I had no idea that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was such compulsive reading. I picked it up this morning and could hardly put it down. Every page is packed with things to think about. On the one hand, I wanted to race through the book to see what would happen next. And on the other hand, I wanted to slow down and really think about this new world that Huxley created. Near the end of the book, a character compares their society to an iceberg–most of it is below the waterline. This book is like that, too. There’s so much that has to be going on, but the plot skims along on the surface, tempting you to dig for the subtext. There are so many things to talk about, that I made a list of the most important ones before I started to write this, just to make sure that I didn’t leave anything out.
The book begins in a decanting and conditioning–for lack of a better word–factory. Huxley sticks you deep into the horrors right off the bat. At first, things don’t see all that horrible. But for me, well meaning science is one of the scariest things out there. In this world, the whole process of reproduction has been replaced. (The characters would say improved.) Children aren’t so much born anymore as hatched. As they gestate, chemicals and vaccines are introduced at certain points to stunk or foster growth, to inoculate, to develop tolerances to heat or toxins. The stunted kids are destined to do the dirty work as adults. A chosen few become leaders and thinkers. After they “born,” the children are whisked off to some truly terrifying, Skinneresque conditioning.
A long passage describes the conditioning process. As I read it, I though about how awful it would be to never have a genuine, original thought. In their sleep, recordings play. Voices spouts platitudes and catchy rhymes shape how the children think about their place in society, how to be consumers, how to fear solitude. In times of stress, these little homilies come back. One could argue that we are conditioned ourselves, by our parents and our childhood experiences. But we can change our perspectives and habits, with enough effort. Most of the characters in this book can’t do this. The only ones who can are either more intelligent than they were supposed to be, or they were never conditioned in the first place.
Returning to the iceberg metaphor for a moment, another thing that made a deep impression on me was that the experimentation that must have gone on to achieve all this was barely hinted at. But they never talk about the genetic experiments that must have happened. All through the book, the “civilized” characters are so damned proud of their science. Everything is orderly, sterile, with minimal waste. But I have to wonder how many embryos and children were sacrificed along the way to get a system that, for lack of a better word again, works. It’s a very disturbing thought, and it never occurs to any of the characters to think it. And how many people were driven insane, addicted, or were killed during the soma experiments? In order to perfect a drug that is not addictive, is euphoric, and has predictable behavior, how many human guinea pigs did they have to go through?
The big issue of this book, as I see it, is the nature of happiness. What makes people happy? What can make the largest number of people for the longest amount of time? In Brave New World, apparently its all a matter of changing the human. It’s clear that you can’t change the world. So they condition the lower castes (the ones who were poisoned as embryos) to be stupid, to fear learning and beauty, and to never want more than their next dose of soma. The people who struggle the hardest to stay happy are the ones who are granted their full intelligence. In a sense, this book clearly demonstrates that ignorance is bliss after all. But it makes me wonder what it really means to be happy. Does it mean being satisfied with what you have? Does it mean getting what you want? Is it, as Viktor Frankl supposes, different for everyone? I tend to agree with that idea. I think there are as many different ways to be happy as their are people.
Which is probably why we fight so much. We all want different things. Characters in Brave New World refer to devastating wars in the past and governments that collapsed. So to avoid the merest hint of society instability, they changed how people think and feel about happiness. Instead of seeking their own happiness, they settle for their lot in life. It’s a terribly depressing thought.
After the factory and some character introductions, two of the main characters, Bernard and Lenina, take a trip to a reservation in New Mexico. For no adequately explained reason, the world government left certain areas of the world alone. The people who live there are left to their own devices, to live and reproduce and worship as they will. On a more prosaic note, these “savages” provide a point of reference for the reader because they think more like we do. In a Dickens-level coincidence, one of these savages turns out to be the children of “civilized” people. Bernard and Lenina talk John back to England with him, in a repeat of Smith and Rolfe taking Pocahontas back to show off to important people back home. John, who partially learned to read from Shakespeare, provides a strong contrast to civilization.
At the end of the book, John has a long, losing argument with the controller for Western Europe about happiness. John feels so strongly about concepts like freedom and honor and romance that he is utterly incapable arguing their merits when it comes down to it. The controller is able to shut him down at every turn. But then, if you were called on to argue about why people should be allowed to love beauty for its own sake or to be allowed to be noble, would you be able to be coherent about it? Poor John. I agree with him, and I wish he could have made a better showing. Another way of looking at this is that human happiness is an insoluble problem. We can argue about it forever without changing anyone’s mind.
One last note before I wrap up. The civilized characters use the name Ford instead of God. I’m pretty sure they’re calling on Henry Ford, given the assembly lines and mass consumption. They never say for sure, but it’s an odd rock to build a civilization on. I wonder how much Huxley knew about the historical Ford’s ideology, specifically the antisemitism.
I’m really glad I read this book. I know that I’m going to have to read it again (probably more than once) to get everything out of this story. It’s disturbing and profound. I wished that it had gone on longer than it did, so that I could learn more about this deliciously weird world.