Novel * Aldous Huxley * Genetic Dystopia * 1931
Brave New World is a curious novel, in that it is a classic work of Modernist literature that seemingly has very little to do with what most Moderns were doing at the time. A quick definition to make that sentence make more sense: Modernism is an artistic trend seen in the early 20th century that challenged the status quo of form within various artistic mediums. The best examples would be Picasso in visual art and James Joyce in literature. Huxley is no stranger to the scene. Before he wrote Brave New World he already had several novels under his belt, including another hot banger called Point Counter Point. All of this background is to get the initial point, which is that Huxley made a very clear decision to write about something other than the general disaffection and malaise of interwar England. Instead, Huxley drew upon his scientific background, which was extensive, to write about a distant future. The Huxley’s were a distinguished family of ridiculously smart, prominent dudes and Aldous was obviously no exception. His grandfather was buddies with Charles Darwin, his father was a writer and editor, and his brother Julian was an evolutionary scientist who also got into eugenics. Which, incidentally, is what Brave New World is about.
The story of Brave New World takes place several hundred years in the future in a peaceful, highly functional London. That sounds great until you get to the details. Huxley introduces the novel by taking the reader on a tour of a “hatchery,” where human children are basically created in a lab. Another quick definition might help us out here. Eugenics is the term used to describe the purposeful direction of human genetics. The Huxley’s, who were not gross and racist, were concerned with a burgeoning population growing without regard to genetics. To be perfectly crass about it, dummies breeding with dummies make for even bigger dummies, then we’re all in trouble. While this makes an intellectual kind of sense, it is also upsetting to think about purposefully breeding humans as we do with dogs. Aldous Huxley came from a family of evolutionary biologists, so he thought about this issue often. Brave New World is a cautionary tale about eugenics gone too far. Since he was also a writer/sensitive artist, Huxley was well aware of the threat to the human soul should we interfere too much with our genetic code.
That threat becomes readily apparent as the story unfolds. It should be noted that the story isn’t particularly good. Brave New World isn’t here to make you feel anything other than an intellectual abhorrence of the powerful elite misusing science. This is the kind of novel where all the characters kind of suck and are only there to show off the various contours of the world. That world, however, is fascinating. After the reader is introduced to the concept of the hatcheries, Huxley introduces other horrifying concepts. Fundamental to this society is a rigid, genetically enforced caste system. After babies are created in the lab, they then undergo years of conditioning before they are released into society to perform their assigned function. Epsilons and Deltas, who make up the bottom tiers, are basically clones derived from a limited set of eggs divided dozens of times over. As such they have no individuality and do the grunt work of society. Betas and Alphas are all individuals, but are still heavily conditioned. They perform the administrative and specialist work needed. This conditioning takes place all throughout childhood, and is reinforced once adulthood is reached. Everyone does what is needed for society and nothing else. Free will is irrelevant, because everyone is conditioned to not care. Happiness has been genetically mandated.
It’s a spooky utopia. Everyone is happy, because they’ve essentially been programmed for happiness. After all, nobody works more than an eight hours day, and leisure time is spent playing weird sports (Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy!), going to the ‘feelies,’ or having gratuitous sex with as many different people as possible. Everyone is hot and promiscuous. There is little to no interpersonal conflict, and on the off chance that someone gets upset or feels anything else strongly, they just pop some soma pills and tap out for a few hours of chemical bliss. This future world, based on the twin concepts of automation and eugenics, has seemingly ironed out all the unpleasant wrinkles of human nature. That makes for a dull book, of course, so Huxley introduces a wild card into the mix to react to this very strange society. This wild card, The Savage, comes from an Indian reservation in New Mexico which had been set aside as a sort of zoo. Events contrive to bring this Savage, whose world view is a weird mix of American Indian customs and Shakespeare, to London where he eventually flips out.
If there’s one thing about Brave New World’s vision of the future that doesn’t sit right, it’s that it assumes permanence. There is an answer for every variable, and a solution for every kind of instability. Huxley forgot about entropy. At some point, every system starts to get wiggy around the edges, especially when they’re human systems. When these kind of variables show up in this book, however, they’re emphatically shut down (often accompanied by a long-winded explanation from Mustapha Mond, one of the world directors). The first such variable, Bernard Marx, apparently got off light during the years of mandatory conditioning due an Alpha-plus. Or perhaps his brain mutated to become more resistant. Whatever the cause, Bernard is unhappy because the veil of conditioning has been lifted enough so he can see the world for what it is. This, of course, marks him as an individual, which is probably the worst thing one can be in this society. He goes around saying things like “I want to know what passion is” and “it might be possible to be an adult all the time.” Of course, this behavior doesn’t go unnoticed by his superiors:
“His intellectual eminence carries with it corresponding moral responsibilities. The greater a man’s talents, the great his power to lead astray. It is better that one should suffer than that many should be corrupted. Consider the matter dispassionately and you will see that no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual – and, after all, what is an individual? We can make a new one with the greatest ease – as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at the Society itself.”
