Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was inspired by realising that I hadn’t read any of a recent list stating the top twenty geek novels. Given that my impressions of geek literature amount to either hardcore science fiction or adventures in Elfworld it was pleasant to discover that this novel, over seventy years after its publication, is still fresh. I would tend to think, however, that its endurance is due to its satirical tone rather than any sort of geeky idolisation as, despite its futuristic setting, it deals more with its characters rather than the world around them.
Set in a dystopian society in 2540AD or, as the book calls it, AF632 (AF meaning After Ford) the novel presents an almost perfect society where war and poverty has been eliminated at the cost of family, culture, and religion. The whole world is considered to be a single state and the central tenets are those, as you would expect, of the industrialist Henry Ford. Fordism is the semi-religious doctrine that permeates this society: his sayings are gospel, his name is said in vain, the cross has been replaced by the ‘T’; indeed, in a motion similar to crossing oneself, the citizens make the sign of the ‘T’. An interesting idea, perhaps, but the incessant expletives (“for Ford’s sake!”, “oh my Ford!”, etc.) do lose some of their humour and power.
It begins, with little narrative, in the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre, a place where human beings are raised are ‘bottled’ (raised in test tubes) and then conditioned via radiation and Pavlovian techniques to become one of the five social castes of society (the independent Alphas through to the half-retarded Epsilons). Once fit for society the citizens are then ‘decanted’. The Director of this centre is giving a tour to a group and shows them the bottled embryos passing along a conveyor belt as they are treated with chemicals to determine the future intelligence and physical attributes of the embryo. He then shows them the nursery where some children are being conditioned to loathe, of all things, books and flowers.
Then, moving on, we meet one of the world’s controllers, a man named Mustapha Mond. He tells the touring children about the World State and the benefits that attempts to quash peoples’ emotions and relationships has made on society. Indeed, in this world, there is no marriage, grief, or joy – promiscuous sex is actively encouraged, death is no big deal, and games only serve to further the economy.
More characters, from here, are introduced into the narrative as Huxley’s world escapes the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre and goes further afield. The self-conscious Bernard Marx gets permission from the Director to visit a savage reservation in New Mexico; Lenina Crowne, attracted to him, accepts his offer to join him. Helmholm Watson, a hypnopaedia writer (slogans that are repeated and learnt whilst citizens sleep) shows discontent at his job feeling, as an Alpha, that he is capable of much more. And, in New Mexico, they meet John and his mother Linda, a pair of savages discontent with their world. Returning to London attempts are made to integrate John into society but, his world is shaped by Shakespeare (he found a copy of his complete works) and he disagrees with the dystopian World State, arguing with Mond until each character goes their own way (John to exile; Marx exiled.) and the final denouement.
Brave New World could have been better, there’s no doubt about that. The obvious hindrance was a narrative that never really centered on one character: one minute we were touring the hatchery, the next we’re following Bernard who, in turn, slinked into the shadows when John was introduced. Huxley has ideas, though, and amidst his obvious taste for neologisms (centrifugal Bumble-puppy!) gets his ideas across fairly well although this can be at the cost of the narrative as the climactic argument between John and Mond goes back and forward with neither being right. The World Controller argues that society is better off when nobody reflects on the past, when people aren’t given any time to themselves, and when there is nothing to be emotional about and that eliminated studies (history, religion, science) are wrongs that require control while John, in his misunderstanding of the World State, believes that people should have freedom of thought and be allowed to suffer emotions to make them human. Of course, in a world where people are made to order, made on Ford’s assembly line, he has little chance of ever making a point.
The writing in Brave New World is fine, if a tad verbose at times or scientific at others (dolichocephalic!) with, as previously mentioned, a world of neologistic commodities (pneumatic armchairs, for example). Dialogue is alright and serves to paint a more accurate picture of the characters but it is not entirely realistic and sometimes serves as device for infodumps. The characters, however, are hard to follow as they feature for little periods and, while you get an idea of what drives them, you don’t get a complete sense of their role within the story, especially as to their reactions by the novel’s close.
While I liked Brave New World one of the hardest things for me to do was imagine Huxley’s vision as it would be incarnate. When I think of future societies I am given to thoughts of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but, when least expected, Huxley would throw in the countryside, savage reservations, and, unexpectedly, a lighthouse. I understand that these elements demonstrate a world that strives to be perfect but suffers from underlying problems (the people are kept happy by use of recreational drugs rather than any utopian positivity) that mean it is still a burgeoning dystopia rather than fully realised with its wheels completely greased. Overall, it’s an attractive novel, full of ideas, but one that suffers from a lack of organisation with them.
May 31, 2007