by Aldous Huxley. Originally published, 1932. Many editions available. New York: Harper Perennial. 268pp. Paper. $13.95. ISBN: 9780060850524.
Reviewed by Tracy Lightcap, Department of Political Science, LaGrange College. Email: Tlightcap [at] lagrange.edu.
Today, it seems almost de rigueur to regard speculations about the future in a dystopian mode. No more LOOKING BACKWARD, only THE ROAD; no more THINGS TO COME, only BLADERUNNER. But this was not always so and it is instructive to think of the origins of this change in tastes. Part of the impetus was, of course, the unparalleled disasters of the twentieth century, many of them the result, in part, of utopian schemes for social reconstruction and their horrendous consequences. But there is an earlier and, in many ways, more influential strain of thought that began this trend, and BRAVE NEW WORLD is its beginning. Huxley’s masterpiece was not the first work of speculative fiction to have a negative cast and, revealingly, was not a great popular success when originally released. BRAVE NEW WORLD, however, has proved one of the most long-lived and profoundly disturbing works of fiction written in recent times. Why?
Before BRAVE NEW WORLD was written, there existed a generally “progressive” view of the future. Huxley’s book burst on a world still enthralled - even after the slaughter of World War I - by visions of new societies empowered and realized by scientific progress. The inspiration of the book was J.B.S. Haldane’s essay, “DAEDALUS, or Science and the Future.” Originally a talk delivered in 1923 to the “Heretics,” a Cambridge society, DAEDALUS is far from a paean to progress. It does, however, accept that many, if not all, human physical, psychological, and social problems will yield to scientific remedies, albeit with what may seem incongruous results and losses to civilization.
Specifically, Haldane raised several possibilities. First, the need for economic stability, whatever the system used, would slowly replace the intra- and international competition that now characterizes production with efforts to thoroughly rationalize industrial processes world wide. Second, biological research would lead to the application of industrial production techniques to human reproduction with attendant selection processes that would greatly reduce the incidence of genetic defects and greatly improve overall health. Third, advances in medicine would render death, disease, and, with proper endocrinal medication, even old age itself much less formidable than in the past. Finally, Haldane speculated that the use of more efficient behavior modifying drugs, scientifically founded religion, and new mores rising from freeing humans from reproduction and family life would combine to adjust individuals to societies more efficiently.
All of these sometimes eerie predictions were accompanied by a tone of inevitable resignation to a changing, but, [*329] perhaps, better future. Huxley, who knew Haldane well, takes these ideas and portrays the society Haldane predicts in BRAVE NEW WORLD. Since he was an accomplished satirist, however, the results he imagines take on a droll and ultimately disturbing character. Here is the reason that the book has been generally recognized as a classic: all of Haldane’s predictions about the relief of mankind’s ills take place and the result, when it is not ridiculous, is horrifying.
The motto of Huxley,s World State - Community, Identity, Stability - is exactly what the future has delivered. The foundation of the BRAVE NEW WORLD is a caste system based on mass production of cohorts of genetically identical human beings. Stability is guaranteed by a steady, planned production of entire genetically designed populations and a system of subliminal education that trains entire castes for work and consumption. No one goes hungry or homeless because there are no economic dislocations and everyone is gainfully employed. Further, no one is depressed or mentally disturbed because the major strains in life have been largely eliminated by sexual communalism, the use of safe, highly potent psychedelic drugs (soma), and the elimination of economic and status stresses. Identity is insured by the genetic impermeability of castes and by the slots in life everyone is trained to occupy. No one is concerned about economic and social inequalities because both have been greatly reduced (they are inefficient) and because genetic differences justify what status differences remain. Community is sustained by the abolishment of individual sexual and personal attachment and the adoption of a world religion based on worship of an abstraction of production itself (“Our Ford”) and solidified by ceremonies based on soma-induced group sexual encounters. No one feels separated from others because individual conditioning, sexual satiation, caste position, and religious condemnation of individuality literally leave no time for anyone to think about or for themselves. No one fears even death itself: life spans are planned and death is simply an end to the organism, not the community.
There are two problems in paradise, however. First, the Alpha Plus managing caste has to be individually produced to insure the correct level of intelligence and cannot be subjected to the same heavy-handed conditioning as others. They must have an ability to take independent decisions and, within limits, manage. This automatically introduces a wider range of variation in the caste with attendant risks of outlying individuals. Those who do not fit in are offered a choice: go into training for the corps of “controllers” who oversee the state or accept exile to islands reserved for misfits. Second, the World State, unlike many dystopian fantasy regimes, has no interest in subsuming all territory within it. Only those areas that can be developed at an acceptable cost are included. Those that cannot be – and the people who occupy them – are left to their own devices.
