Brave New World

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.

Book Review: 1984

George Orwell’s 1984 depicts a futuristic totalitarian state. An oligarchy known as “the Party,” headed by an unseen Big Brother, rules Oceania, one of three superpowers. Telescreens broadcast only what the Party allows, but they also observe people at work and home. Thought Police come for anyone whose words, actions, or even expressions step outside of party policy. Those who do not comply become nonpersons and are “vaporized”: all trace of them disappears and they are never referred to again.

Winston Smith is a member of the party, but he hates it. He remembers fragments of what life was like before the revolution, when the Party took over. He also works for the Ministry of Truth, which, ironically, rewrites and “corrects” news to line up with current Party position. He wonders that no one else seems to see the absurdity in the contradictory reports coming from the party. But he doesn’t dare try to talk to anyone about it.

In an atmosphere like this, everyone is suspect. When one woman seems to have her eye on Winston, he fears she is looking for some reason to report him. But, to his surprise, she gets a secret message to him that she loves him. Through much subterfuge, they arrange to meet, and then embark on an illicit relationship.

Sadly, however, another relationship turns out to be false.

1984 is based on the totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia but also warns against the dangers of totalitarianism in any context. Wikipedia points out many of the corresponding details.

The novel brought many new terms into the mainstream: Big Brother and the phrase “Big Brother is Watching You,” Thought Police, Doublespeak.

I thought I had read this back in high school. Maybe I did. But some of the frank sexual content makes me surprised that the book would have been required reading by teenagers, especially that many years ago. Yet the sexuality is not titillating. It’s not exactly clinical, either. It’s there to show that the Party control reached even into bedrooms: sexual relations were illegal even between married people except for purposes of bringing forth children as their duty to the Party. The novel reveals later the purpose for suppression of sexual desire was to channel all passion to the Party.

What drew me to 1984 at this time was coming across a quote from the book: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” That struck a chord with me because we see traces of it even now in revisionist history and “fake news.”

1984 has one of the most interesting opening lines: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” A few other quotes:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.

Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.

For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?

Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.

In the past the Middle had made revolutions under the banner of equality, and
then had established a fresh tyranny as soon as the old one was overthrown.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

The heresy of heresies was common sense.

If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.

1984 is not a pleasant read. It’s depressing in places. It’s deeply disturbing, but in a way that provokes thought. Hopefully it’s a warning to every generation who reads it.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Simon Prebble.This book will fulfill the genre classic requirement for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.