One of science fiction’s most enduring traits is its ability to ruminate upon the ways in which science and technology allow us to manipulate and re-engineer society. In this sense, the distinction between soft and hard science fiction disappears—all science fiction is inherently social, for no matter how much detail goes into describing the technological advances that populate possible futures, the meat of the story is always the effect these technologies have on the people using them. Innovation begets change, and change is often disruptive—our future mirrors the past in this respect. Brave New World is rightfully a classic work of science fiction that demonstrates the potential for technology to help us reshape society. Aldous Huxley leaves us with a potent question: what kind of society do we want to make?
Brave New World is deceptively simplistic in its structure. Top-heavy in exposition, the novel begins with a walking tour through the Central London Hatchery. Women no longer give birth. Instead, babies are grown and then decanted, an ultimate triumph of genetic engineering. Even before birth, each potential person’s life has been mapped out and determined by gene sequences and other processes. Some are destined to be Alphas, the intellectual elite. More will be Betas or Gammas, who provide the specialized labour that keeps places like the Hatchery in operation. More still will make up the bottom of the social pyramid, the Deltas and Epsilons with their restricted worldviews and even more restricted intellects. Huxley makes it very clear that this vision of the future is one based on the mass production, mass consumption ideals of twentieth century America and, in particular, Henry Ford. Everyone has his or her place, a cog in the great machine of civilization as it grinds onward in stability for all eternity.
This is the nightmare of Huxley’s utopia, at least for me. It’s that inexorable predestination of one’s life and potential: you are a Beta, and that will never change. You will be trained, in your sleep and while you are awake, for a single job. You will consume the basest forms of arts and entertainment—high art having gone the way of history. Such weighty endeavours are too emotionally complex for these new humans. Tragedy and suffering have been sacrificed in the name of stability, and what few passions are allowed to citizens are carefully monitored and controlled through very specific outlets. While the World State is not the overtly totalitarian presence made manifest in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is still a covertly authoritarian government in which people are happy only because they have been manufactured that way.
Huxley then proceeds to show some of the cracks in the otherwise perfect society. Bernard Marx is an Alpha-Minus who has somehow developed a little too much individuality. In a society predicated upon sameness, this is undesirable. While visiting a Savage Reservation, where specimens of the old style of humanity continue to live their squalid, imperfect lives, Bernard makes a discovery that changes everything for him. John Savage (as he comes to be called) is the child of a modern woman who became trapped in the Savage Reservation after she was separated from her party and given up for dead. Bernard takes John back to England with him and proceeds to show him off to society (and show society off to him).
Huxley sets up Bernard as the protagonist of Brave New World, but this proves to be a smokescreen. Earlier on, Huxley hints at Bernard’s vanity. Indeed, Bernard becomes caught up in the celebrity that he shares with John. It alienates him from those few people he numbered friends before bringing John to England. And when John’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and disruptive, Bernard is the first to seek to distance himself from the Savage in a bid to save his own skin. As the climax unfolds, any prospect of Bernard rising to the occasion and assuming the mantle of hero fades away with a whimper. Bernard is a diversion, a stepping stone towards the piece’s principal protagonist, John Savage himself. He is Huxley’s reminder that merely possessing individuality does not itself make one brave or honourable or heroic.
John’s heroism is passive; he does not actually take down the World State or even offer serious opposition. Rather, he exists as the embodiment of what the World State does not offer: passion, a penchant for peril, and a spirituality that is practically profane in the face of a society that has conflated Henry Ford and God. Long before John’s final conversation with the World Controller, we see this in his dealings with Lenina Crowne.
He falls for her but is not sure how to make his feelings apparent. Raised on Shakespeare and community ideas about marriage and proving one’s devotion, John is not prepared for Lenina’s extremely casual approach to sex—nor can he handle her commitment to promiscuity, any more than she could conceive of dedicating herself exclusively to him. For me, the most emotionally-charged and harrowing scene in the entire novel occurs when Lenina visits John’s apartment, strips, and throws herself at her. He freaks out and flies into a fit of rage that, in turn, causes Lenina to become more terrified than she has ever been in her entire life. After living entirely on-script, Lenina finds herself in an entirely new situation, and she can’t handle it. John’s reaction channels the darker aspects of humanity that the World State has worked so carefully to repress through its redaction of art, history, and literature (there is a reason these are called the “humanities”, after all). He calls her a strumpet and a whore, and then his verbal abuse escalates to physical violence:
The Savage pushed her away with such force that she staggered and fell. “Go,” he shouted, standing over her menacingly, “get out of my sight or I’ll kill you.” He clenched his fists.
