Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
We all know Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a classic dystopian tale of a world bereft of conflict, pain, and hardship — but also lacking individuality, free will, and intellectual thought. You were probably forced to read it in high school (I somehow missed it) and if you were a normal teen it must be have been either very weird or strangely appealing (unlimited free drugs and sex, a carefree life, etc.). Granted, it’s a brilliant critique of the early socialist utopias penned by H.G. Wells, after which Europe was engulfed in World War I and the Russian Revolution. So it was with much cynicism that Huxley must have written his story in 1932 to debunk the naïve fantasies socialists and libertarians had that humanity would solve all economic and social ills and create a perfect society.
Brave New World centers on the post-scarcity World State, where everything from reproduction and social interactions to education, work, and entertainment are ruled by a rigid hierarchy and society is separated into five genetically-engineered castes. Only the upper castes, the Alphas and Betas, are allowed to develop normally while the lower Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons fill the more menial tasks of society. Children are engineered in labs and raised in group facilities and the hypnopaedic method is used to condition children to accept their allotted roles in society and not question the status quo. Consumerism is at the core of this society, and individuality is considered an aberration that can be cured with the freely-available feel-good drug “soma.” This drug allows for harmless group bonding without the potential danger of religion or independent thoughts.
The story begins with Bernard Marx, an Alpha Plus psychologist who somehow is not fully satisfied with his regimented and stress-free existence, and Lenina Crowne, a hatchery worker who is fairly content with life. Bernard insists on taking Lenina to a Reservation where some Savages are allowed to live in a state of simple existence, cut off from the wonders of the World State. Here they observe many strange and disturbing rituals conducted by the Savages and encounter John, the son of a civilized woman who became stranded on the Reservation and bore a child there.
Bernard takes John back to civilization and becomes the toast of society, enjoying his celebrity status for parading around a Savage who has been, ironically, raised almost exclusively on Shakespeare’s works. The Savage becomes increasingly disturbed by the hedonistic and mindless society of the World State, which is at odds with the romantic and passionate ideals of Shakespeare. In particular, the vapid promiscuousness of Lenina shocks him.
Eventually he causes various uproars and is brought before Mustafa Mond, the World Controller for Western Europe. John and Mustafa have a very profound debate on religion, morality, and the principles of the World State. In the end, John rejects the empty happiness of this society and elects to go into self-imposed exile. However, he discovers that it is not so easy to escape the modern world, which refuses to leave him alone. Suffice to say, things don’t end well.
This book could seem to owe a great debt to We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which to me is a superior book, though Huxley claimed to have had no knowledge of that book while writing Brave New World. And of course it will always be compared with that greatest of all totalitarian dystopias, George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is a much more powerful book. Where Orwell feared the dangers of totalitarianism, total control of information and personal freedom, along with doublethink and Newspeak, Huxley was more worried about humanity succumbing to hedonism, rampant and emotionless promiscuity, and systematic brainwashing/conditioning of the populace.
I think that all three books (We, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four) form a scathing critique of the dangers detailed above, each with a different perspective. For example, We and Nineteen Eighty-Four are clearly directed at the horrors of Russian totalitarianism, while Brave New World is more opposed to the excesses of capitalism, consumerism, and hedonism.
And while the authors of We and Nineteen Eighty-Four could probably breath a sign of relief to some degree (posthumously) when the Iron Curtail and Soviet Union fell, in some ways Huxley’s vision was the most accurate. What could be closer to the Brave New World of “feelies,” soma, and endless entertainment than our current world of brain-dead Hollywood blockbusters, lowest-common-denominator reality TV shows, rampant drug use among both the affluent and the poor, social media, ubiquitous digital devices, etc. Sure, the modern world is very far from being a utopia for all but the most wealthy and indolent, but each in our daily lives can escape to our own private fantasy worlds via an electronic device and close our eyes to the problems of the world.
At the same time, though Huxley seems to have been most afraid of us losing our individuality in a flood of mind-numbing consumerism, I would say that hasn’t really come about. The proliferation of the Internet has certainly allowed a great deal of trashy consumerism to spread around the world, but at the same time we are drowned in waves of different ideas and perspectives, so that people are probably more exposed to diverse ways of thinking now than they ever were at any point of history. So, Mr. Huxley, were you right after all?
Why the 3.5-star rating, you might ask? Well, this book was so relentlessly satirical and contemptuous of all the characters in the book in order to bludgeon its points home that I couldn’t identify with anyone except the evil, super-urbane Mustafa Mond, whose arguments against culture, art, literature, and individuality in favor of stability, uniformity, and brain-washing are remarkably convincing despite their obvious shortcomings.
In particular, by making John such a foolish, misguided and unhappy individual, though he is one of the few champions of literature, individuality, and free thinking, it makes you wonder what Huxley wants us to think. Is he trying to get us to sympathize with Mustafa, or are we supposed to see through that and embrace the pained Savage who cannot tolerate this Brave New World of soma-induced happiness? I for one would much rather spend time with the World Controller than the Savage, who is unfortunately a self-punishing, Shakespeare-spouting nut-case. At least in the case of We and Nineteen Eighty-Four, we can fully sympathize with the downtrodden characters D-503 and Winston Smith as they are ground under by the juggernaut regimes that oppress them.
So perhaps Huxley has outsmarted himself and his readers. Certainly this book is required reading for all serious readers of dystopian works, but for my money We and Nineteen Eighty-Four are better works of literature.
I’m in agreement with Stuart. It is hard to like any of Huxley’s characters or even to care about their terrible lives. The ideas are what’s important here, of course, and I appreciated the long debate with Mustafa Mond — it’s definitely the best part of the novel. But one wonders why Huxley chose not to give us any characters to sympathize with. Brave New World is an important book, but, as Stuart said, not as readable as We and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I listened to the audio version produced by Blackstone Audio and read by Michael York. York’s exuberant performance was a little over the top in places and I’m not sure that it was always Huxley’s intent to be so dramatic. I recommend trying a sample before purchasing this version.