There are books that have a long lasting and distinctly subversive effect on the psyche and it’s still a mystery to me why this book, Brave New World ended up on the ‘O’ level curriculum back in the 1980s. I read it first aged 14, and reading it again thirty years later, things I didn’t understand then have become much clearer. It’s in some ways a far bleaker book than Orwell’s 1984, which it often compared to for its futuristic slant and in other ways a much more hopeful depiction of the future of mankind.
The author was from a well known and talented family and with that sort of background, it seems inevitable that he would follow in a similarly gifted way. Published in 1932, when Huxley was 38, Brave New World has a visionary glimpse into things that were only barely becoming realities when I first read the book. Test tube babies, that exciting misnomer of the late 70s, are a reality in Brave New World; viviparous birth is a thing of the past. All babies are conceived and grown artificially; society is divided into a genetic caste system from conception. Not only your heredity determines who you are even before you are “decanted” (born) but in vitro conditioning controls a whole host of factors. Those who are to work in the tropics are conditioned from conception to cope with heat and are inoculated in the bottle against tropical diseases. If you belong to any caste below Beta, you are poisoned both by alcohol being added to your bottle(womb) and by having restricted oxygen. Social control is all about people loving what society wishes them to love, and what the society wants most is for people to be happy in their station in life.
Cloning(something that had been dreamed of when I first read the book) has become the norm for lower castes and twin groups of up to 96 identical individuals swarm around happily fulfilling their preordained roles. Sex is so far beyond the 1960s free love free-for-all; child sex is encouraged (“erotic play”) and monogamy is a dirty word. Contraception is everywhere, and many outwardly female people are actually Freemartins (guaranteed sterile and “apart from the slightest tendency to grow beards,” structurally normal.)
The first part of the book overwhelms with its vivid and plausible New World, where everyone is happy and clean and poverty and sickness are eradicated. I was utterly mesmerised and read it in one sitting, arriving at the shocking conclusion at about 2am, unable to sleep and since this was decades before the internet, with no one with whom I might discuss it. The central characters are introduced within the first few pages: Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne, and their friends and co-workers drew me into their world effortlessly, but the most important character does not appear until almost half way.
Bernard, the non-comforming Alpha plus, takes Lenina, his Beta squeeze of the moment on a week’s holiday to a Savage Reservation, a place in New Mexico where life is back in the stone age pretty much, with Indians living as they lived for thousands of years, maintained as a sort of museum and that is when the world really starts to unravel when they meet John (Savage), son of a “civilised” woman who got left behind some twenty or so years before, pregnant and without means of escape. Linda somehow managed to raise John amid the squalor of her surroundings but John can never fit into the society because he is white and considered the son of a whore. He is enchanted when he meets Bernard and Lenina and is allowed to return to civilisation with his mother. John learned to read from snatches of the Bible and a tattered copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and from these lost and now forbidden volumes learned all he believes about morals and ethics and life.
Returning to modern London proves to be an appalling ordeal, and at first John plays along with Bernard showing him off at parties, becoming more and more disenchanted with the brave new world(his words are Miranda’s from The Tempest) and the people in it. His unhappiness spills over and events unfold with the power and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. I sat and shook when I came to the end, disturbed beyond my teenage mind’s capability of articulating, and as a mature woman, I still feel something similar.
One of the central themes is social control. All people are conditioned from conception, and through childhood (with hypnopaedia, sleep teaching) to be happy with who and what they are and their role in life, and yet, even so, with the unlimited food, recreational drugs (soma) sex without taboos or commitment, there is a core of individuals, almost always those from the top caste of Alphas who find themselves feeling alienated from the values and the practises of the society. This is not dissimilar to 1984 but the world of Brave New World is centuries ahead in time and those who fail to fit in are exiled to islands (aside: this was the first time I had heard of the Falkland Islands, and within a short time, the Falklands War had broken out) to govern themselves and explore everything denied them in mainstream society, from pure sciences to philosophy to poetry and forbidden literature. There is no return from an island, because those who are sent to them are deemed disruptive elements. My feeling is that those Alphas sent away probably achieve a greater measure of happiness being square pegs among other square pegs, but also, the fact that a society with rigid social controls allows such people to live gives me hope, even within the confines of a novel, that greater things may await those ill fitting few when removed from the need to pretend that they conform. There is a great release of energy that comes when we are able to say, “Hell, no, that is not me. I will follow my path, not yours!”
This is a totally absorbing novel that is unputdownable even today and is filled with images that will haunt long after you have finished it. I can guarantee that having read it, you will look at our modern world with different eyes, because the seeds that Huxley saw lying dormant in the 20s and 30s and wove into the vision of the novel have begun to sprout at surprising speeds. Science is not the demon at work here, but something much subtler and more sinister.
I shall leave you to find it for yourself.