Lenina raised her arm to cover her face. “No, please don’t, John …”
“Hurry up. Quick!”
One arm still raised, and following his every movement with a terrified eye, she scrambled to her feet, and still crouching, still covering her head, made a dash for the bathroom.
The noise of that prodigious slap by which her departure was accelerated was like a pistol shot.
This scene crystallizes the complexity of Brave New World. It’s a genuinely frightening moment, because John’s behaviour endangers the empathy I, as closer to him in many ways than to Lenina, felt for him up until that point. Huxley reminds us that there is nothing saintly about individuality or non-conformity. Similarly, while I continue to feel sorry for Lenina as a victim of her conditioning, the sinister subtext of her beliefs is laid bear here. As Bernard is fond of repeating, she sees herself as meat. The World State offers casual sex on a platter, but it’s still a patriarchal, heteronormative approach to casual sex. And it’s one where consent is valued less than conformity—Lenina and Fanny’s conversation prior to the former’s confrontation with John demonstrates this, and Lenina’s persistence in offering herself to John despite his hesitation reaffirms it. The idea that one might reject an offer of sex is so alien that it smacks of illness.
The World State is a utopia. It is stable, free from war or strife. Even natural causes of distress, such as disease or disaster, are mitigated by propaganda, enforced hormone supplements, and of course, the ubiquitous and subliminally-reinforced use of soma. But if the World State is utopia, then I don’t want to live in utopia. It’s bland and boring—for those same passions that drive John to violence and to self-flagellation are the same passions that make life worth living. It’s stable but also stagnant, for even science is seen as an enemy, a potential source of innovation and thus disruption.
It feels … like a dead end. Our society is far from perfect, but one of its best attributes is its constant state of flux. Everything is changing all the time, and we can try to predict what our world will be like in twenty or fifty years, but the truth is, we don’t know. The World State doesn’t have that luxury. Aside from the minor advancements and tweaks the World Controllers allow through the decades, it will keep grinding on in the same fashion for as long as possible. With no potential for dramatic paradigm shifts, for revolution or evolution, for the comforts of chaos, we can’t really call it living any more. Humanity is alive, but in the big picture, it has been reduced to little more than cellular automata.
Brave New World is nothing short of a horror story. And it works because Huxley writes with such earnestness. He doesn’t try too hard. On paper, it’s terrifying, although if you think about it long enough and start poking enough holes, it starts to become almost as unrealistic as the post-apocalyptic world of The Hunger Games. Huxley’s World State has figured out what the Capitol has not: to avoid rebellion, make your subjects feel like they don’t need to rebel. Even when John manages to incite brief moments of passion in a group of identical Deltas, a little bit of soma and some riot police contain the situation quite easily. Rebellion has been bred out of people.
Some people don’t drink the koolaid, and then the oligarchs who maintain the utopia have to deal with them. There are basically three choices: death, co-option, or exile (also known as the Omelas outcome). Bernard and his friend Heimholz end up exiled to an island where they will join fellow Alphas who have drifted too much towards individuality. Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for Western Europe, was like them once, but he chose co-option over exile and is now one of the ten wizards behind the curtain.
I’d be on the island.
Brave New World pits individuality against social stability and asks if happiness is more important than the freedom to be unhappy. Other books have asked this question before, and others have asked it since. Yet Brave New World endures long since we have left behind the pre-war climate of the 1930s. It endures because, as Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, our society still seems to be on this trajectory. Mass consumption and mass production remain the rule. And, as much as Orwellian surveillance haunts us after September 11, 2001, corporations that want the public to consume still attempt to persuade us that the latest and greatest technology, fashion, or food will make us happier.
That’s not to say that a Brave New World-esque future is inevitable. Like most utopian authors, Huxley glosses over a lot of the process involved in forming the World State (though, to his credit, he gives us a lot more than some authors do). As much as globalization and telecommunications have brought us together, I feel like it would still be very difficult to establish the level of control and uniformity that the World State has at the beginning of this story. I like my postapocalyptic menu as varied as the next reader, but tales of fractured societies and isolated governments seem a little more realistic these days than a fraternity of World Controllers.
And I’m not just saying that because they’re reading this.