by Aldous Huxley
“Primroses and landscapes have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy.”
I eagerly snarfed down Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in my early teens, and positively devoured Atwoods’s The Handmaid’s Tale aged 20 – both titles significant to my youthful understanding of totalitarian regimes – but it has taken half a lifetime for me to finally read Aldous Huxley’s 1932 work of speculative fiction, Brave New World.
‘Why so long?’ you might ask. My answer, I’m afraid, is somewhat vague: I recall reading a particularly scornful disquisition on the novel by a once popular critic, which may account for my initial reluctance, then, I suppose, there were all the other (seemingly more important) books waiting to be read. Neither of which are adequate explanations, I know, but they are the best I can offer.
Whatever my reasons for deferring Huxley’s satirical take on a futuristic world of genetically modified citizens and an intelligence-based social hierarchy, I found his witty prognostication surprisingly entertaining, not to mention deceptively lighter in tone than the two previously mentioned novels.
Brave New World is set in the city of London in AF (After Ford) 632 (2540 CE in the Gregorian calendar ), within a World State built upon the principles of Henry Ford’s My Life and Work, i.e. mass production, uniformity, predictability and an insatiable consumption of disposable consumer goods. Its people are scientifically engineered through artificial wombs, the children subjected to indoctrination programmes from birth, and all individuals are predestined to belong to a particular ‘caste’. Different classes of citizens are designed for varying purposes (Alpha-Plus being at the top of the pile) – some doing humdrum tasks while others work in laboratories or sit behind desks – but all are designed to be content with their lot, existing together in peaceful, narcotized, eroticized, worry-free harmony.
Huxley’s utopian society may seem blissful; indeed, it is for the majority of its people, especially those living within ‘civilized’ settlements. However, there are anomalies – perhaps caused by minor chemical input errors at the test tube stage – which render individuals such as Bernard Marx, a sleep-learning specialist at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, discontented and inclined to mild subversion. Then there are those on the outside, such as the natives of Malpais, a Savage Reservation in New Mexico, where marriage, natural birth, family life and religion are still practiced – the source of much childish mirth to new worlders.
When John, the illicit son of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning and a woman he long ago abandoned in the wilderness, is invited by Bernard to return with him to London from Malpais (where he was born and reared) for scientific purposes, the young, highly moralistic ‘savage’ is horrified by what he finds and becomes the catalyst for a series of unwelcome developments.
My 2004 Vintage paperback copy boasts two Introductions; the first by Margaret Atwood and the second by the late Professor David Bradshaw. There is also a 1946 update included from Huxley, in which he writes: “All things considered, it looks as though Utopia were far closer to us than anyone […] could have imagined. Then, I projected it six hundred years into the future. Today it seems quite possible that the horror may be upon us within a single century.”
He was seemingly much influenced by the novels of H. G. Wells as well as the effects of Britain’s 1931 Depression. He used science fiction to give voice to commonly held concerns about loss of identity and the quickening pace of the world. Following a visit to the USA, he was also disturbed by the apparent inward-looking nature of many Americans.
Brave New World is an ironic take on the ultimate consumerist society controlled by a seemingly benevolent dictatorship. It was courageous in its time, continues to be prophetic in many ways and is deeply unsettling – even to this 21st century reader. In short, it is a wonderfully clever utopian, dystopian masterpiece.
“We haven’t any use for old things here. Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.”