My last brush with the dystopian fiction genre took place upon reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; I remember quite liking it, finding parts of it highly relevant, owing to their presence in parts of the real world, thus allowing for the possibility of the existence of such a regime as the Republic of Gilead in the future. The merits of a work of dystopian fiction are judged by how closely they resemble, or evoke the possibility of, similar nightmarish circumstances that may happen, or have already happened, on this Earth. Orwell’s 1984, owing to it’s deep, immersive plot describing a totalitarian regime that has effectively eradicated individual thought, complex language, and privacy, is one of my favourite novels for this very reason: there is no aspect of that work which has not already created a spectacle in several political regimes of the world. Mass surveillance, thoughtcrime, the creation of a cult image around a ruling figure, or rather a figurehead, all these have at one point or another been implemented at various points in world history, notably in Nazi Germany, and, more recently and prominently, in North Korea. However, I digress: it is Huxley’s satirical attempt at looking at a seemingly perfect World State that this review is meant to examine, not Orwell’s Oceania.
The plot of Brave New World takes place in the year known as A.F. 632, which is 632 years after the birth of American inventor and industrialist Henry Ford(precisely this would be the year 2495), revered as a deity by the citizens who inhabit the World State, a unified government under the leadership of ten “Controllers”, supreme leaders who see to the upholding of the general set of ethics and standards that are meant to be the guiding principles for social stability. I say “ethics” isntead of “laws” because Brave New World is fundamentally different from 1984 by the nature of it’s theme: where the latter attempted to envision a totalitarian state that governed by fear and the use of “Newspeak” to eliminate radical thought, Brave New World weaves a world where the population is kept in check by serving them happiness on a plate, quite literally: soma, the government-authorized, and encouraged, drug, is widely available and used; the social institution of family and marriage has been completely done away with, and sex is vigorously encouraged to be performed recreationally and with multiple partners. All these make sure that the population is freely and happily a consumerist one, a body that not only restrains itself from thinking and questioning too much, but finds that activity far too troubling to be worth the effort. After all, why worry when you’re being given the means to be happy?
Social unrest and the inconvenience of ambiton has been abolished by the simple process of artificial breeding: babies are now fertilized, bottled, conditioned to their pre-destined castes and made to conform to all norms of the new age in factories, thus making them ideal citizens; propaganda is universally accepted, and the curtailing of literature and radical thought is achieved by the citizens’ refusal to comply to anything which they have not been conditioned to accept. The economy flows steadily owing to the highly consumerist mindset of society at large;citizens are actively encouraged to buy as much as they can, and to reject anything old-fashioned; the word “old”, in fact, is scorned like vermin, for mending prevents spending.
Sometimes, when I was reading the book, I felt confused: was Huxley trying to warn his readers of the dangers of consumerism, promiscuity and the risks of scientific progress as he saw in his visit to America, or was he laying down a blueprint for an ideal society which could be free from the inconstancy of human nature, a stable, self-sustaining paradise which was not out of man’s grasp? The interpretation, as always, is left up to the reader.
Brave New World takes it’s name from Miranda’s lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:-
“O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”
And what people there are. Only the few characters that Huxley allows to have an individual self allow us to distinguish the remnants of the individual within this sea of community that is A.F. 632: islands amidst forces so magnanimously unnatural and controlled that they have become the nature of the age; every aspect of society is a cruel, reversed caricature of the society that we have, or Huxley had, in his time. Ironic are the norms of this world, as John, a denizen of one of the Savage Reservations where this new “civilization” has not been implemented, observes: infatuated by Lenina Crowne, a thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly civilized woman of the Other Place, he imagines himself Romeo, as Ferdinand, as Shakespearean heroes of old, forgotten beauty which no longer have a place in modernity, for men have changed, and with them have changed the times. Society does not change; it is men who change it, men who choose their happiness, and what empty, unmeaningful happiness it is, for, as John says to Mond, the World Controller of Western Europe:-
“Nothing costs enough here.”
Where does humanity go when it’s challenges have been eradicated, when war, famine, disease have been removed with surgical precision? To climb to the top of a mountain there must first be a mountain to begin with, a peak to revere, rocks to cut oneself on; without that we are all nothing but ants going about our routine, each living for the community: an admirable goal in itself, but does the ant know anything more than that?
Brave New World gives us these questions to ponder, but whether we choose to live as ants in paradise or as men in a tumultous world of possibilities where instability is the norm, must be left to the reader.
Huxley’s characters are not heroes, not villains; they are men. The few men who still retain their individuality in this time of uniformity and identical ambitions are quite profound and of extraordinary depth, something that is quite stunning against the larger backdrop of the times and society they live in. From the outwardly Herculean, quietly sad, almost masochistic writer Helmholtz Watson, who hungers after actual beauty in a mundane, materialistic world, to Bernard Marx, the outcast who never feels at home with his peers, insecure at his incompatibility with a world he disagrees with and a society he scorns, to John “the Savage”, an old romantic who breathes mysticism and Shakespearean insults, to even the Controller himself, a man who, though inwardly appreciative of beauty, dissent, and even rebellion, still consciously chooses to uphold society with it’s hedonistic practices, chooses to sacrifice art and expression for the sake of peace and health.
“…stability isn’t nearly as spectacular as instability…Happiness is never grand.” – Brave New World
Huxley writes in an intense, descriptive style: one can feel the ironic juxtaposition of perspectives, the elation and stupor of soma, the colours and artificial scents that aim to dampen the mind by pleasuring the senses. I cannot comment on Huxley’s style by one novel alone, but I shall say this: his words are plain and factual until they are not. He shifts between characters’ perspectives in the third-person: Bernard has as distinct a way of speaking to himself, a contemplative, pessimistic drone, as John – bold, noble, dashing, archaic – Shakespearean in it’s form and intensity. Huxley effortlessly changes his language according to the treatment of his characters, and if this does not persuade the reader that his characters are deep, it will at least convince them to devour their speech.
Does Brave New World hold up? Is it relevant? I’d say it is, although in the present scenario I would say that the danger of such a society as it describes is not as great as that of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of IngSoc. We do not yet live in an age where individual thought is voluntarily sacrificed owing to the easy alternative of state-distributed drugs and recreational sex, although the threat of a predominantly consumerist society has been accelerated by globalisation and the hegemonic power of the West, specifically the U.S. The danger exists, it hovers above our minds, closer than it was in 1932, the time of Huxley’s writing. Shall we one day live in a seemingly perfect paradise where happiness shall be the orgasmic norm? If that day ever comes, a day when babies are bottled in factories and the word “mother” is an obscenity, we shall know that, in Orwell’s words:-
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” – 1984