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Brave New World - a Review of Aldous Huxley's novel
Brave New World - Introduction
Aldous Huxley wrote several influential books over the course of a long writing career but none has caused as much controversy and debate as Brave New World. It's often amongst the top 50 on Best Novel lists and is a must read for those interested in science fiction, futurology and utopian thinking.
Published in 1932, when fascism was beginning to raise its ugly head in Europe, the book went far beyond any totalitarian dream and introduced readers to a new nightmarish world controlled by cold, calculating scientific bureaucrats.
Bio-technology is king. All babies for example are 'hatched' and allocated their social destiny without question. You could say all inhabitants of this world have been manipulated from birth and are sleepwalking their way through uneventful lives.
Yet, there is a human twist midway through the book which adds spice to an already intriguing story.
It's a compelling satire on human destination where a population of 2,000 million share only 10,000 surnames between them.
In this article I'd like to look at the themes in more detail, give some background to its creation and try to reach a sensible conclusion.
The Shakespeare Connection
Aldous Huxley chose his title Brave New World after reading William Shakespeare's play The Tempest. In Act 5 Scene 1 Miranda, daughter of the exiled magician Prospero, says:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't.
This book raises all sorts of questions about where our society is heading and how it will be shaped. An important theme throughout is stability; how to maintain happiness for the majority and keep subversive elements away from the mainstream. Control of individuals begins at birth. Babies are grown or farmed in huge numbers and brainwashed from avery early age.
Whilst Huxley's vision of the future may disgust and revolt some readers, there's no doubt that there is a grain of truthful reality in his fiction. For starters, test tube babies are here. Clones also. Genetic research and manipulation seems to be taking us down the path towards perfecting forms. Plus, our increasingly high tech world means we have less time to enjoy nature, appreciate our inner emotional energies and form lasting, wholesome partnerships.
Is this Brave New World already taking shape inside us?
A great introduction to Brave New World with actor and director Leonard Nimoy. I found this very helpful in my overall understanding of the concepts and ideas in the novel.
- It's the year of stability A.F. 632. The world is run by ten controllers who maintain happiness through various forms of intensive conditioning and a drug called soma.
- The majority are content to live with the status quo. Those who rebel are sent to islands or got rid of. No-one is ever alone except when they take soma, and emotional engineering ensures that rebellious feelings are nullified.
- Sexual experiences are encouraged from early age. Marriage, parenthood, family and home are long lost concepts.
- There's no reason for outspoken individuality in this smoothly created linear social hierarchy of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons.
- Illness and old age are a thing of the past.
- Recreation comes in the form of electro-magnetic or Obstacle golf, tennis and flying around in special planes and helicopters.
- The only humans living outside of this conditional existence are the savages who follow traditional old fashioned ways inside a Savage Reservation, based in New Mexico. Only elite members of the controlling majority are allowed into this special fenced off area. Touch the fence and you die.
In The Name of Ford
Brave New World is set in London way into the future, A.F. 632. Here, the A.F. stands for After Ford. When Huxley wrote this book in the late 1920s Henry Ford had begun his mass production of the 'T', the first assembly line machine to dominate the market. He saw this as the beginning of mass consumerism - technology replacing human hands to churn out similar product - with millions of ordinary folk able to buy.
In the book, so powerful is the word Ford it has superseded God.
Lenina Crowe in chapter 6 for instance exclaims
'Thank Ford.....he's alright again.'
In amongst all this dehumanising technology and state conditioning are real human beings! Huxley introduces us to several characters in the first three chapters - the Director (of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre), a young worker Henry Foster, a nurse Lenina Crowe and World Controller for Western Europe, Mustapha Mond.
These opening paragraphs help set the scene for the development of Henry and Lenina, who happen to be in a bit of an odd relationship. After four months they're still 'having each other' which causes quite a stir amongst Lenina's friends and colleagues.
In this Brave New World promiscuity is encouraged and anyone becoming too familiar in a partnership might be viewed with suspicion.
Yes, everyone belongs to everyone else! This may seem odd to the majority of us today but don't forget the history of humankind is full of odd twists, turns and perversities!
On the 14th floor of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre babies are being brainwashed through the process of hypnopaedia,or sleep teaching. A loudspeaker relays suggestive messages as the director inspects the sleeping infants.
'We also predestine and condition. We decant our babies as socialised human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons.....the sum of the suggestions is the child's mind. And not the child's mind only. The adult's mind too - all his life long.'
Soma - A Drug For All Seasons
'Every soma-holiday is a bit of what our ancestors used to call eternity.'
