Last month I reviewed one of my favorite SF novels of all time, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This month, I turn to one of Orwell’s near-contemporaries, an author of another Dystopia that paints a world just as controlled as Orwell’s, only with a little more velvet on the iron fist: Aldous Huxley, and his magnum opus, Brave New World. Published in 1932, it predates Orwell’s work by just shy of two decades. While Orwell was influenced by his experiences in World War II, Huxley, nine years his senior, was more influenced by the laissez faire attitudes of the 1920s when writing his particular brand of future society. Although Brave New World‘s London is, on the surface, a much more desirable locale than the London of Winston Smith, we cannot forget that there is still that iron fist beneath the velvet surface. Click through after the break to get my take on this amazing novel.
The primary conceit in BNW is technological control of the biological being. This is done via two primary methods: through control of fetal development, and through the use of the drug Soma, which is a mood stabilizer/pleasure enhancer.
The novel begins in a “Hatchery,” where fertilized eggs are nurtured and prepared depending on what the eventual fate of the individual is going to be. People are divided into five groups associated with decreasing mental and physical prowess: Alphas are at the top, followed by Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons bringing up the bottom. Embryos destined to be the latter three groups undergo the “Bokanovsky Process,” whereby they are split into identical clones at an early stage after fertilization; this is done as the resultant humans will be doing near identical work, and are really the cogs in the well-oiled machine that supports the Alphas and Betas.
Soma is the other pillar of control. It is a heavily addictive drug which is so endemic to the culture in BNW, that everyone is given a weekly ration, and Soma gas is used to control unruly crowds. In one memorable scene, a character throws away the Soma rations of a group of Deltas, nearly getting himself and others killed in the ensuing riot. Soma is taken recreationally by Alphas and Betas, and anyone resisting the group desire for cheap pleasure is heavily suspected, censured, and in worst case scenarios, banished. On an interesting side-note, up until recently there was a muscle relaxant that was available under the brand name Soma. Huxley’s Soma is far more insidious, not just relaxing the user, but heightening pleasure and taking away all negative thoughts. It is prescribed as the solution to all problems. Why worry, when you can pop a Soma?
The novel is unusual in that it has two clear protagonists: Bernard Marx and John the Savage. Bernard is an Alpha, but he is something of an outsider – other Alphas gossip about him, wondering if he may have been exposed to a little alcohol as a fetus in the hatchery (a method used to make Betas and below mentally deficient and subservient to Alphas). He has trouble fitting in, getting dates (which is a major marker of social acceptance), and Soma makes him feel ill. As an outsider within his own culture, he offers readers a position from which to observe this future society, which measures its years using the AF (After Ford) count. Conformity and a reliance on technological devices are so central to society, that they mark their years from the invention of the assembly line. The second protagonist is the product of two Alphas, but was born on a Reservation when his mother was abandoned there by his father. He takes over the second half of the narrative, as Marx does everything he can to be accepted and to remain in his society; John provides readers with a true outsider’s perspective, one more in line with Twentieth and Twenty-First Century readers.
Huxley’s interest in this novel is twofold: he investigates the lengths to which technology can be taken in the name of control; and, counter to Orwell’s approach, he examines what a society based on pleasure over coercion might be capable of. In a letter he wrote to Orwell following the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he suggested to Orwell that his, Huxley’s, vision was the more likely. In fact, a quick look around us shows a combination of Orwell’s surveillance state (the NSA, London’s “Ring of Steel”), and Huxley’s pleasure state (prescription and illegal drugs, alcohol, reality television, sports, games, the media’s focus on vacuous celebrity). While people are watched, the fact is most of us are too busy pursuing personal pleasure to ever think about protesting against the government. And all the watching in the world isn’t going to stop people from complaining if their bellies are empty or their situation is dismal. Feed them, entertain them – the Roman bread and circuses approach – and you keep people in check. In my opinion, Huxley’s vision is the truer one.
Steve’s Grade: A+
One of the great novels in English or any language. Highly recommended, and particularly interesting if read in conjunction with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.