Nathan's Reviews > Brave New World

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
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May 18, 08

bookshelves: sf

** spoiler alert ** I'm not sure what I got from this book when I read it as a teen, but I was constantly surprised by what I got from it when I read it as an adult.
Product of its times: initial protagonist is "Bernard Marx" (though he turns out not to be the "hero"); the action takes place in a Utopia built on a centrally-planned economy driven by a social order created and maintained by science:
'And that', put in the Director sententiously, 'is the secret of happiness and virtue - liking what you've got to do.'

Amusing for what Huxley couldn't see: "A Synthetic Music machine was warbling out a super-cornet solo"; one of the mantras of the future is "Ford's in his flivver. All's well with the world"; everyone travels by personal helicopter except when they travel by rocket; everything is "pneumatic" (including, anxiously, the women) and this is good; scents are ambergris and sandalwood; there's an instrument called the "color organ".

Science is a tool that the central planners use to get their way:
Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes; to abolish the love of nature, but not the tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they should keep on going to the country, even though they hated it. The problem was to find an economically sounder reason for consuming transport than a mere affection for primroses and landscapes. It was duly found.
'We condition the masses to hate the country,' concluded the Director, 'But simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time, we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport.'

The dissatisfied hypnopedic programmer turns out to be too much a product of his situation to be the hero; he's weak, flawed, and doesn't change over the course of the book. The hero is actually a savage, who has grown up reading Shakespeare (forbidden in the Utopia) and who asks the questions of the world that we would ask (or, rather, those Huxley would have us ask).
The heart of the book is the exchange between the Savage and Mustapha Mond, who is a Controller (one of the central planners). Mustapha knows the world he's built, and knows what the world doesn't have room for (religion, non-commercial art, individuality). He somewhat sympathizes with the Savage, but ultimately the Savage's time in the city doesn't end happily.
The exchange (in Chapters 16 and 17) has lots of gems, like this one about stability:
The Savage was silent for a little. "All the same," he insisted obstinately, "Othello's good, Othello's better than those feelies."
"Of course it is," the Controller agreed. "But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead."

They return the subject later:
"My dear young friend," said Mustapha Mond, "civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended–there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren't any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There's no such thing as a divided allegiance; you're so conditioned that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears–that's what soma is."
I love that you need social imperfection to provide the opportunities for nobility and heroism. I hadn't thought of it at all like that before.

There's a really strong caste system in the Utopia (Alphas are the science and management class, down to the retarded Epsilons who are doormen in elevators), and I wonder how much of that was Huxley's reaction to the Edwardian British class system. That class system (like modern economic theory) requires someone at the bottom being paid little to do the scut work. The savage suggests all society should be Alphas (free-thinking and intelligent) and meets this thought-provoking response:
"It's an absurdity. An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work–go mad, or start smashing things up. Alphas can be completely socialized–but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work. Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren't sacrifices; they're the line of least resistance. His conditioning has laid down rails along which he's got to run. He can't help himself; he's foredoomed. Even after decanting, he's still inside a bottle–an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations. Each one of us, of course," the Controller meditatively continued, "goes through life inside a bottle. But if we happen to be Alphas, our bottles are, relatively speaking, enormous. We should suffer acutely if we were confined in a narrower space. You cannot pour upper-caste champagne-surrogate into lower-caste bottles. "

Science has an interesting role to play: there are scientist characters, but they're operators and not researchers. Science is a tool of oppression and control. I wonder how much of the following attitude is held, but unspoken, in modern politics:
Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. [...] It isn't only art that's incompatible with happiness; it's also science. Science is dangerous; we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled.

The book was written 20 years into mass production and Huxley's Utopian paradise is closely modelled on the Ford factory floor, where everyone's task is assigned to maximize economic output. Huxley seems to be warning us that capitalist consumption is overthrowing our values and beliefs. I've underlined the bit that stood out here:
"It's curious," he went on after a little pause, "to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate. True, ideas were beginning to change even then. Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can't. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered. Still, in spite of everything, unrestricted scientific research was still permitted. People still went on talking about truth and beauty as though they were the sovereign goods. Right up to the time of the Nine Years' War. That made them change their tune all right. What's the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled–after the Nine Years' War. People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We've gone on controlling ever since. It hasn't been very good for truth, of course. But it's been very good for happiness. One can't have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for. You're paying for it, Mr. Watson–paying because you happen to be too much interested in beauty. I was too much interested in truth; I paid too."

And finally, there's a sense from the exchange with the Savage (who is a classically educated, nature-loving, True Voice Of The Author) that this scientifically-grown centrally-programmed future is a cop-out, that real life is the better for its struggles and imperfections:
The Savage nodded, frowning. "You got rid of them. Yes, that's just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether 'tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them … But you don't do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It's too easy."

Now I can't wait to reread 1984 ...
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Mardene (new)

Mardene Brave New World?

message 2: by Mardene (new)

Mardene ok. I'll reread it. but it made me angry then, and I feel quite sure it will make me angry now.

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