This was rescued from the trash can. Please excuse the creepy cover art — it was too good to pass up. Warning — contains spoilers.
Book #3 on my 20before20 reading list was A Brave New World (see posts on #1, Absalom, Absalom, and #2, This Side of Paradise). While I’ve read a wide swath of genre and science fiction books, I never made it to Huxley’s classic.
Brave New World introduces us to a society founded upon “Our Ford’s” (e.g., Henry Ford’s) assembly line, where humans are grown in test tubes and are engineered for ideal social, physical, and mental states for their place in society. Only one place remains where humans give birth to their own children, raise them, and die from disease and old age.
Bernard Marx, an idealist, and Lenina, a young factory worker, travel to the land of the “savages” on a romantic holiday. There they find one of their own, Linda, who was stranded in the land of the savages twenty years ago, and her son, John. Bernard and Lenina take Linda and John back to civilization, but John, who has looked forward to this moment his whole life, finds himself laughed at as a freak, and his ideals are ignored. John’s treasured possession and his only defense against the “brave new world” are his books, his copies of Shakespeare’s plays. His knowledge of bravery and the ideal life are completely at odds with the World State’s inane desires, and so he flees to a tower in the country to escape from worldly desires. Even there the paparazzi descend on him, and John takes part in their orgy. The next morning, realizing that he submitted to the World State frenzy that he so despised, he hangs himself.
I read tons of science fiction and fantasy books as a teenager (I remember favorites being The Wheel of Time, Airborn, and Leviathan). Many of them, including recent fan favorites like The Hunger Games, build upon dystopian worlds envisioned by Aldous Huxley. Maybe that’s why I was initially unimpressed by A Brave New World. I read the third and fourth generations of science fiction, and only just got around to the original. Maybe it’s also that I have the benefits of hindsight; I know that socialism failed.
But Huxley is too smart for me. Unlike Orwell, Huxley has more on his mind than socialism or communism. He’s not warning us against a specific political system; he’s warning us against our own desires and states of mind. He warns us against the groupthink that our American consumerism has already introduced us to. He warns us against the selling of sex without any emotion, against degrading people whom we judge to be physically inferior, against a dull desire to suppress anything uncomfortable or challenging.
In that light, A Brave New World still has a lot to say about our current society. I don’t want to get too far into politics or religion, but Huxley’s scenes of test-tube babies and zippered jumpsuits make me think of the sexiness that is the modern entertainment industry, and the controversies about surrogate mothers, or the decline in interest and economic support of the humanities and literature.
I read The Tempest in my medieval humanities class shortly after I finished this book. I found myself thinking about how important it is to me that I can recognize the beauty in Shakespeare. I thought of the terror and rage of Prospero as he fights to control Ariel. It would be easy to say that I’m Ariel, the free-wheeling college student who throws of the shackles of American consumerism. But Huxley is not making that point, unlike a lot of teenage dystopian fiction– he is telling us that we ourselves are Prospero. We are perpetuating a control system and the consumer society, and if we aren’t careful, we may slide into a Fordian world. But I’m not sure if Huxley offers any escape, or hope for us. Though A Brave New World may have been written 80 years ago, other people encounter our world every day, murmuring in confusion,
O brave new world!
That has such people in’t.