When I was a teenager, I was introduced by way of school assignments to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which we’ve already covered. This terrifying little novel–terrifying to me, anyway; there may have been novels–is certainly the most well-known dystopian novel; but it’s hardly the only one, or even the first. It’s a bit debatable which dystopian novel is the first of its kind, but certainly one of the most influential is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
(In fact, the novel has been noted to have directly influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four; making it even more interesting is the fact that Orwell had been, some years early, a pupil of Huxley at Eton, though not in any political or writing-related subject, but rather, in French. The historical connection, however, seems to have little to do with the writings; one novel influenced the other, without much regard for the past history of the authors, as far as anyone can tell from their commentary on the subject.)
It is unfortunate that Brave New World, today, is usually discussed only in the context of comparison to Orwell’s novel. And yet, that comparison does provide the easiest way to understand the book; it’s easier to define what it isn’t than what it is. I find myself wishing I had read Brave New World first, so that I could have appreciated it solely for itself. Nevertheless, I expect I’m inevitably going to find myself pointing out comparisons as we look at the novel here. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
From this point forward, expect spoilers; although, the book is nearly ninety years old, so perhaps it’s not even fair to call them spoilers.
Here we have the story of a world where most human problems have been resolved. That’s what we’re reaching for, isn’t it? Health, happiness, peace, prosperity? Of course we are. Brave New World supplies those things; its people have every need met through a very efficient system of production. Workloads are light and easy. Happiness is practically ensured through use of a consequence-free drug called soma (why is it conventional to italicize non-traditional words like this? I’m doing so here for emphasis, but I’ll drop it henceforward). This focus on happiness, however, has required the upending of certain social conventions: marriage and monogamy no longer exist; childbirth is mostly nonexistent, having been replaced by birth control and birthing centers with artificial wombs; crime is mostly eliminated–certainly a good thing–by way of a rigid caste system–not so good. However, no one feels the loss of these things, due to conditioning and the effects of soma. Our initial protagonist, Bernard Marx, doesn’t quite fit in; but he is mostly a catalyst for the story rather than a major character. His situation introduces us to the true protagonist, a man named John. John is the illicit offspring of two rather normal and compliant citizens, but through a twist of fate he is raised on a “savage reservation”, a place where the conventions of society are not in effect, and people live as they have lived for years prior to the new order–though admittedly impoverished by their isolation. John is then brought back to civilization, but he is unable to cope or adapt; and in the end, he hangs himself.
This matter of absolute happiness–but at a hidden cost–is common enough in dystopias today. It was unheard of when Huxley wrote; utopian novels were common enough, and indeed he started this project as a parody of utopian novels of his day. The idea that happiness could be obtained, but that it would in turn cost us something fundamental, was new and disturbing. It’s not new anymore, but it is still disturbing, and rightly so. The desire for happiness is deeply ingrained in us, possibly even as a part of our survival instinct. Dystopias like Brave New World acknowledge that, but then counter with a more frightening idea: the idea that we need challenge, pain, difficulty, in order to really be human. If we truly get what we’re chasing, we’ll become less instead of more.
This is a radically different form of dystopia from Orwell’s vision (and here we go!). Orwell predicted a dystopia of fear–one in which the government’s power becomes so absolute as to crush all resistance, inspiring obedience by fear. The problem with that kind of oppression is that it requires endless vigilance; and endless vigilance translates into endless resources. Just how many people does it take to monitor a population of billions twenty-four hours a day, I wonder? How much infrastructure? And that’s on top of the apparatus required for punishing infractions, providing for needs, and other aspects of government. Huxley’s version is much simpler, because it makes every individual complicit in their own oppression. As John’s mother Linda graphically illustrates, people want to be compliant; they don’t have to be pushed to it. After all, they’re endlessly happy; they don’t feel the loss of less tangible things such as challenge or morality. They only feel the soothing of soma.
It’s popular to make comparisons to modern society, and try to decide what kind of dystopia we live in. I’ll be blunt: We don’t, at least not yet. However, I think that if we were trying to make projections about the real world, both versions would be too simplistic. A real-world dystopia would more likely be a blending of the two; it would have some form of enticement for the public, combined with some form of invasive monitoring and enforcement. Carrot and stick, if you will. While I don’t believe our society is at dystopian levels yet, I will say that we have elements of both in place already. We’ve had enough issues with governmental elimination of privacy over the years, and especially with the proliferation of technology and the internet; and we have the same internet serving as our soma, to some degree. (And here I am, posting on the internet! Irony, much?)
But that’s just it: we’re not there yet, and in a purely Huxleyan sense, I don’t think we ever will be. The challenges we face as a species are too great for that. Death is always going to be a thing. Suffering is maddeningly hard to eliminate. Poverty has a way of returning over and over again. Diseases adapt to accommodate our treatments. A Huxleyan dystopia requires that all of these challenges be overcome; we’ve made great strides, but I doubt we’ll ever have the kind of success required for his vision to be true. Nevertheless, we should keep trying. We should work at overcoming those challenges. We exist in a strange space, where we can’t win this fight, but neither is our striving pointless, because we can still improve–even if we never reach the end of the improvement.
This is the second dystopia we’ve examined, and I want to point out something that, in my opinion, distinguishes classical dystopias from the young-adult dystopias that are so popular today. (Not that I’m disparaging those stories; they may be common, but they’re not bad, or at least not by definition.) The YA dystopias usually result in a happy ending for most; the ruling party is overthrown, chaos reigns briefly, then something better takes its place. I think that’s a wonderfully optimistic outlook, but it’s very different from the classics, where the protagonists inevitably lose. A classic dystopia will grind the rebellious protagonists down, and keep on moving without breaking stride. In the end, nothing changes. I find this strange; with the political and social climates we face today, I’d have expected it to be the other way around.
Still, Brave New World is the more hopeful of the two. While one protagonist dies, the others don’t; nor are they greatly changed in outlook–they’re simply sidelined. And in the meantime, millions aren’t being ground down; they remain obliviously happy, but they remain. It may not be much of a chance; but perhaps that’s better than much chance at all. As Huxley never wrote a true sequel (Brave New World Revisited is a non-fiction critique), it’s open to conjecture.
How’s your reading goal coming along? I’ve set a goal of 50 books in 2018 via Goodreads; you can join me here! So far I’ve finished three books: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, and Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. You can see my to-read list here.