Read in a Vintage edition, with forewords by Margaret Atwood and David Bradshaw
Set 600 years in the future, Huxley’s “Brave New World” is run by a benevolent scientific despotism. Science has eliminated most diseases and the ageing process, but has also been used to socially engineer society. Many aspects of our present society are inverted, so drug taking is encouraged, as is promiscuity, books (other than instruction manuals) are forbidden or unknown, and, in a convincing piece of cod-science, parenthood has also been eliminated – children are instead grown in factories, and engineered to fill their pre-designated station in life.
If Huxley had left it there, this would have made an interesting short piece of science fiction, a gentle satire on the way science could lead society. People are relatively happy with their lot in life, and society can even allow dissent, albeit dissent that is quickly isolated and neutered (rather than completely extinguished). There is a certain prurience in the portrayal of sexual liberation in life After Ford, (AF), but titillation in science fiction is nothing new.
However, at this point Huxley introduces a character, Bernard Marx, who is presented as an outsider, one who can see beyond the drug induced façade to the rottenness of society, the emptiness of people’s lives. During a visit to a reservation, Marx “discovers” a savage, John, living among a surviving population of unmodernised indigenous people in Mexico. John has read Shakespeare, and sees the world much as Miranda may have done when first discovering she is not alone on her island.
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!”
John has been treated as an outsider all his life by the Indians he grew up with, but his reaction to the new world he finds himself in is anything but positive. He is repelled by the absence of romantic love, his perspectives having been distorted by his reading of Romeo and Juliet and the like. He finds the new world disgusting, and despite a long and didactic conversation with the Controller, Mustapha Mond, remains unconvinced about the merits of this new world:
“All right then,” said the savage defiantly, I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat, the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.”
When John’s desperate attempts to retreat from society fail, he kills himself in the novel’s final scene. Meanwhile Bernard does not emerge as the hero we originally expect him to be – he uses his notoriety as “discoverer” of the noble savage to sleep with a variety of important women, despite his previous objection to people being treated like pieces of meat, and offers no help to John as he struggles in his new environment.
While a more optimistic view of the future than the later “1984”, “Brave New World” is still bleak. Several of the characters are given the names of well known Communists – Marx, Lenina, Trotsky – suggesting that this world is a socialist experiment, where the attempt to nationalise parenthood and use science to eliminate difference, has failed.
Brave New World is a novel of ideas, where none of the characters are convincing or particularly interesting, and where few of the ideas are fully developed or followed through. The ending is predictable, unconvincing and melodramatic. It really only works as a companion piece to the infinitely darker “1984”. In “1984” the vision of the future is of a boot continually smashing into a face – in “Brave New World” the future is “seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies.” (197)