Brave New World
Brave New World is a dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley, written in 1931 and published in 1932.
While not the first dystopian novel ever written, it was one of the first I read (along with 1984, also on this list) and it helped to open my eyes to the power of imagining a world different from our own, in order to comment on and critique our current situation. For a book 88 years old, it feels surprisingly current.
The World State in 2540AD - renumbered to AF (After Ford) 632 since society has been reformed along the ideas of mass-production - is very different from our own. People are engineered in jars on assembly lines to precisely meet the needs of society, from the Alphas who run everything through Betas, Deltas and Gammas down to Epsilons who are basically slave labour. Not that they realise that they are - the engineering process adapts each group physically and mentally to ‘fit in’ perfectly to their destined role. This is done through manipulation of the embryos and indoctrination for the first years of life - if Huxley had been writing in the time after genetic engineering was conceived, he would doubtless have recognised it as a means to this end. People are now as interchangeable as the workers or parts on an assembly line, in every aspect of their lives.
This world is presented as a utopia - everyone perfectly suited to his or her station, with no need going unmet and no hunger, suffering or boredom. Should someone feel unhappy it is socially acceptable (and indeed encouraged) to take the drug ‘soma’ to make yourself feel better, or to have meaningless sex with anyone who takes your fancy. ‘Everyone belongs to everyone else’ as a popular saying goes. It is one of the strengths of this novel that such a society is not only well described but realistically fleshed out and feels frighteningly plausible.
We follow Bernard Marx, an Alpha-Plus who by virtue of his station has more freedom than most, including time and the inclination to think. He is shorter than the average Alpha, something which everyone’s ingrained conditioning causes them to subconsciously recoil from and whisper about, and has an inferiority complex as a result. He doesn’t enjoy the mindless pursuits of his peers, and his thoughts are turning to whether society could be better arranged. He has his chance to find out when he takes a trip to a ‘Savage Reservation’ where a few ‘uncivilised’ people still live a natural life, having babies ‘in the old way’ and suffering the trials of life that society has left behind.
While we’ve spent almost half the novel inside the future world, Huxley has lulled us into seeing it as passively as the protagonist. While aspects of it are strange, even bordering on repulsive to us, we find ourselves nodding along with the justifications we’re given. People are clearly happier perfectly suited to their lives, and if they don’t question the society they inhabit we can understand why. Peace is taken for granted, there is no wanting for anything. Every need is met, every desire fulfilled. As such the visit to the Savage Reservation with the accompanying lack of piped entertainment, drugs and air conditioning shocks us into realising that we have much more in common with the ‘savages’ in this world than with ‘civilisation’. The characters we’ve followed so far are repelled by the realities of life outside their narrow world-view, and their reaction to our own life reminds us they are not ourselves.
The central irony of the book is that the Savages are more civilised (at least by our measures) than the citizens of the World State - something most clearly illustrated by the Savage John’s quoting of Shakespeare. Art is basically unknown in the World State - what passes for entertainment is community singing to foster a sense of belonging, or mindless blockbuster films devised to press the audience’s buttons and make them feel satisfied. Comparisons to Twitter, endless movie sequels and so forth are left to the reader…
We discover that in pursuit of the greatest common good (defined as freedom from misery or want) it was felt necessary to remove all art and science from society. If someone can imagine a better or even a different world, they will inevitably long for it or actively work towards it and this would destabilise society.
In contrast to 1984, where books are banned and newspapers are rewritten to support the ‘truefacts’ of the day, Brave New World posits a future where the very desire to read or learn is eliminated. 1984 describes a government in power for the sake of it, keeping the people subservient through fear and constant warfare. Brave New World describes a society which actively pursues its own stagnation - and cannot actually imagine anything else. This was of course the stated goal of IngSoc in 1984 - to render dissenting thought impossible by redefining language itself. Brave New World takes place in a world where this has already happened, peacefully and without fear. While little history is given, it seems plausible that this was a slow march gleefully embraced by people at the time, the Savage Reservations being the last enclaves of those who valued freedom over happiness.
But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.
I actually believe this is a more terrifying future to consider - in 1984 there is a resistance, of sorts. Even if much of the opposition is mopped up by the government (or actively fomented by it to smoke out the rebels), the book’s epilogue at least suggests that IngSoc didn’t last forever. While there is dissent in Brave New World it’s only ever seen in Alphas; they can be engaged with, have the necessity of the approach explained to them, and given a genuine chance to re-dedicate themselves to the maintenance of society. The current ‘World Controller’ himself is a former heretic who came back into the fold and wholeheartedly embraces the society he now runs, even as he quotes Shakespeare in a room full of people who have never heard of him. If people come around to the Society’s way of thinking freely and logically, how much more frightening is that than seeing them abandon their ideals due to torture and fear? In 1984 resistance is still thought of, the elimination of it a major concern of the government. In Brave New World it’s hardly considered at all - human nature itself is going extinct.
This book serves as a warning, as most dystopian novels do. But it also serves as entertainment, something that is sometimes lacking in this style of novel. While it can seem preachy at times, it never comes down on one side or the other of the debate of whether ‘freedom from’ the negative aspects of life (hunger, fear, boredom) is better or worse than ‘freedom to’ enjoy the positives (art, joy, excitement). The characters state their positions, argue their case and it’s up to us to decide what is most important to us.
O brave new world, That has such people in’t.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest