Brave New World

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.)

Among serious works, we can also include the Fritz Lang film Metropolis (1927) for its depiction of a dystopic industrial future (with robots).

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):

O wonder!
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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

26 responses to “Brave New World

  • Wyrd Smythe

    “Finally got around to” has a double meaning here. There’s the obvious one in that I finally got around to taking up and reading the book, but there’s also that I’ve been on a library wait list for a couple of months.

    I’d still be on that wait list, but the library added another copy, and I happened to notice it and got on that waiting list early. I only had to wait a couple of weeks before it became available.

    I have to say, I’m really sold on these library apps that allow me to check out free library books online. Apple Books and Amazon Prime haven’t made a dime off me in a long time! 😀

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And I probably haven’t been in a bookstore in over a decade. I used to frequent such places and never walked out without buying something (usually multiple somethings).

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I did buy Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by actual (and famous) rocket scientist John Drury Clark.

      I have (or had?) a PDF of the book, but it was a weird PDF — each page seemed to take a long time to render, so it was frustrating to read. I figured the Apple ebook would be a lot easier.

      Speaking of classics, it’s a well-known must read book for fans of space exploration and rocketry. And it really feeds into the “guy thing” about love of explosions and fire and things that fly or go really fast. Really awesome book!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I forgot that, when I bought Ignition! I also decided to finally buy Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Quantum Physics Is Different (2018), by popular (and prolific) British science writer Philip Ball. I’ve been wanting to read it ever since Peter Woit mentioned it on his blog. (I recently also watched a Royal Institute lecture Ball gave that touched on topics from the book.)

        I read the first chapter — looks to be a good book — and (in light of the debate here) I couldn’t help but jump ahead to the chapter Ball devotes to MWI as well as the one after about entanglement and nonlocality. Ball and I seem to be in close alignment.

        I have some issues with how clear his analogue of Bell’s Inequality is — I noticed the same thing in the lecture. (But then it seems a particularly hard thing to explain, and among the many attempts I’ve seen, only a few really found a way to make it clear. Some day I’d like to take a shot at it, but I need to find that clarity.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The book’s title, Beyond Weird, can be read two ways. There’s a common usage where one might say quantum physics is “beyond weird” meaning it’s extremely weird. Ball means it in the more literal sense of going beyond — he feels dismissing it as “just weird” does a disservice. The book is intended to go beyond the weirdness and is very much about what quantum mechanics means.

        And, much as Ball dislikes the MWI, he credits it for bringing back what became very unpopular (even career-killing): the idea of trying to figure out what quantum mechanics says about reality. People got too involved in using QM to do cool things (“shut up and calculate”) and stopped trying to figure out what it meant.

        I heartily approve!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I should also have mentioned the early George Lucas film, THX-1138 (1971 — he did Star Wars in 1977). The society it depicts is somewhere between Orwell’s oppressive totalitarian regime and Huxley’s soma-soaked brain-washed happy productive anthill society.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I keep thinking about this book. I think I’m going to have to buy it so I can write a more detailed blog post (or several) in the future. There is a lot to see and talk about!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I have to admit I’ve never gotten around to reading it either. Part of the reason was the TV movie adaptation from decades ago, which I found dull and depressing, although I wonder how much of that was just the disappointment of a 13 year old expecting something like Logan’s Run and getting a philosophical discussion, probably watered down to meet the strictures of 1980 TV.

    But your description sounds enticing. The basic question seems to be, is induced happiness, true happiness? One thing I’d wonder though, is whether people’s conception of happiness and unhappiness would simply recalibrate. It’s what seems to happen with us.

    Which isn’t anything wrong. Evolution gives us affective feelings for adaptive reasons. Settling into a permanent happy state probably isn’t realistic, at least without changing us at a very deep level. (Which I guess we could premise soma as doing?)

    Anyway, this review makes it more likely I’ll read it at some point. Good review!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you.

      I’ve learned (the hard way, as they say) to be very skeptical of any opinion I had before 30 or so. As a teenager, I would have read Brave New World mostly for “the dirty parts” — I did read Nineteen Eighty-Four that way the first time. I was older when I saw a movie version, so the effect was the opposite — piqued or renewed my interest. (That book was studied a lot in school back then because it seemed to be about our Big Enemy at the time, the USSR.)

      Brave New World turns out to be much more on point. The USSR fell because that kind of oppression ultimately fails. The happy soft velvet oppression of Huxley’s turns out to be almost self-perpetuating. The “opiates of the masses” theory of oppression is effective.

