Book: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Recommended for: the 99%, tea party-ers, and disaffected college students
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m used to my imaginary futures being more dystopian. The fact that 99.9% of the inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s future are, in fact, living in a true utopia strikes a strange tone. It’s a major chord resolution that nevertheless sounds discordant. My senses don’t really know what to do with it.
Huxley casts a future that has been given wholly over to industry and pleasure. Everyone is bred and conditioned from the time their egg is artificially fertilized to their last, drug-hazed breath to accept their place in life, to pursue their duty joyfully, to consume as much as possible, and to partake fully and guiltlessly of their pleasures. Any hint of negativity is washed away by prodigious use of the drug soma, which takes them on a peaceful holiday of the mind.
Of course, not everyone gets along well in this world, and this is where Huxley’s narrative kicks in. Members of the Alpha class, the highest caste in the government-controlled society, have the capacity for independent thought although they are highly conditioned to fit in to the rest of society. Despite their conditioning, some few individuals begin to find themselves dissatisfied with the current life and begin to act out in various ways.
One of these malcontents is Bernard Marx, an Alpha-plus whose angst begins, rather predictably really, in a poor self-image due to some physical failings uncommon in those of his caste - he’s somewhat short and scrawny. Because of his differences, he has less success in pursuing his pleasures, and so despite his conditioning becomes fixated on one particular woman. Finally convincing his much-sought-after prize to join him on a holiday into uncivilized territory, they encounter the expected savages and an unexpected, previously-civilized woman and her grown son. Their lives are changed forever, yada, yada, yada, and the book ends along a fairly predictable vector. (What, you think I’m going to spoil the book for you?)
What I’m left with as a reader are confusion and highly conflicting emotions. On the one hand, all the marketing hype on the back of every copy of the book I’ve seen talks about how Huxley’s vision is “terrifying” and “disturbing”. Frankly, I just don’t get that. Compared to say, Orwell, Huxley’s version of authoritarian regime is positively cuddly.
Huxley’s future seems, in fact, a hell of a lot like our present, minus the factories producing the next generations from a test tube. Rampant consumerism, check. Hedonism as a prime motivator for living, check. Dubious nature of any true free will, check. The primary difference seems to be that we haven’t abandoned some of the things that Huxley’s world cast away long before the events of the book: familial love, philosophy and religion, ideals of independence and self-governance.
All of this, given the similarities, makes me wonder whether Huxley has really cast his net that far. Granted, it was pretty radical for 1932 society, but in the end how brave or new is his world? Or was Huxley incredibly adept at anticipating the forces of change at work around him, letting him open for his readers a hazy window into our present day?