In every literary genre (in every type of art, really), there are classics that stand out and often participate in forming the language, or at least some of the territory, of the genre. That is part of what makes these works classics. (Lord of the Rings is an ultimate classic — all Medieval fantasy since is in reference to it.)
I suspect all serious readers have a classic or two they’ve never gotten around to. Last week I finally got around to reading the classic science fiction novel, Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley.
For a novel written 88 years ago, it’s surprisingly prescient and relevant.
Brave New World is one of several notable novels that depict a human future that is either a metaphor for current human culture or a prediction of a future given the current culture. In some cases a bit of both.
Perhaps the more prominent (and obvious) companion is Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), by George Orwell seventeen years later. As with with Brave New World, the story takes place in a future extrapolated from our present. In contrast, Orwell’s world is a dark and awful Yin to the soma-soaked Yang of Huxley’s.
There is also The Time Machine (1895), by one of the first science fiction writers, H.G. Wells. In this case the distant future of Eloi and Morlocks is more intended as an analog of ills Wells perceived in his own time.
Even so, in serious science fiction, one way or another, the future is always a reflection of our present, either as prediction or analogue. (In general, serious fiction is always a reflection of the human condition. Unserious fiction, if at least well-written, is just fun — a ripping good yarn.)
All three of these works feature dark dystopic high-misery futures that stand in contrast to the bright, busy, satisfied, brain-washed future Huxley imagined. So far it appears Huxley had the right idea — his future is in reality no less awful, but its inhabitants are far less miserable. Indeed they believe themselves to be happy.
Much more recently (and far less seriously, but no less presciently), a long-time favorite of mine, the Mike Judge film Idiocracy (2006) predicts a near future with some eerie immediate similarities to current events.
[In particular, in politics. (There isn’t that much difference between President Camacho and our bloviating P45.) The most notable aspect of Judge’s future is the sheer human stupidity involved, and this has turned out to be its most prescient (and to me endearing) aspect. In my eyes, the most defining aspect of modern human culture is its stunning willful stupidity.]
What Judge and Huxley understood about humans is that dystopic totalitarian regimes eventually end badly, one way or another. Either the citizens — who inevitably vastly outnumber the power structure — rise up in revolt, or the system collapses under its own inherent contradictions.
What does work (and work rather well) is wrapping your citizenry in a huge Ignorance Bubble and keeping them stupid and stoned. A key reason governments don’t devote much energy to education is that it often leads to their own downfall. An educated informed electorate is, from a politician’s perspective, a dangerous one.
The biggest part of this equation is the willingness of humans to exist in that Ignorance Bubble besotted by whatever palliative strokes their dopamine system. (Because learning stuff is hard, and thinking clearly is even harder. Much easier not to bother. Much easier to just accept what people tell you.)
Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) was not really a science fiction writer, although he certainly seems to have dabbled in some fantastic or surreal ideas. (Full disclosure: Brave New World is the only Huxley I’ve read. I’m basing this on his Wiki bibliography.)
It’s almost ironic that Brave New World became such a cultural icon. Something similar happened with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the similarities of the latter to current oppressive regimes seems to blunt the perception of it being science fiction. Brave New World clearly takes place in a future quite different from the present.
In Huxley’s future, God has been replaced by Henry Ford (1863–1947), whose beneficence brought the Model-T (in 1908), the assembly line, and the general philosophy, Fordism, of mass production and consumption.
The god Ford is conflated with Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), whose ideas about classical conditioning and the importance of sexual activity in human happiness are crucial and central aspects of Huxley’s Brave new World.
The novel is set in 2540 AD, or 632 AF (After Ford). Dating is based on the date of the Model-T, all crosses have had their tops removed to make them into large ‘T’s, and people say “Ford” (or sometimes “Freud”) where we would say “God” (as in “my Ford” or “dear Freude”).
Humans are created via an in vitro assembly line process that involves constant sleep conditioning (which continues throughout childhood).
Different groups are deliberately stunted to prevent mental development (alcohol is added to their in vitro bottles) so they will be happy and productive, if mindless, workers. Thus humanity has physically enforced castes created to fulfill different levels of society. Each is conditioned to be happy as what they are.