      With few exceptions (far fewer than in our society), most people in that world are truly happy in the “ignorance is bliss” sense. Soma gets them past any bad spots (amazing how well Huxley predicted Xanax), but people are truly happy.

      What makes Mond’s speech so seductive is that he’s right that John is essentially demanding the right to be miserable (but also to be fulfilled). A world in which people are able to appreciate Shakespeare is necessarily an unhappy one. It’s a cogent observation, and it kind of reminds me of the choice JMS offered between the Vorlons and the Shadows. I think it makes the story so much richer that the rulers know exactly what they’re doing and why and have an entirely rational argument for it.

      What’s missing is the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Huxley’s world makes the lower levels a given: safety, security, food, society, sex, all the basic wants met, all the conflicts erased. People’s minds are tuned to make them happy with whatever caste they occupy, so there’s no ambition.

      There’s also no personal growth, creativity, or real self-fulfillment (which Maslow would say are necessary to be complete). Those things cost too much and create instability. The beehive or anthill model is stable and functional. Huxley is implying that Fordism survives for over 600 years and keeps on going strong.

      The more I reflect back on it, the more I appreciate why it’s an enduring classic. I’m going to read that whole section with Mond’s exposition once more before I return the book.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I do like the way that culture defines people’s self of self worth and happiness in the book. The idea that someone who fathered a child would have to retreat in disgrace shows just how powerful culture is.

        Thinking about the overall system, it pretty much requires a world government to be effective. If there are any threats to such a society, it seems like they would be pretty vulnerable.

        And from what you describe, they could actually be building a threat, in the form of the exile islands. Long term, it seems inevitable that there might be movements on those islands that might threaten the wider society. Putting all the people with ambition in a segregated place seems like the seeds of that society’s eventual destruction.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No question culture is relative. In Huxley’s world, considerable sleep-conditioning, from birth through childhood, is part of the equation. It was considered more powerful in Huxley’s time (hence why Freud is conflated with the god Ford), but even Huxley acknowledges it works only for attitudes and general beliefs. The notion of midnight secret whisperings turning someone into something they’re not is fantasy.

        It is absolutely a World Government. Mond is the World Controller of the European area. (A big part of the ethic of Fordism is assembly line sameness. The Model-T famously was available in any color so long as it was black.)

        I got the impression those “exiled” to the various available islands end up happier there and glad they’re no longer part of an anthill they weren’t suited to. They apparently have all the comforts and are free to pursue their interests. Both sides win.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        The deification of Ford and Freud is interesting, and demonstrates how much someone’s own time looms large in their worldview. Neither man has the hold on our imagination they did in 1932. It would be like writing a 25th century story today and deifying Elon Musk and Richard Dawkins. (Come to think of it, Charlie Stross actually did have Dawkins as a deity in the future in one of his novels, but more as an ironic throwaway line.)

        The exiles might be happy at first, and even for a long time. But over decades and centuries, what’s to stop their population from increasing, and eventually deciding they need Lebensraum? A world of soma sodded people seem like easy pickings. Of course, that assumes the government doesn’t have alternate drugs to stimulate aggression when it’s needed.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Fordism does form an inflection point in humanity’s approach to existence. Huxley’s idea is that it took root and effectively replaced religion as the new religion. One can see it as an early alternate history book.

        Even large islands have limited resources and, for any real civilization, depend on outside supplies (think of Hawaii, for instance). With no resources to create ocean-going ships or long-distance aircraft, they are effectively trapped. The body of Huxley’s society may be drugged and stupid, but the leaders aren’t. The exiles are in no way forgotten or ignored by those who rule. (One might even imagine some future leaders come from them.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It just occurred to me: It isn’t a future deification of, but a close analogue of, Elan Musk, Reid Malenfant, in the Stephen Baxter Manifold series. When imagining the future, all we have is the past and the present!

  • Brian

    I recently read Brave New World also, followed by watching the 1980 film. I couldn’t help but relate the story to our present world. Your paragraph about wrapping the “citizenry in a huge Ignorance Bubble and keeping them stupid and stoned” being my key observation. The little slogans we’ve been subjected to this year such as “Hands, Face, Space” and “Stay Safe” made me shudder even before I saw Huxley’s children listening to the rhymes in their sleep.

    I have been criticised for pointing these things out, even by people who agree with me, for relating them in such stark ways, but I don’t know how to explain it in friendlier and more comfortable tones. I can’t sit back and take my “soma” and behave like (or at least believe) something serious isn’t going on.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I think the last thing we need right now is, as you say, a friendlier and more comfortable tone. I’ve been concerned for 50 years about what I labeled as “The Death of a Liberal Arts Education” (which ultimately leads to a Huxley-like bubble), and I’ve been extra concerned about the parallels of recent politics to pre-WWII Germany. Huxley, in 1932, would have been well aware of the unrest in Europe that led to war a handful of years later.

