Friday, 28 July 2000

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)

Edition: Penguin, 1969

Review number: 553

One of the most important novels of the twentieth century, vital to the development of science fiction, Brave New World ranks with 1984 as a chilling dystopia. Huxley portrays a world, considerably further into the future than Orwell's, in which a eugenically preserved class system maintains a static society. Everyone is graded from Alpha to Epsilon, and malnourishment of the embryo in the machines which have replaced human motherhood is used to ensure that Epsilons, for example, are stunted and moronic, fitted for the menial tasks which form their lot. Conditioning through tapes played to dormitories of children at night ensures that people are happy with their position, and the euphoric drug soma banishes the need to feel anything unpleasant.

Even with the conditioning and the drug, there are still people who are unhappy, who do not quite fit in. These are usually from the top caste, the Alphas, for two reasons: their greater intelligence, and because the lower caste members usually come in large groups of artificially created groups of identical siblings, who all work together and whose company makes it difficult to feel isolated and different. One of these misfits, Bernard Marx, sets the events of the novel in motion, through a visit to a Savage Reservation.

The Reservation is more or less the flip side to the main society portrayed in the novel. In those parts of the world which had not been considered worth bringing the "benefits of civilisation" to, a primitive way of life has continued to survive. The impression given of these places is that they are a kind of exaggerated version of a rundown American Indian reservation. There is no escape from them or, indeed, to them. Bernard is drawn to them because he expects life there to be purer; instead, it is squalid. The Reservation is meant to be the way we live, as seen from the point of view of the brave new world.

The event which catalyses the rest of the novel is Bernard's discovery of a young man and his mother (an obscene concept to him); she had come to the Reservation on a visit and become lost, already pregnant because of a lack of care over contraception. This couple are brought back to London by Bernard, and the rest of the novel is about the way that the Savage reacts to his new environment and vice versa.

Huxley later felt that the extreme contrast he introduced with the Savage Reservation was a mistake (as he says in the foreword written in 1946) and it is certainly true that it is not necessary to the point of the novel. It might have made it more chilling to have presented the society without a strong disapproving voice like the one provided by the Savage, letting the reader draw his/her own conclusions.

The importance of Brave New World for science fiction as a genre is manifold. Most science fiction in the early thirties was purely escapist hack work - this was the era of the pulp magazines. It was extremely unusual for a respected literary figure to use it as a vehicle for social criticism. The only precedents I can think of (other than fantasy) are H.G. Wells, who was not as highbrow a figure as Huxley by a long chalk, and Samuel Butler, whose Erewhon is only marginally science fiction, being modelled on Swift. Wells was actually quite an influence on Huxley, Brave New World having definite traces of The Time Machine visible in it.

Huxley took the genre seriously as a vehicle for social criticism, and since his time it has become something of a tradition in science fiction. The idea behind much serious science fiction is to use the future to comment on the present. Brave New World is really about the ideas being debated in 1932 - by the date at which the book is set, the debate is long over. Huxley's main target is of course eugenics, an idea driven out of serious consideration by the Nazis but today increasingly returning to the agenda as advances in genetics make correction of smaller and smaller "faults" in the embryo possible.

The really chilling part of Brave New World is not the caste system, but the fact that people are generally happy. Would it be worth being conditioned into happiness? Where does the border lie between "feelgood" mass media and subliminal conditioning? Huxley's world has "feelies" - films with texture that can be experienced as a kind of virtual reality - with no content but incredible effects ("You can feel every strand of hair..."). The main leisure activities are sports which are specially designed to encourage spending on complex equipment. How far is that from designer football shirts?

Huley aims at other, lesser targets throughout the novel, including some interesting digs at religion. Though the society described in Brave New World is said by its members to have outgrown religion, it has a strongly religious centre, worship of the ideas of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud (who are confused with one another). Ford is referred to as "Our Ford", and is the focus of a parody of Christianity, including a ceremony based on the eucharist in which much soma is consumed - and soma is Greek for body as well as being a hallucinogenic in Indian religious traditions - before an orgy. (This is one part of the novel which some might still consider offensive.) More humourously, there is a scene in which the Savage beats up a reporter from the (Christian) Science Monitor, who denies the existence of bodily suffering. The attack on religion is of course prompted by Huxley's general atheistic philosophy, though in view of what he thought of spirituality it is interesting that he considered Fordianism a necessary part of his future world.

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