This quote is from the Director of Hatcheries and is emblematic of how the society operates. The only reason Bernard is even capable of dissent from a biological sense is that the conditioning of Alphas is lighter than other individuals. They are allotted a small amount of freedom of thought as to make decisions and whatnot. Of course, this gets them into trouble as the Director finds out shortly after this passage. Turns out, when he was young he and a young lady made a trip out to the same Savage Ranch that Bernard and his pretty little idiot visited. The Director, somehow, impregnated this girl who was left to raise the aberration on the reservation. Later, The Savage – a product of the Brave New World and the world left behind – is brought to meet his daddy. It goes poorly.
The Savage is the ultimate variable, the outlier that illustrates that something unexpected will always appear even in the most tightly controlled systems. I don’t know why the World Society maintains a Reservation for “primitive savages,” which is to say Indians who are allowed to live as they always have, kind of, including having parents and getting married (which are of course obscenities in the Brave New World). Its existence seems to be begging to get out of control to ruin things, kind of like Jurassic Park but with Native Americans. Anyway, The Savage, who is an unconditioned product of two heavily conditioned citizens, is thrust into society as something of a sideshow. Turns out, he doesn’t like it.
As I mentioned, Brave New World isn’t a great story, largely because all of the characters are awful. Bernard is a sullen weenie, Lenina is just dumb, and The Savage is hopelessly limited both intellectually and emotionally. If John (which is The Savage’s person-name) is intended to be the reader’s surrogate in this society, he fails miserably, although I don’t think that was Huxley’s intention. It seems that John’s entire ethical code comes from the complete works of Shakespeare, which is not exactly a guide to better living. He becomes enamored with Lenina, because she’s a fox, and then projects all his dumb romantic notions onto her and gets really mad when she returns his affection the only way she knows how. Which is to say she strips naked and tries to jump his bones. Instead of accepting this lovely gift, he starts violently slut-shaming her, completely forgetting that Romeo and Juliet totally bang and that maybe he should see a therapist. The point of all this, other than pointing out that John the Savage is every bit as unappealing as Mustapha Mond, is that John is utterly ill-equipped to navigate this world. He goes on to attempt a revolution, where nobody cares.
The World Council has everything on permanent lockdown, and while I have my doubts about the ability for humans to actually pull that off, that’s what Brave New World presents. There is an answer for pretty much everything. Guys like Bernard are shipped off to islands where they can think and act freely without corrupting society at large. Everyone else just chills out on soma if they have weird thoughts or feelings. Maybe get in a game of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Unlike 1984, the oppression is complete and utterly non-violent. The cost, of course, are petty things like literature and pure science. Huxley obviously cares a great deal about those things, and Brave New World is a reminder to not overlook art and science in a world that is growing exponentially in terms of population, technology, and organization.
Brave New World Revisited
In 1958 Aldous Huxley wrote a series of essays reflecting on his novel in context of the modern world of the time. He comes to the conclusion that Brave New World was a more genuine description of the direction the world was heading to than Orwell’s 1984. Huxley based this premise on some astute observations, which make up the bulk of the essays. Essentially, he examines over-population, over-organization (in terms of big government and big business growing larger and larger and amassing more and more power), and the development of propaganda and conditioning science for use on the population. His fear is that the modern world is growing so big, so fast, that tyranny is inevitable. He argues that the more that power is concentrated (both state power in the government and economic power in corporations), the less liberty can be afforded the vast majority of people. Eventually, we’ll stop wanting freedom on its own terms and cede power willingly to our overlords leading to a Brave New World situation. Huxley does an excellent job arguing this.
I’m not going to say too much more about this, because I’m not really here to talk about non-fiction. This is not to say that I don’t read it, or think that background reading is unimportant in understanding fiction. Quite the contrary, a firm understanding of history and even – ugh – critical theory can be extremely helpful in parsing what people are saying with their art. In the case of Revisited, I believe that Huxley’s examination of his own fictional world is an important window into the overall meaning of the novel. Brave New World isn’t a historical curiosity. The themes that Huxley was concerned about in 1931, and even more concerned about in 1958, are absolutely still relevant and terrifying in 2016. It’s one of these prescient texts that can astound a modern reader who follows the news, in other words.
For the record, I tend to agree with Huxley. The further from the totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century we get, the less likely they seem to reoccur. The kind of oppression in Brave New World is much more insidious, and thus much more likely, insofar as global dystopias are concerned. That said, I’m still not convinced that a worldwide anything is really possible. Despite the consolidation of state and corporate power that Huxley was worried about in 1958 – a trend that has only become more pronounced in the years between then and now – the same tribal divisions (between religions, cultures, sport fandoms, etc.) only appear to get deeper as time goes on. Despite my difference of opinion, however, Brave New World and Revisited are still essential texts. The issues that Huxley was concerned with are still of vital importance, and these books are still intellectually engaging in the extreme.