      What many don’t seem able to face up to is their own participation in a society mired in fantasy — in soma of various kinds. Consider how much of our entertainment is based on comic books, space opera, toys, and amusement park rides. We’re infantile, navel-gazing, and lost in our fantasies. No wonder we’ve lost our grip on reality.

      Yesterday I re-read the two chapters where Mustapha Mond explains the nature of the world to Helmholtz Watson and John Savage (and Bernard Marx who doesn’t take it well), and it’s really striking how prescient and relevant it is. Many of us do live in a world that is essentially free from serious want (if not, perhaps, from cravings). We have a wide variety of soma modes: TV, religion, politics, video games, etc. And, ironically, most of the unhappiness that does exist in this world comes from the very instabilities Mond describes.

      That’s the seductive thing: Mond’s world works! If nearly all people can live like happy ants. And our modern culture has shown us the truth of that. (Bernard just wanted to be a happier ant; it was Helmholtz that had that Liberal Arts understanding who recognized the prison. Part of the genius of the book is that Huxley doesn’t really give John Savage the ability to understand — consider his confusion about God and science. The reader has to figure out what John couldn’t. Helmholtz is the path to that understanding.)

      So I’m with you. Something very serious is going on. I’m watching our culture be swept away like a sand castle at the beach. I’m not sure we’re going to wake up in time to save it.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I decided I had to own the book and bought it from Apple. While I was at it I also picked up Brave New World Revisited (1958), which is a series of essays Huxley wrote. It’ll be a while before I get around to reading it (lots of books in my queue), but I’m looking forward to it.

  • rung2diotimasladder

    It’s been so long since I’ve read either of those books, and your post makes me realize I’ve been mixing them up. Maybe Fahrenheit 451 as well.

    To Mike’s point, I think our objection to induced happiness is that it seems shallow, phony and flimsy. A happiness knock-off that’ll fall apart in no time.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, yeah, Fahrenheit 451! Thanks, I completely forgot about that one. It’s another classic entry in the dystopic oppressive totalitarian regime category. (And it really tweaks those of us who revere books and reading. 😮 )

      Isn’t all happiness (and unhappiness) induced by something? You’re looking at it from the point of view of someone raised in a culture that nominally reveres personal sovereignty, autonomy, and discovery. (The top of Maslow’s pyramid.) The question is whether humans can be raised to be “ant happy” — all wants met, no major sources of stress, handy soma for those challenging moments.

      Sure, the idea revolts us (which was Huxley’s point, I think; he certainly wasn’t advocating the idea), but it is the logical extreme of making the safety/freedom choice in favor of maximum safety and stability. There is, I assume, never civil unrest in an ant hill, and all its “citizens” are maximally productive (and, one assumes, without complaint).

      If you have a copy, I highly recommend reading the two chapters where Mond explains the society. (They’re among the final three chapters. The very last chapter details what happens to John Savage when Mond doesn’t let him go to an island.) Part of the equation is Fordism. They need a populace that constantly buys new things, and part of that is creating a distaste for old things (like religion and Shakespeare, which people wouldn’t have the context to understand anyway — if you recall, Helmholtz, one of rare enlightened people, still laughed at John’s description of Romeo and Juliet because he (Helmholtz) had no context with with to appreciate it, so he found it absurd rather than romantic or tragic — two concepts that didn’t exist in that culture).

      (I’ve read those chapters three times now, and quite possibly will do a post about them some day. I find them really striking.)

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Unfortunately I read those books back in high school and I don’t know what happened to them. They got lost in the sweep of time I suppose.

    I think all happiness is induced by something, unless you make your own happiness, which I guess is theoretically possible. Anyway, I was referring to Mike’s question—”The basic question seems to be, is induced happiness, true happiness?” I took Mike to mean induced by pills, or some such thing. I was trying to point out that there are different forms of happiness, some of which are more genuine than others. The kind that comes from love and friendship, for example.

    I don’t think humans can really be ant happy, as you call it. We want happiness to be more meaningful. We want to feel like we’ve earned it.

    “There is, I assume, never civil unrest in an ant hill, and all its “citizens” are maximally productive (and, one assumes, without complaint).”

    Then it’s hard to see us living there, right? 🙂

    Look forward to your post, if you feel so inclined to write it.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Then it’s hard to see us living there, right?”

