Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review: Brave New World

Brave New World
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't usually read post-apocalyptic, dystopian, pessimistic or "literary" books, and this is all four. It's very well done, though, and a classic, and I'm glad I read it.

The post-apocalyptic: a terrible war full of anthrax terrorist bombs has been fought, and in order to recover...
The dystopian: the world has been heavily regulated. Humans are now grown in bottles, and raised in conditioning centres, where they are relentlessly conditioned to be mindlessly happy and contribute to a stable society.
The pessimistic: in such a world, there's no place for "high art" or pure science, only for science as a tool, and meaningless entertainment. "You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art... Every discovery in science is potentially subversive... truth's a menace, science is a public danger." The author sees no third way between the squalid primitivism of the "savage reservation" and a sterile, totalitarian modernism. John, the character who is caught between these worlds - having grown up on the reservation, the son of two people from the modernist world, but, unlike almost anyone else alive, with access to an old copy of Shakespeare - is unable to adapt to the modernist world when he is taken there.

Although several of the characters have names alluding to Communism - the female lead's name is Lenina, for example - that seems to be mainly to invoke totalitarianism. In 1931, when the book was written, the Nazis were not yet in power in Germany, and Russia had the only modernist totalitarian government. However, the society depicted in the book is based more on the consumerist modernism of America. References to "Our Ford" have replaced religion - Henry Ford being the ultimate modernist symbol at the time - along with "community sings" ending in orgies.

I was surprised, by the way, at how much sex there is in the book. It's not explicit, but it is pervasive. The members of the society are heavily sexualised from a young age, and social attitudes to monogamy and promiscuity have been reversed (by hypnopaedic conditioning) because family life creates destabilising passions. Nobody knows who their parents are, and "mother" is considered a dirty word. Oddly, given that women's ovaries are removed to be cultured and create the next generation, some (though not all) women are still fertile, and they are all well drilled in contraceptive use. The author does slip up, however, and refers to a "gorillas' wedding" near the end of the book from the viewpoint of a member of the society who doesn't, presumably, know what a wedding is.

When John comes along, with his Shakespearean ideas of love, this causes predictable instability. He's attracted to Lenina, but her sexual behaviour is incomprehensible (and reprehensible) to him, as is her society.

The sexism of the 1930s is baked in. Only the male characters rise above or question their conditioning (for what good it does them); Lenina remains conventional and largely passive, and the other female characters are minor. All the people at the top of society seem to be men.

From the point of view of literary technique, there's a masterful set-piece early in the book. Several conversations are going on at once in different places, and the topics and the voices are so clear and distinct that by the end, the author is cutting rapidly between them with no speaker attribution. It's not only completely possible to follow them and tell who is speaking, but the aggregate effect is greater than the sum of the parts. Even if the book did nothing else, it deserves to be celebrated for this - and it does a great deal more.

The important questions of Brave New World still remain with us. How do we keep society stable, especially in a world where technology is becoming more and more powerful and potentially dangerous? What cost are we prepared to pay for stability? What is "human nature," and what are the implications of attempting to change it? Is it possible to be happy without sinking into mindlessness? What is lost when society pursues happiness as its highest goal?

Deservedly a classic, Brave New World was the first of the great dystopias, influencing all that came after (notably 1984, by Huxley's contemporary George Orwell). It continues to have resonance and power.

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