The plot in BRAVE NEW WORLD revolves around these limitations. The story focuses on two Alpha-Plus misfits: Bernard Marx, small, unattractive, and shy, and his friend, Helmholtz Watson, unusually handsome, intelligent, and physically gifted. These two, uneasily [*330] aware of their individuality, have a difficult time for different reasons. In an effort to impress Lenina Crowne, an attractive and “wonderfully pneumatic” young woman, Bernard takes her to a “Savage Reservation” in the American Southwest to see how those outside the World State live. There they encounter the Savage, the natural born son of a woman abandoned in the reservation earlier by Bernard’s boss, the Director of Hatcheries (i.e. production of human beings) for London. The return of the Savage and his mother to “civilization” gives Huxley a chance to contrast the Savage’s behavior and values with those of the inhabitants of the BRAVE NEW WORLD. The Savage’s unrequited love for Lenina and the constant misunderstandings this leads to (she tries to seduce him, triggering an orgy of rejection and repentance in return) is a major element of this part of the plot.
Finally, Bernard, Helmholtz and the Savage are brought before Mustafa Mond, the Resident Controller for Western Europe, who had authorized the Savage’s visit to London as a social experiment. Bernard and Helmholtz are sent to islands, but the Savage is allowed to live on his own in the English countryside. After a period of mortification and prayer, he is found by the news media and descended upon by sightseers. In a final visit, Lenina appears and, under the influence of soma, the Savage consummates their relationship. The remorse he feels the next day for betraying his beliefs leads to his suicide.
Why does this book generate such continuing interest? The reason is straightforward enough, I think: BRAVE NEW WORLD tells us that the dreams of progressive utopias economic and social stability, individual mental and physical health, and happiness for all – can be purchased at too great a price. But it is a commitment to the achievement of these goals that provides the main justification for modern democratic states, and it is the success of the United States in attaining them that is the centerpiece of our national amour-propre. Huxley reminds us of some unpleasant and, in both the past and the present, unfashionable truths. If we use our scientific knowledge to create societies that subordinate individuals to the requirements of efficient production and the structural and cultural stability it requires, we risk destroying individual freedom and, what’s worse, individual dignity in the process. We might create a society, like the one in BRAVE NEW WORLD, where the number of self-reliant adults could, literally, be counted on our fingers.
Let’s face it: this is not a message that 21st century Americans are eager to hear. No matter what our political and social preferences, most of us want a more equal society where individual risks are reduced, where we can consume the fruits of our labors without much remorse, and where the “hurting” of our fellows can be assuaged. We have different roads that we would take to reach these goals, but the mechanisms of mass industrial production and the intensive use of engineering and scientific knowledge, no matter what their effects might be, are presupposed. Different camps have different ways of fooling themselves about ways to avoid the consequences of this commitment, but no one is backing away from it. [*331]
And that is exactly why BRAVE NEW WORLD should be widely used in political science classrooms. What Huxley was trying to point out about the World State, is not that happiness and stability are undesirable, but that happiness and stability have to be achieved by societies that put individuals, not institutions, first. As Huxley says, “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque cooperative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not . . . as though man were adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s Final End . . . And the prevailing philosophy of life would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which . . . the first question to be asked in every contingency of life being ‘How will this thought or action contribute to or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest number of other individuals, of man’s Final End’” (pp.ix-x).
This is brought out most clearly in his later utopian novel, ISLAND. On Pala, the South Seas island of the title, all of the tools for social stability used in BRAVE NEW WORLD – sexual communalism and contraception, psychedelic drugs, extensive uses of science, planned economic stability, transcendent religion – are used to help create a self-sustaining society of conscious adults, not an infantile nightmare. But reading Huxley’s prescription for a sane (he uses that term) modern society is enough to see why his masterpiece still causes disquiet 77 years after it was written. Quite simply, we do not want to hear him clearly.
BRAVE NEW WORLD is one of those rare books that is both profound and entertaining at the same time. I have used DAEDALUS, BRAVE NEW WORLD, and ISLAND for several years in a January term course, “Utopias and Dystopias: Images of the Polity in Literature and Film,” with great success. It is a great learning moment when I look at the class after we have discussed BRAVE NEW WORLD and ask, innocently, “But isn’t human happiness what we want?” The book, with or without ISLAND, is sure to provoke discussion in any course examining speculative political fiction, sustainability (the question of what kind of sustainable future we might want is front and center in these books), or modern political ideologies. I think BRAVE NEW WORLD could also be used profitably in an introductory course in political science as a supplemental text. I encourage interested scholars to give Huxley’s great dystopia a chance to enrich their curricula.
Haldane, J.B.S. 2008. “DAEDALUS, or Science and the Future.” www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Daedalus.html (February 28, 2008).
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Tracy Lightcap.