Stephanie's Reviews > Brave New World

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
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Sep 14, 10

bookshelves: science-fiction
Read on September 13, 2010

This review originally appeared on www.readinasinglesitting.com

Some of you might be aware that the title of Aldous Huxley’s famous novel Brave New World is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I would imagine, though, that there are a good many who might not be. While there are likely all manner of reasons for not knowing this piece of trivia, two significant ones come to mind, one of which is rather Orwellian in provenance, and the other of which is Huxleyan. If you’re in the first group, you’ve likely not come across The Tempest due to its having been censoriously ripped from the shelves and, what’s more, you’ll likely not endeavour to obtain a copy due to a very real fear induced by the omnipresent state that wields its terrible, clutching power over you. If you’re in the second group, you’ve likely not come across The Tempest due to the fact that it’s, well, all but irrelevant to you. Why should you spend hours muddling through thick Shakespearean prose when you can delightedly while away your evenings in front of the television or engaging in some other equally undemanding form of entertainment?

Why indeed, you’re probably wondering, as you flick between this review, some hilarious pictures of lolcatz and the latest gem on Youtube’s homepage. Well, you might be interested to know that if you take pleasure in zoning out in the evenings, avoid engaging in challenging debates, get your news in hashtag-heavy bursts via Twitter, and are perfectly happy as a result, then this rather rousing Shakespearean quote might bear more relevance to your life than you might think: congratulations, you’re living the Huxleyan dream. (Or nightmare, as the case may well be.)

Written as a scathingly satirical response to the gleamingly utopian visions of authors such as HG Wells and other futurist peers, Brave New World is often compared with seminal works by George Orwell (1984) and Soviet writer Yevginii Zamiatin (We), but stands apart from these works due in part to its somewhat peculiar approach to the dystopian genre. While many of the classic dystopian novels bring to mind cruel, oppressive governments beneath which the populace, usually ground down under the exigencies of scarcity and poverty, labours ceaselessly towards fruitless, meaningless ends, Huxley takes a slightly difference stance, positioning his dystopia in a curious, although no less perturbing manner. The citizens of Brave New World lead an existence of unfettered hedonism, are for the most part are quite happy with their lot in life–ignorance, after all, is bliss. But it’s what Huxley’s characters that have lost in return for this life of simple lassitude that turns his book from utopian idyll to chilling dystopia: their capacity for creativity, for emotion, for competition, for love.

Speculative fiction is famously less about the future and more about the present, and Huxley’s world is one in which the fears of the early twentieth century are boldly manifest: the loss of identity and personal and social depth as a result of the mechanisation of daily life and the incessant drive for greater and greater consumption; the rise of sexual promiscuity and its impact on self and the family; and the pervasive, colonising force of American culture. The remodelling of society on the production-line processes of the Model T-Ford, as well as the deference given to Henry Ford himself (‘O Ford,’ the citizens of Huxley’s world wail, whilst making the sign of the T), is at once indicative of the rise of Americanism and the increasingly fast-paced life of modernity, where the individual is subsumed. Huxley takes this critique beyond its natural extension, leaping occasionally from satire into parody: it’s telling that society’s mind-numbing drug of choice is in the form of chewing gum, something unabashedly American, and the ubiquity of zips (or ‘zippers’, as they’re known to Americans) on every imaginable piece of clothing embodies both the crassness of function over form, as well as the loss of subtler intimacies and mood. (Also of note is the rather meaningful use of political and brand-name monikers, which brings to mind Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which similarly includes such head-shaking names as Telegraph Telegraphovich but I digress…)

But little of this is problematic to those inured into this brave new world, as careful conditioning has resulted in a social stability that is near perfect. Careful monitoring of birth and death rates has ensured that no citizen wants for anything (a point emphasised by the ubiquity of contraceptives known rather hilariously as Malthusian belts, referring to, of course, the notion of a Malthusian disaster, in which population growth outpaces agricultural provision), and social engineering is used to ensure that each citizen is allotted a role that is matched perfectly with their physical and cognitive capabilities, ameliorating issues of competition or unmet desire. Each plays a fragmented part within the Fordian production line, learning the appropriate skills and capabilities, but nothing beyond what is required. Not only is desire for competition and social mobility slowly ground away, but potential triggers for jealousy and possession are, too: citizens are no longer born, but are created, and any problematic emotions that might have arisen as the result of romantic intent are wiped away through careful conditioning that emphasises promiscuity and sexual abandon.

