Dystopian fiction is supposedly about the future, but it’s always tied in to the fears—and the technologies—of its own time period. Although Brave New World can claim biochemistry more advanced than ours, one of its characters boasts about information stored on “eighty-eight cubic metres of card-index” which I imagine would fit comfortably on a thumb drive.
In his Foreword, written years after the novel was published, Huxley acknowledges faults in the work, but also acknowledges that trying to fix it would be senseless meddling; the novel is and will be the same novel it always was, warts and all. (Are you listening, George Lucas? Senseless meddling!)
I didn’t enjoy it overall. The imagined setting is interesting because of the detail in which it’s described, and Huxley touches on some big ideas about what it means to be human, but it’s hard to create a new and interesting setting and handle big ideas and still have room left for characters to interact and plot events to take place, all in the space of 158 pages! Brave New World felt heavy on exposition.
Still, the worldbuilding, ideas, characters, and plot taken together, are impressive enough to make this a classic.
See below for more on all that, but beware SPOILERS. And British spelling.
- The human hatchery that is described to us is competing with one in Singapore. Mentions of Singapore in fiction make me grin.
- The many intentionally sterile female humans are called “freemartins”, which I learned is a real word used to describe sterile female calves. The word makes sense in the novel because humans are produced using some cow components.
- In Huxley’s future, Polish, French, and German are all dead languages. Language death is a real thing, perhaps an inevitable thing, and it’s sad, even if maybe in some sense it’s for the best. Huxley hasn’t highlighted the languages most likely to die, though.
- I learned that “flivver” is a slang word for a car or plane which has connotations of “jalopy”. The Ford Flivver was a prototype single-passenger plane that never took off—or rather, took off and then crashed, and thus never went into mass production. That’s why the future of the flying cars never came into being: Ford made a bad prototype!
- In fact, such was the specter of American consumerism, in the form of Henry’s popular black automobiles, that the people of Huxley’s future revere someone called Our Ford, and crosses have been replaced with Ts.
- The word “pneumatic” is a compliment describing a woman. I guess it means “pleasantly soft and squishy”?
- Zippers, according to one of the two introductions, were thought to make clothes scandalously easy to remove. They abound.
- In Huxley’s imagined future, flies and mosquitoes were eliminated “centuries ago”. If only! I have no pity for insects that spread lethal human diseases.
- A reporter has an “aluminium stove-pipe hat” containing a wireless receiver and transmitter. When Huxley was imagining the communication technology of the future, did he imagine the smartphone? No. He imagined a metal stove-pipe hat. Ha!
Brave New World shows the struggle to balance progress and stability, sameness and difference. It seems that society needs some ideas, some individual differences, but that too many are risky. Huxley’s future has chosen to marginalize the individual for the sake of the group so as to preserve this delicate balance, which is not as stable as it wants you to think it is—or else why would there be riot police and islands of exiles?
Disagreement is dangerous; it is THE danger:
‘[N]o offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual – and, after all, what is an individual?’ With a sweeping gesture he indicated the rows of microscopes, the test-tubes, the incubators. ‘We can make a new one with the greatest ease – as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.’
What I remember from reading Brave New World in high school is that the society was composed of individuals created at different levels of intelligence because creating only smart people resulted in chaos:
‘The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas…. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen.’
Plato and countless feudal societies believed in a natural hierarchy of one kind or another, so positing that there will always be a lot of supposedly stupid or relatively incompetent people at the bottom of society is nothing new. Huxley gives an exact proportion, though:
‘The optimum population… is modelled on the iceberg – eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.’
From there, I’m not sure I follow the logical leap to creating groups of massive numbers of genetically identical clones at the lower levels. I guess they’re easier to control—or even just easier to clothe in one-size-fits-all uniforms—if they’re all genetically the same? Certainly they’re scarier to someone unaccustomed to seeing them, and lend a real air of horror to Huxley’s future. Individuality is part of being human.
Being human also means taking the bad with the good.
‘[T]hat’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them … But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy…. I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’
‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.’
‘All right, then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’
Being human also means making choices, but it’s not clear whether real choice is available to most people in this society. Can you force people to be free, as John wishes the Deltas to be free? Does he wish for their freedom for their sake or his own? Is freedom for the Deltas even feasible, under the circumstances, or have genetic manipulation and conditioning destroyed their free will? What about the free will of Betas like Lenina? She seldom questions what she has been taught. Even Bernard, a discontent Alpha, has trouble disregarding the rules of his society.
Bernard is a round peg in a square hole. He plays along because he feels he has to. He feels painfully different from those around him even when not being rejected or taunted because of those differences. He feels at fault somehow. Yet he will not choose to give up being who he is. When the situation changes, and he comes into favor, he is loud in his criticism of society’s norms because it inflates his sense of importance. That pride precedes a fall, however.
