I suppose it’s appropriate that I would be reviewing Brave New World during a particularly stressful week at work. After all, in Aldous Huxley’s faux-utopian novel, there is no stress. Everyone’s happy with their station in life and during those brief moments when they aren’t, during the hours one might otherwise ruminate on daily obstacles, there’s government-approved and -distributed soma, as close an approximation to Xanax as one might have conceived in the early 1930s.
I don’t know how I managed not to read Brave New World up until this point, but just in case you haven’t either, here’s the basic idea: The novel is set in a future society where women no longer give birth biologically; couples aren’t married, “everyone belongs to everyone else.” On the social level, this means that everyone sleeps with everyone else, women and men are discouraged from forming relationships longer than a few months (and should never be exclusive). On the biological level, this means that birth has become a science. Embryos, created and brought to term in what are essentially human-producing factories, are split into different castes—Alphas, Betas, Gammas, etc.—and conditioned based on their predetermined station in life. Moreover, the lower the caste, the more humans are created from one egg, a scientific achievement knows as the “Bokanovsky Process.” So while an Alpha is a one of a kind, a human conditioned only to respect the values of this new society (togetherness, happiness, tranquility, consumption), an Epsilon may be one of 40+ identical “twins” created from the same egg, and created to be of lower intellect and expectation, the ideal humans to …man elevators, or work in factories, without even the ability to want something better for themselves.
If you’ve read 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale, Huxley’s perception of “the future” will seem particularly interesting. After all, it’s rather fascinating to discover what authors of the 1930s or 1940s thought a totalitarian new-millennium society would be like. Outside of the all-powerful government, the emphases are different. In 1984, conditioning was meant to make citizens hate the “other,” whoever the country was fighting at that particular moment (though differentiation of class also played a role). In The Handmaid’s Tale, women became vessels solely for reproduction, while in Brave New World, the mere concept of motherhood is uncomfortable, even laughable, for the general population.
Given the current environs—as I watch my right to an abortion slowly erode—I find it hard to believe any imminent totalitarian government would be focused on sexual liberty, but there are still parts of Brave New World that do seem rather prescient. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, Huxley’s notion of togetherness, and the demonization of individuality, are particularly poignant. Death, in his novel, is to be accepted without fanfare; after all, “the social body remains, even if the component cells may change.” A society where the community is more important than individual members? Where those who spend time alone are considered odd? Huxley surely couldn’t have anticipated computers, let alone social networking, but he ends up not too far off the mark.
Similarly, as we debate the marginalization of the middle class and the extreme wealth of the top 1%, I can’t help but think there are a few people who wouldn’t mind a society where class is predetermined and non-controversial. At one point, the Controller (leader) says to the Savage (a non-civilized person, brought into the civilized world, whose experiences there are the focal point of the novel), “‘The optimum population is modeled on the iceberg—eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.’ ” Sounds mighty familiar.
Nor can I entirely discount the prevalence of sex and other guilty pleasures, including soma. Whether or not I think a future totalitarian government might embrace such behavior, it would be hard to argue that society hasn’t gone down this path on its own. In Brave New World, civilians attend “the feelies,” which are essentially 3-D pornography, with the added benefit that they can feel what’s happening. Meanwhile, in the present day, pornography and 3-D movies are destined to meet, if they haven’t already, and a student in Japan just unveiled a “kissing machine” that lets users simulate the tactile feel of kissing over the Internet. Seriously, I could not make this shit up, but Huxley did.
In any case, there’s a lot of conversation fodder in Brave New World, and it’s a relatively quick read; if you never picked it up for school, I highly recommend taking the time now. Were I to look forward and envision a futuristic society based on 2011, there are elements of Brave New World I think are eerily spot-on, while others seem (hopefully) unlikely. But when the robot dogs come round my apartment to arrest me for owning books (Fahrenheit 451, kids) I’ll be glad I got this one under my belt first.
As a concept, Brave New World is hands-down, no-holds-barred awesome. As a novel, it’s pretty okay. There are times when Huxley’s narrative style varies so much from chapter to chapter that you wonder if the man wasn’t himself on a little soma, if you know what I mean. His characters are intriguing, though I would argue not entirely developed, and the arc of the story leaves something to be desired.
In other words, Brave New World doesn’t have quite the literary consistency of 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale. But when reading a deceased author’s perception of the world in, well, about 2011, it’s hard not to get engrossed. There are several pages towards the end of the book—the aforementioned conversation between the Controller and the Savage—that on their own make Brave New World worth reading (and from which I will post some excerpts in coming days). Also, I imagine the book does itself more justice than did the 1998 TV-movie adaptation starring Peter Gallagher. Which…I may or may not have just added to my Netflix queue.
TITLE: Brave New World
AUTHOR: Aldous Huxley
PAGES: 259 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Doors of Perception, Point Counter Point
SORTA LIKE: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984
FIRST LINE: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, Community, Identity, Stability.”