But despite the society’s best efforts, its social conditioning is not unassailable, and it’s in the upper echelons that querulous and schismatic thoughts begin to breed. Bernard is an ‘alpha’ by caste and a psychologist by trade, and is one of those in charge of the subliminal feeds that are delivered nightly to his fellow citizens. However, being who he is, he is afforded somewhat more individual and intellectual freedom than those from other groups or professions might be, and as a result begins to develop a seething cynicism about the society in which he lives. This disaffection, this disenchantment, only grows when he takes would-be lover Lenina to an American Indian settlement to observe how the ‘uncivilised’ live, and is astonished to observe the chasm between their two worlds: the integrated, contextualised learning of those on the estate when compared with the compartmentalised, isolated understandings of his own; the value placed upon mending and repairing clothing and small household items when compared with the throwaway, consumption-oriented processes of the ‘civilised’ world; the disturbing emphasis on family, on story, on the past and how it can be learnt from, all of which are in stark contrast to the in-the-moment shallow hedonism of Fordian life. This juxtaposition, however, is even more firmly realised when Bernard brings home with him a young boy, ‘The Savage’, who is revealed to be the illicitly born child of Bernard’s employer, and thus is seen as in a unique position to bridge the two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.

The Savage’s education and learning on the estate is counterposed with that of his mother’s: primitive though his lessons may seem, we understand that there is a depth and a continuity to them that is missing from his mother’s lock-step understanding of the world. The Savage’s love for literature, and in particular Shakespeare, is contrasted with the ‘feelies’ with which the members of Fordian society superficially occupy themselves, and his stunningly felt and often unbridled emotions are set against the soporific habits of the others. This point is acutely drawn when the Savage’s mother begs to be returned to Fordian society so that she might spend her days in a state of drug-induced bliss, free from the challenges of emotion and the uncertainties of the unstructured estate life. The Savage is distraught at the loss of his mother–a situation that is not usually an issue in Fordian society due to its lack of emphasis on family and its pragmatic approach to death–and grows increasingly alienated by what he sees as a shallow and immoral world that is entirely lacking in the humanist values he so desperately longs for. The consequences of his struggle stretch out painfully, until he flees from Fordian life in an effort to eke out an existence more closely aligned with his own beliefs. But the reach of society is all but absolute, and despite his efforts to remain separate, to remain an individual, he eventually succumbs to its desultory ways, losing himself in devastating totality.

Brave New World is a stunning poignant scenario, which I feel is rather a more apt way to describe it than a narrative. The book is less a novel than it is a careful portrait of a world-that-might-be, and despite its astonishingly perceptive and insightful critique of a society that rather eerily mirrors that of present-day western society, it does fall rather flat as a story. As a series of separate, staged scenes, the book is competently written, but as a whole, it’s uneven and unfocused: the first two chapters are dedicated overtly to setting the scene, whilst a third employs a fractured narrative approach that though intriguing is out of place against the more traditional style of the rest of the book. The Savage, who is as close as any character becomes to the protagonist, is not introduced until rather late in the book, and the reader has to do an about face to realise that the book is less about Bernard than it is about this new character. The Savage himself is a rather hasty construction, and the scenes in which he appears often feel rather laborious and blatant, and struggle under the weight of the carefully elucidated dual perspectives with which we’re provided. I struggled to accept particular plot elements, such as the fact that Bernard is allowed for so long to so openly critique the system before being sanctioned, and Lenina’s rather confused role as a conflicted sexual object. While the final scene is undoubtedly moving, I can’t help but feel that the media in a society such as this would not act in the way that is described here–one would think that given issues of taboo, they would blushingly retreat and speak nothing more of it. (And indeed, would there be much of a news media at all, given the all-consuming emphasis on presentism and infantalism?)

While Brave New World deserves its place amongst canonical dystopian literature, it does feel less of a narrative, a story, and more of a broadly sketched scenario. Though it makes a nice counterpoint to works such as 1984, as a novel, it’s unfortunately not as successful as the other classics with which it’s frequently compared.
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