In the book people take a gramme or two of the drug soma if they happen to feel unhappy. It is also part of what's called the Solidarity Service, a pseudo-religious ritual also involving music and rhythm performed by a group of 12. The aim of this circle is to invoke the Greater Being. Bernard Marx tries this but is dissatisfied with the hollow outcomes.
Eventually Lenina Crowne meets up with another man, Bernard Marx, a psychologist who also happens to be an Alpha Plus intellectual. But this Bernard is seen as a bit of a loner. He doesn't play Obstacle golf for one, and he sometimes spends time alone! Bernard has a male friend, another high flyer Alpha Plus, Helmholtz Watson, a Synthetic Composer of hypnopaedia messages. Both are somehow different from the average Brave New Worlder in that they want something more than society can give them.
Bernard Marx invites Lenina to travel with him to the New Mexican Reservation. We're not told exactly why he wants to go - to look at the savages - but the trip is too good an opportunity for Lenina to miss. Not many ordinary people get the chance to visit a Savage Reservation. He gets the necessary signature from his Director who, it's revealed, happened to visit the same Reservation many years ago and in doing so 'lost' his then female partner, who was never seen again.
This seemingly trivial anecdote turns out to be the pivotal part of the whole human story. Once inside the savage's enclosure Bernard and Lenina encounter Linda and her son John, the 'lost' female and the son of none other than Bernard's boss, the Director. To cut a long and absorbing story short, Bernard and Lenina return to the 'Other Place' - their modern world - with Linda and John. John takes with him the one item he cherishes and quotes from - The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
This turns out to be a disastrous move for all concerned. John the savage becomes a kind of cult celebrity, paraded in front of dignitaries and important people at Bernard's parties, whilst John's mother Linda sinks slowly away into a soma-fed fantasy world. It's all very disturbing. Lenina becomes infatuated with John but cannot understand his aggressive reactions in the face of her advances. He comes from a culture which promotes loyalty to one partner only, she from just the opposite.
In chapter 16, Mustapha Mond, a World Controller, tells John the Savage :
'The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get. They're well off; they're safe; they're never ill; they're not afraid of death; they're blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they're plagued with no mothers or fathers; they've got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there's soma.'
Nightmare scenario or future paradise?
Eventually John becomes tired of his new found status and rebels against stability and happiness, despite the close friendship of Helmholtz Watson, who loves to read from Shakespeare :
'Why was that old fellow such a marvellous propaganda technician?'
During a fracas at the hospital all three - John Savage, Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson - are arrested, following John's demonstrations amongst the workers there.
'But do you like being slaves?,' he rants in a mad rage.
Bernard and Helmhotz are exiled to islands whilst John goes off to live by himself in a lighthouse out in the Surrey countryside. Here he reverts back to type, makes bows and arrows, hunts and, as he did on the Reservation, regularly whips himself to bloodiness.
Without giving too much away this is the end of the road for John. His quest for solitude is spoiled when reporters and media crews start to invade his personal space, greedy for images of the savage who whips himself. Crowds gather to witness the spectacle, eager to experience a human in real pain, for they know nothing of this sensation.
'The Savage of Surrey' finds this all too much and is found hanging the day after an orgy of atonement, which makes the news in all the papers. A tragic end for a young man who, born naturally to a confused but loving mother, could not face a sterile future in this Brave New World.
You can understand how this novel has become a classic. Not only does Huxley set out with imagination and detail a future world dominated by bio-technology, he makes it plausible and real enough for the reader to instantly 'get' it. Here is mass production of human embryos on a colossal scale and they're all destined to know their place in life. The pre-determined caste system ensures stability for all. Or does it?
Aldous Huxley takes the reader further into his Brave New World and gradually introduces us to the main characters who are going to carry the human side of the story. In a glossy, efficient, illness free community, it's the Alpha Plus intellectuals who start to question the validity of their existence. This is where the book comes alive, when flesh and blood enter the scene, and doubts begin to seed.
There are certain aspects of this book that will certainly disturb, such as the sexual freedom and conditioning that begins at a very early age and continues into adulthood. You'll need to take some passages with a pinch of salt, as when the character Benito Hoover starts handing the sex hormone chewing gum around! But overall, the futuristic elements work, and fascinate, so that the reader has several levels to go at.
You've got the ongoing struggle of Bernard and Helmhotz, who are wanting more than society can give them. You have John the Savage, brought back from New Mexico to London, to suffer the outrageous slings and arrows of his fate. There's the tension Huxley builds as all three realise that the system, in the end, will win. What future does the individual human spirit have? What role is there for the outsider, for those who seek alternative happinesses?
If you're interested in the concepts of freedom, human rights, political systems and social trends you'll love this story.
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© 2013 Andrew Spacey