The drug soma is generally available to all. Propaganda campaigns and sleep conditioning urge citizens to avail themselves of a “soma vacation” any time they feel stress or mental dissonance of any kind.
Pregnancy, parenthood, and mourning death, are viewed with distaste, disdain, and even horror. Sexual relations are entirely casual — forming a long-term bond, or even just dating one person for too long, is viewed as anti-social. Children are encouraged to experiment with sex.
Which all caused some controversy about the novel back then.
The events of the novel are set in motion by Bernard Marx, a sleep-conditioning specialist in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. He’s an Alpha-Plus, a highest-caste member of society, but he’s a misfit.
Due to an alleged mistake — alcohol added to his blood surrogate before he was decanted from his birth bottle — he is unusually short for an Alpha, which has given him an inferiority complex and somewhat isolated him. This (as I can personally attest) does tend to develop one’s mind and independence from groupthink.
His expertise in sleep-conditioning has done much to lift the veil from his eyes. He knows why people have the docile self-contented soma-addicted outlooks they do, and he has begun to reject all of it.
Bernard, and a semi-willing date, take a vacation to the Savage Reservation (in the USA southwest exactly where many of our indigenous tribes have ended up). There he meets John, the child of a woman (now deceased) who had visited the Reservation (as someone else’s date). She had been injured, lost, and carelessly abandoned by her companion.
Bernard realizes John is the son of the woman his boss brought to that Reservation. That boss has recently threatened to fire Bernard (actually to send him to Iceland in exile) because Bernard is so, in their eyes, anti-social and weird (and unattractive).
So Bernard brings John back to civilized society for the express purpose of shaming his boss — who is a “father,” a dirty word and idea, and indeed, that boss resigns when John calls him “father” and embraces him in front of the whole office.
John turns out to be a big hit in an otherwise entirely normalized and bland culture, and at first Bernard’s star rises due to proximity to John.
But John is horrified by the culture. As an outsider he never fit in with the natives on the Reservation and led an isolated life of study using the only two books available to him: His mother’s technical manual from her job at the Hatchery and a gift given him by his mother’s regular lover — the complete works of William Shakespeare.
The novel’s title comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act V, Scene I):
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind it! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
Said by Miranda, and used by Shakespeare ironically, as Miranda fails to recognize the evil of these beauteous people.
In Brave New World, John says it three times, each time with growing despair. John knows full well the intended irony.
In the end, because of the disruption they cause, Bernard, John, and Helmholtz Watson, Bernard’s one friend (and someone else that, because he writes state propaganda, has seen through the emptiness and, like Bernard, has developed a mind that sees beyond the Bubble), are all three brought before Mustapha Mond, the World Controller.
The speech that Mond gives them is compelling and worth the price of admission. To John’s surprise after meeting the vapid empty minds of nearly everyone, Mond is just as familiar with Shakespeare as John is, and just as deep and thoughtful.
In fact, Mond was a brilliant free-thinker who was in a similar spot — facing banishment. He was offered the alternative of being the next leader and decided to take the job. It turns out banishment means exile to some island (of many) with other free-thinking people. For Helmholtz, it will allow him to flower. Bernard will at least be more among his own kind.
John, however, is too interesting to be allowed to leave, and this leads to a tragic ending for him. In the classic sense, the story is a tragedy.
What fascinated me was the argument Mond makes about happiness and security over freedom and knowledge. It’s an argument based on Fordism and the Ignorance Bubble that keeps citizens happy (along with soma).
It is, in so many ways, the world we have right now.
That part goes on for many pages, so it’s hard to find a representative quote. The following perhaps suffices. It’s Mond’s response to John saying it all sounds horrible:
“Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”
Mond later says that John, ultimately, is demanding the right to be unhappy.
Indeed, happiness has no meaning or value without unhappiness — the Yin to the Yang. The price of true happiness is the chance of being unhappy.
What I found so compelling is how seductive Mond’s argument is. It’s the classic security vs freedom trade-off.
This got longer than expected. I thought I’d have to find some filler, but instead I left a lot unexplored.
Unlike some classics I ought to have read but which seem challenging to ever finish (hello Moby Dick), this was an enjoyable, albeit slightly depressing, read.
I highly recommend the book to one and all, and, classic that it is, does I think deserve a Wow! rating.
Stay brave and new, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.