with a visiting group and gotten separated. They couldn’t find her and left her for dead, but in fact, she had been injured. She was also somehow pregnant, despite the measures society took to prevent such from happening. She was still an outsider on the reservation after all these years, partly because she was white, but mainly because her “everyone belongs to everyone” sexuality didn’t sit well with the tribe’s wives. Her son, John, is in his twenties and also an outsider. His mother had taught him to read, but their only books were a manual from her lab and a mouse-nibbled copy of Shakespeare.
John’s mother had told him of the world she came from, and now he would have an opportunity to go back with Bernard. He quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”
However, John finds he doesn’t fit in the “brave new world,” either. He likes Lenina but can’t abide this civilization’s flippant attitude about sex. His mother has become addicted to soma to deal with her misery. He can’t function without time alone but can rarely find it.
People call him “the savage” or sometimes “Mr. Savage.” But the savage may be the most civilized person of all.
I had heard of this book but had no inclination to read it until I came across a quote comparing it to George Orwell’s 1984. I found out later the quote came from the introduction to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” The quote went on to say, “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. . . . In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
Nearly thirty years later, Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, a nonfiction piece discussing how much of what he prredicted in the earlier book had come true.
Wikipedia goes into some of the influences behind the book. It started out as a parody of “utopia stories” popular at the time, but then he “got caught up in the excitement of [his] own ideas.” He was also influenced by a visit to the US where he “was outraged by the culture of youth, commercial cheeriness, and sexual promiscuity, and the inward-looking nature of many Americans.” He also came across Henry Ford’s My Life and Work and “he saw the book’s principles applied in everything he encountered after leaving San Francisco.” In fact, in Brave New World, time is measured not in BC and AD, but AF (After Ford).
The book got particularly interesting to me after John appeared. And it was intriguing to me to see the potential ramifications of a world filled with pleasure but not with meaning, as Huxley describes.
One of the main pleasures is sex, which is referred to a lot in this book. It’s not included to be titillating: it’s no more explicit than in Song of Solomon. It’s one of the main illustrations of pleasure with no meaning and probably meant to be disturbing. Still, it ‘s a lot.
Neither 1984 nor Brave New World portray a future that anyone would look forward to. But maybe, for the discerning, they can help us avoid some of the pitfalls they warn against.
I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Michael York. This book will count for my 20th century classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.