Brave New World was written by Aldous Huxley in 1932 and remains, to this day, one of the shining examples of the utopia as dystopia style of speculative fiction. It tells the tale of a futuristic world where society has been stabilized through strict social conditioning, a regimented caste system, and wide availability of mood-altering drugs. The principal characters of Brave New World are Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne, two in the upper echelons of the World State’s society, and John the Savage, a child born in a reservation of “savages,” those unchanged by the systems in place in the World State.
One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments
The principle element of Brave New World is the stunning degree of operant conditioning and caste division upon which their society is built. From well before birth, the caste of a child is determined based on the needs of the state. Those destined to be at the bottom are starved of oxygen, given what is essentially Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and are conditioned to be most happy and comfortable while staying firmly in their place. Everybody’s clothing is color coded based on their caste, and hypnopaedic moral and behavioral rules are so ingrained that they come out with all the droning of a mantra rather than a free thought.
If at any time someone should find themselves unhappy or worried or troubled, there is always soma, the drug that has all the benefits of an upper with none of the side effects. It is freely available and frequently used. The majority of the implanted sayings we are exposed to deal with the taking and enjoying of soma.
This is really the truly brilliant vision of Huxley’s future: The darkness is so bright that we can’t tell it from light. At one point it is put to the Savage by Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, that his objections seem to have no basis in reality. After all, everybody is happy. Nobody wants anything different than what their lot is, because they were born loving it. The Savage, attempting to be the voice of reason, demands the rights we ourselves hold dear: the right to choose, to suffer the consequences of our actions, to be free. In a cynical mockery of his own critical reaction to the World Society, Mustapha responds, “In fact…you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
This is the real message of Brave New World and the one that still rings true today where so many books have failed to age well. We live in the age of entertainment, with faster and faster gratification of our desires. As our standards of living increase, as technology improves, and society becomes more and more liberal, we may soon find ourselves looking at the world around us thinking that we’re very happy in our place and having no desire to ever change it.
While that may sound nice, even ideal, the loss to society is the need to work for what we have, to fight to keep it, and to sometimes lose it so we can appreciate victory all the more.
A gram is better than a damn
This idea of the cost being what makes something worthwhile is the same message that one gets from works like Fahrenheit 451 or the excellent Kurt Wimmer film Equilibrium where the pillar on which society rests is a suppression of any negative thought. Whether it is repressed as in Brave New World, replaced with good feelings, or oppressed as in Equilibrium, replaced with nothing but constant neutrality, the message remains the same. If we don’t risk anything, nothing is worth anything.
This is the realization that pushes John the Savage away from what could easily have been a life of luxury and popularity after a childhood of abuse and seclusion. His morals may seem staid even by our modern standards (raised as he was on a diet of Shakespeare) but modern society is much closer to his standards than those of the World State.
The truly insidious evil of the world displayed in Brave New World is the subtle substitution of happiness for contentment. The people all believe they are happy, would say so if asked, and in many senses, do utterly believe it—but we know better. Their lives are repetitive, unoriginal. The only reason they don’t lash out against the sheer monotony of their lives is that they were bred not to. A world like this would take a great deal of effort to bring about, effort that I’m not sure would be possible in this modern age of information exchange. But if it ever were brought about, it would be, as John found, nearly impossible to root out again.
Why should you read this book?
This review was written as part of an event dedicated to dystopias. Brave New World is both one of the originals of the genre and one that has remained the most topical in the modern age. Of all the books I’ve read for this event, this is the fate I feel we’re in the most danger of falling into. It is a cautionary tale; there’s a reason it has been mandatory reading in so many schools for so many years.
I may toss around phrases like “You must read this book” to refer to books I’ve enjoyed a great deal, and I mean it to varying degrees of hyperbole, but all exaggeration aside—you must read this book.