      That’s the thing. My response (and I think Huxley’s also) is no, it’s not hard at all. In some ways, I think we’ve been headed down that path for a long time. Humans are social animals, which makes them herd, or at least pack, animals, and it’s really just a spectrum with insects as an extreme.

      I do understand your question! I’m asking back: [1] what’s the difference between genuine and false happiness; [2] what makes the happiness Huxley presents necessarily false? Don’t these depend, at least to some extent, on your definitions of happiness? Why, intrinsically, is a “garden of Eden” a bad or false happiness?

      Question asked, I should be clear I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I agree with Maslow that an intelligent mind wants to be sovereign and fulfilled. Part of Huxley’s equation does involve stunting the minds of citizens, especially those in lower castes. That’s crucial to making the society work.

      At issue seems to be whether Huxley’s story presents a viable society, but I think we need to take it as an allegory and a warning. He’s certainly not advocating it; I read it as a (very prescient) caution about a consumer-based society. And (the part I find really prescient) a society that is increasingly decoupled from physical reality.

      Thing is, I see enough acute parallels that I do think such a society is possible. I’ve encountered similar notions in many other science fiction works, so I think it’s a legitimate human tendency.

      I think there’s no question the Western mind rebels at the very notion. Maslow certainly would! It might find more resonance in other cultures (Japanese culture often stresses cultural unity and de-emphasizes the individual).

      You or I (or Mike) would not be happy in Huxley’s future, but we would have been shipped off to an island long ago. 🙂

  • rung2diotimasladder

    I’m not sure what makes the happiness Huxley presents false just because I don’t remember it well enough. But as for happiness in pill form (and the like), I think there are two ways I’d answer. The first is that it’s unreliable, more unreliable than other external forms of happiness, like being in love or having a good family life (those aren’t perfectly reliable either.) The second is that I think it’s qualitatively different. Don’t ask me how, exactly, but I don’t think feeling, say, perfectly buzzed on alcohol is the same thing as feeling secure, truly loved, understood, etc.

    They’ll ship us off to the island…and turn it into a reality TV show.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha, yeah, I’d be Lost and trying to be a Survivor! (And I’d be in big trouble; never watched either.)

      I’m afraid I have to disagree about pills (or drugs or alcohol). The happiness they provide, tolerance issues aside, is 100% reliable; chemistry always works. Contrast that with all the misery, disappointment, and stress, that can come from family and friends. I’m kind of an example. Nearly all my personal relationships have brought me disappointment, but a beer buzz always never does. (One thing I noticed when I visited Washington state and its dispensaries. The CBD content of edibles makes me very, very happy.)

      As for the quality, we do feel intuitively that there’s something wrong with chemical happiness as opposed to the happiness that comes from our accomplishments and our relationships. But there is also that people struggle and fight for that latter form and often find it elusive. Soma (of any type) is readily available and always works; it’s easy.

      Which may be the source of our gut feeling. We see easy happiness as not having value, but hard earned elusive happiness, we pay dearly for that, so it must be a lot more valuable. (It’s reminds of my dog Sam’s origin story. Her mom’s person was offering the pups for free, but no one wanted them. Free=Not-Valuable. She raised the price to $25 and the pups went like hotcakes. We tend to wonder what’s wrong when someone offers us something for free.)

      And, as a writer, you may see additional value in struggle and chance. How much has humanity written about family and relationship struggle? (Few stories are about happy content people to whom nothing much happens.)

      I think we also react to the danger of easy happiness. A content society tends to be a stagnant society. That’s hugely the point in BNW — that society hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. The stagnation is exactly what’s desired; there’s no need for progress. (Reflecting also, perhaps, the view at the time that physics had discovered all it could. Even as far back as Newton people were going, “Well, that’s it; we’ve finished science.”)

      Keep in mind that part of Huxley’s equation is that most people are stunted during gestation to make them stupider, and everyone is sleep programmed during gestation and childhood. There is also that their controlled population and technology have removed disease, aging, want of any kind, and nearly all stress. Most citizens in Huxley’s world are effectively small children (mentally) all their lives.

      I’ve started reading Huxley’s set of essays, Brave New World Revisited (1958). Very interesting! Even in 1958 he was thinking, “Whoa! Things are happening faster than even I imagined.” He believed there would be a “golden age” of sorts between our chaotic past and his overly ordered future vision (which he saw as inevitable). But by 1958 he was worried we’d skip right over it.

      From the vantage point of 2020, some of what he foresaw didn’t happen. He thought the USSR would continue to be a major threat. He also thought they’d align with China (which had gone communist around then). Ironically, I just read a news article headline about fears over a military alignment between Russia and China. (I wonder if they fear Biden?) That said, I’m impressed by how prescient he was!

