Is ours a Brave New World?
Written: Jan 8, 2004 (Updated Feb 2, 2005)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Satirical, chilling, relevant, and awfully clever.
Cons:Dark, somewhat forced conclusion.
The Bottom Line: This is an eerily predictive novel, the relevance of which is undiminished by time, and which is entirely deserving of its status as a modern classic.
Though it was written in 1932, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World remains as relevant and chilling today as it was 70 years ago.
My memory of it was rather hazy before I revisited it yesterday, as it had been a good ten years since I last read it. Most of my memories, given that they stemmed from high school, were of savages and orgies. Titillating stuff for a teenager. In retrospect, however, I don't think that I was mature enough to truly appreciate Huxley's monumental work. I was still awash in teenage hormones, more interested in sex than social criticism, and so missed the subtext that to my adult eyes is blindingly, blatantly obvious. A decade later, I find myself simply amazed by the depth, creativity, and eerily premonitory nature of Brave New World, and truly glad to have reacquainted myself with a modern classic.
The world in the year of our Ford 632 is a very calm place. The business of reproduction has been centralized into Hatcheries, in which test tubes and machinery churn out children without muss, without fuss, and without overly attached parents. The strict caste society, Alpha Pluses at the top (of course), Epsilon Minuses at the ignominious bottom, is supremely ordered for optimal stability. Breakthroughs in pre-natal conditioning and hypnopaedia (sleep learning) have allowed the creation of a global culture in which everyone knows their place, their function, and their identity. If discontent should threaten, happiness is merely a soma tab away--better living through state-sponsored chemistry. Though it hardly deserves mention, small areas of the world have been left fallow, so to speak. Only the most base humans inhabit these Reservations, engaging in atrocities like viviparous reproduction, and succumbing to the dual indignities of sickness and old age. Thankfully, these Savages are sealed away from enlightened civilization, ringed in by high fences and high-voltage wire. Over the greater portion of the globe, social order reigns supreme, soma and stability blissfully hand in hand.
Bernard Marx : Alpha-plus, but smaller and slimmer than most of his caste. This defect of birth has led to an inferiority complex and depression, both of which are dangerously counter-cultural.
John the Savage : Young, tall, strong, and suffering from the tragic defect of having been born on a Reservation. Intelligence and an education in Shakespeare are not his allies when he encounters civilization.
Helmholtz Watson : Alpha-plus, but overly gifted, and cognizant of his difference. He is a man who is searching for greatness while drowning in mundanity.
Lenina Crowne : Beta, beautiful, bubbly, and buoyant, but somehow susceptible to emotion, and therefore just shy of normal. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to John.
Mustapha Mond : The World Controller for Western Europe, and a most powerful man. Is his extraordinary giftedness an asset, or a liability for a man of his position?
It is astounding how much sheer brilliance is woven into, around, and through this novel. The world that Huxley has created, outlandish though it may seem, is chillingly possible, at least in part. What he has done in Brave New World is to push the cultural issues he perceived in his day to their ultimate, most illogical conclusion. He has written into being a dystopia founded on good intentions, and built by the most dehumanizing, soul-crippling means imaginable. The frightening thing about his vision is the manner in which it mirrors, to a degree, the prevailing culture of the modern industrialized world. Reading Huxley's crushing satire, it is unnerving to think that he penned Brave New World in 1932, so relevant is it to today's times.
The power of the written and spoken word, predictably, is a major theme of the novel. The propaganda machine of the New World rests on words whispered into the pillows of children, on jingles, aphorisms, and slogans. In short, outside of the hypnopaedia, it bears an eerie resemblance to the advertising juggernaut of our own time. John the Savage discovers the power of words when he begins to teach himself to read Shakespeare: "...now he had these words, these words like drums and singing and magic... they gave him a reason for hating Popé; and they made his hatred more real; they even made Popé himself more real." Words shape, create, and give form; they are inexpressibly powerful, and Huxley portrays this with great intelligence. From the banning of the "wrong" books, to the writing of the "right" propaganda, the power of word is central to Brave New World. "Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly--they'll go through anything."
The introduction to my edition was written by a literature critic who, among his more obtuse criticisms, calls attention to Huxley's wide range of knowledge. It is indubitably the case that Aldous Huxley was a fiendishly clever writer. It is also indubitably the case that the average reader, or even the literate reader (and in which category I rate myself I shall refrain from saying), will miss a good deal of Huxley's cleverness. One cannot help but get the idea, at times, that there is some sly joke inherent in the prose that is tantalizingly beyond one's comprehension. One of the simpler examples occurs when the author describes the newspapers for the various castes: "The Hourly Radio, an upper caste sheet, the pale green Gamma Gazette, and, on khaki paper, and in words exclusively of one syllable, The Delta Mirror." Ironically (and deliberately, I would presume) the name of the monosyllabic newspaper consists of two-syllable words. Wit like this is just one of the qualities that sets Huxley's work apart, and greatly enhances the reading of it when one can catch the meaning behind his words.
For good or ill, ours is a culture of entitlement. In the European and American countries, the generations raised in the 1960s and after have inherited a society that enshrines consumerism as a virtue. Is not the American Dream the dream of owning land, a home, furnishings, an automobile, and all the toys that accompany them? When did these things become rights? When did we convince ourselves that happiness is something that is deserved? Seventy years ago, Huxley foresaw the relentless approach of the commodity-driven society. Brave New World, among other things, is a portrayal of just such a society. In their sleep, children are taught that "ending is better than mending." "The more stitches, the less riches" becomes a mantra for a consumption-oriented economy. The sad fact of our current culture is that we did not need genetic engineering and hypnopaedia to absorb these lessons. We have assimilated them over countless waking hours spent in thrall to images upon a phosphorescing screen. We have eaten them with our cereal, washed them down with Coca-cola and Pepsi, and absorbed them through our perfumed skin. We cannot ignore Huxley's vision of the future precisely because we are, in fits and starts, progressing inexorably toward that dystopia.
There are very few flaws in this novel. Yes, Huxley becomes overly fond of his own cleverness at times. Yes, the message can slide from subtle to overbearing at times. But nonetheless, the work as a whole is almost airtight in its brilliance. The single qualm I have about the story concerns the ending. The grand dénoument in the office of the World Controller brings the plot to a head. The truth behind the machine-produced society is laid bare, and the moral of the story displayed as clearly as can be. Strangely, though, Huxley chooses to push the story farther, to force it into one more chapter, and an ending that is deliberately dark and, essentially, hopeless. Despite having made his point, he chooses to grind through to the bitter, cynical end. It seems as though a less depressing ending would have allowed for the same impact, but without the added (and arguably unnecessary) tension. This is, admittedly, a small issue, but deserves mention as one of the very few overt flaws of the novel.
It would be difficult to overstate my regard for this book after reading it for the second time. I found Huxley's grasp of human nature to be unnervingly accurate, and his vision of the future depressingly possible. The parallels between the Brave New World and our own society are, sadly, unmistakable. Where do we go from here? Are we merely prolonging the inevitable when we rail against the steadily deadening consciousness of the world's citizens? Will we eventually say, with Mustapha Mond, "Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness?" Or can we respond, as John did, `"I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin."
"In fact," said Mustapha Mond, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy."
"I claim them all," said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. "You're welcome,"
If we choose complacency over reality, we will deserve the Brave New World that is coming. Take a chance, cast off complacency, and read this book. If enough people do, perhaps the New World we inherit will not be Huxley's Brave one.
© SL, 2004
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