John, his ideas and speech colored by the language of Shakespeare bereft of the relevant cultural context, is the source of the title. The words belong to Miranda, a character in The Tempest. When John expresses his excitement about traveling with Bernard to the civilized world, the words are joyous. Later, when he sees clones in a factory, the words are spoken in horrified irony. Finally, the words challenge him to try to fix the problems he sees.
My Beat Sheet Plot Summary for Brave New World
We tour a hatchery where humans are no longer born, but grown. (The Wachowskis must have read Huxley before they made The Matrix.)
Set-up / Theme Stated
The world is very organized. Bernard doesn’t quite fit in because he is not as attractive as others of his social class. Bernard wants to visit the savage reservation. He wants to date a woman named Lenina.
Bernard asks Lenina to go with him to the reservation, something few are allowed to do. She is curious, so she agrees. Bernard convinces his boss, who disapproves of his aberrant behavior, to allow the trip.
Before entering the reservation, Bernard has… reservations. Bernard is worried about being exiled to Iceland by his boss. Moreover, he knows that Lenina loves modern conveniences, which won’t exist inside the reservation.
Break into Two
Lenina still wants to go; to make Bernard relax, she convinces him to take drugs, which normally he avoids doing. They enter the reservation.
Promise of the Premise / B Story
Bernard and Lenina see the primitive living conditions of the savages. They meet John, son of Linda, a civilized woman. Bernard realizes that Linda is the former girlfriend of his boss, who must have accidentally marooned her on the reservation after fathering John. Linda has taught John to read, but there is little to read on the reservation apart from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, most of which John doesn’t really understand.
Bernard offers John and Linda the chance to go back with him to the civilized world, and they accept. Bernard’s boss, on the point of firing him, is forced to resign when Bernard, in front of everyone, introduces him to his son and former girlfriend.
Bad Guys Close in
People still don’t like Bernard, but now they have to be nice to him because they want to meet John. Linda starts taking a lot of drugs. John falls in love with Lenina.
All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul (Bernard)
After an awkward date with Lenina, John refuses to go to Bernard’s party and meet all the important people he invited. All of Bernard’s guests leave, including Lenina.
All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul (John)
Lenina’s open, uncomplicated sexual desire disgusts John. Linda dies.
Break into Three
John tries to save a large crowd of stupid Deltas from the drugs that he blames for his mother’s death by flinging the Deltas’ pills out the window and lecturing them on freedom. Bernard’s writer friend Helmholtz arrives and defends John from the resulting attack. Bernard is pathetically afraid to get involved; luckily the riot police subdue everyone—using squirt guns! (This is my favorite scene; it’s so utterly absurd it’s hilarious.)
The three rebels are taken to see a high-level government official. He talks to them at length on a variety of subjects, including Shakespeare, God, and the challenges of governing a society. There can be no passion, no heroism, and no change in a stable society. A stable society needs to pursue happiness, not truth (scientific “progress”) or beauty (high art). The upshot of all this exposition is that Helmholtz and Bernard will be exiled to places where they will not cause problems among others, but where they will likely be more contented, each in his own way. Helmholtz, the disgruntled propagandist, asks to be sent somewhere with bad weather, because he feels that such hardship will inspire writing that’s more meaningful.
John, seeking the right to be unhappy, exiles himself to a lighthouse, where he derives pleasure from physical labor, but civilization won’t leave him in peace. A reporter comes. John shoes him away rudely, but others follow; one hides cameras on his property. The resulting movie makes him so famous that no amount of shooing suffices.
John has hanged himself.
Bits of Writing I Particularly Liked
Words are X-rays:
Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.
The present is a flower:
Lenina shook her head. ‘Was and will make me ill,’ she quoted, ‘I take a gramme and only am.’ In the end she persuaded him to swallow four tablets of soma. Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present rosily blossomed.
Confidence is a balloon:
Pierced by every word that was spoken, the tight balloon of Bernard’s happy self-confidence was leaking from a thousand wounds.
Leisure is hard work:
Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them.
A philosopher is an unimaginative dreamer:
‘He was a philosopher, if you know what that was.’
‘A man who dreams of fewer things than there are in heaven and earth,’ said the Savage promptly.
The opiate of the masses is not religion, it’s an actual opiate:
[T]here’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is.’
When and Why I Read Brave New World
This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for February 2018. I read it in high school.
Genre: Fiction (Classic Science-Fiction, Dystopian)
Date started / date finished: 17-Feb-2018 / 18-Feb-2018
ISBN: ASIN B00JTYQJ3K
Originally published in: 1932/2014
Amazon link: Brave New World (paperback)