      • rung2diotimasladder

        “Nearly all my personal relationships have brought me disappointment, but a beer buzz always never does.”

        I was actually thinking of both forms of happiness in their ideal forms, but I guess I didn’t say that, now did I? So my reasoning behind calling “relationship happiness” (for want of a better term) more reliable is that you have some control over whether or not you get it and keep it…presumably. Whereas happiness in pill form is literally a commodity that you—assuming you’re not the drug maker—can’t control. Supply could run out or prices could skyrocket beyond your reach. Or there could be a pandemic and pills are snatched up like toilet paper, yadda, yadda. In other words, I was thinking in terms of: internal achievement vs. external commodity.

        But if we’re talking about real pill happiness vs. real relationship happiness, I think I see what you mean, though for me the chemical version is far less effective than it seems to be for you. Or rather, it’s somewhat effective for a very short while, but the more effective it is for that short while, the heavier the price I pay later. (Except weed. That’s chemical unhappiness for me. Too bad because recreational pot just became legal here in AZ, the same year I decide to get into hydroponic gardening, but only for veggies. No one believes me when I say that.)

        But anyway, I do think it’s qualitatively different; however, if that qualitative difference can be made up for in pill form, and if assurances are made that that pill won’t run out, etc., etc., I’m all for it. But that’s the thing about utopias—they’re never really perfect for us, only hypothetical, barely conceivable. Or, as you say, it works in its place as an allegory.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “In other words, I was thinking in terms of: internal achievement vs. external commodity.”

        I see what you’re saying. Maslow and self-fulfillment. Hamlet has a great line, “I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space.” It’s that sovereign inner space that’s our only real truth.

        Mond’s argument is that, while it is indeed glorious, it’s also the source of much human misery, and thus it has been sacrificed — deliberately amputated — in the name of stability and a child-like form of happiness. There is no personal fulfillment in this world; the notion simply doesn’t exist.

        You question whether such amputation would be successful. Indeed, for a small number of people — Helmholtz, Bernard, and Mond, are all examples — it wasn’t. But for the huge fraction, as Huxley describes it, I’m not sure it wouldn’t work fine. (As I mentioned before, I don’t see how a society gets from ours to theirs — Huxley’s later essays are revealing; his vision of it in the 1950s was not without flaw.)

        You mentioned supply. Soma is government produced and promoted. Classes too poor to easily afford it get free daily allotments. Its availability is definitely part of the equation.

        [Not to get maudlin, but two of my most important relationships, my ex and my dog Sam, are, firstly, also the source of a great deal of pain, and secondly, the “supply” was cut short unexpectedly and beyond my control. The former changed her mind, the latter died early of cancer. These stories I know personally; I know many more second-hand. Relationship happiness also has a fragile supply line.]

        “Or rather, it’s somewhat effective for a very short while, but the more effective it is for that short while, the heavier the price I pay later.”

        Talking about alcohol? Yeah, it’s not a very effective happiness drug. It works well for a given celebration — a party or whatever — but it’s easy to overdo. (When it comes to alcohol I like to remember that it’s the only hydro-carbon solvent humans can consume and not die mostly instantly. Never forget the stuff is basically poison. In fact, alcohol is what they add, in different amounts, to the gestation bottles to stunt the minds of the different castes. Huxley’s citizens, all but the Alphas, are born with fetal alcohol syndrome! Did they even know about that back then?)

        From what I understand things like Prozac and Xanax are a very different ballgame. A great deal of our mood is just brain chemistry. Get that right, and there really is no difference in our mood. (Our good moods can also be changed chemically. A bipolar friend used to describe how the meds made the whole world gray. No crazy jumping off the garage roof to see what it felt like, but also nothing much to feel at all.)

        “But that’s the thing about utopias—they’re never really perfect for us, only hypothetical, barely conceivable.”

        Mos def! It’s just entropy. Ideal states naturally evolve towards disorder!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Just so it doesn’t get lost in all those words, I agree completely our society wouldn’t work in Huxley’s world. I don’t see any way we could get there from here. It would take some kind of weird social mass capitulation to fear to agree to go along with surrendering family, birth, and raising children, even given the supposed rewards offered by that society.

      A fundamental human need, ironically, is the ability to be miserable, to struggle. For a fully intelligent mind, that easy happiness, indeed, has little value. (The beer buzz is fun, but the love buzz is super intense and awesome. So is the buzz of discovery and personal achievement.) I completely agree.

      That said, I do think his vision works once it’s in place (and certainly as allegory).

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