Title: Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley
Genre: Dystopian Fiction
The allure of dystopian fiction lies in its ability to conjure nightmarish possibilities from its readers’ worst fears, while yet allowing those very readers to reassure themselves, when they put the book down, that their own reality could be so much worse. The power of the very best of dystopian fiction lies in the niggling discomfort that its readers carry with them long after they are done with the story, and indeed, long after they have forgotten its characters and plot. It is the discomfort created by realising that the gap between that nightmarish fantasy and one’s own reality is not quite as wide as one might have liked to believe. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which by some measures is the very first in the genre, is insidious and nuanced in ways that its successors never quites captured. The appeal of Brave New World comes from the complexity of its characters and the originality of its setting but its longevity comes from the hard-hitting questions it asks us about our relationship with the very concept of happiness and the price we are willing to pay to achieve it.
Brave New World is set in a world that is troublingly easy for the modern reader to conceive. It is a world where all of society is modelled after bureaucratic life – everything from relationships to community to family is commoditized and optimized for social efficiency. Henry Ford is the new Jesus Christ and soma, a fictional drug is the consequence-free opioid for the masses. It all seems decidedly outlandish when described as such stark terms but Huxley’s world-building is convincing enough that before long, the similarities between his fiction and our reality begin to become clear. The ritualistic religious ceremonies in Huxley’s society, devoid of any real spiritual meaning and engineered solely for social cohesion, seems eerily familiar as does the endlessly encouraged and seldom questioned consumerism.
In this soulless setting, Huxley places a small handful of characters, each of whom come into conflict with various elements of their society, and occasionally, each other. At the centre of both the story and the cast, stands the protagonist, Bernard Marx. Despite being born to the highest caste, Marx’ physical deformities have made him something of an outsider to his peers and have left him plagued by insecurities. His struggles against the various social chains binding him drive much of the first half of the book; his numerous flaws being only partially offset by his powerful ability to pinpoint the fallacies of the society around him. His counterweight comes in the innocent form of John the Savage, a young man born in unfortunate circumstances entirely outside the system. He brings with him both a wide-eyed wonder at the marvels that civilisation has conjured and a shocked disgust at their cost. John’s tumultuous relationship with the titular brave, new world outside his primitive ghetto lead to the novel’s ultimate question: are imperfections and setbacks to be embraced or eliminated? Artificial happiness exists for those who are willing to sell their souls for it and the painful misery experienced by those who reject it is tangible, but by the novel’s final pages, Huxley seems to imply that while highs cannot exist without lows to define them, human nature is such that mankind will never cease trying to eliminate the lows and maximise the highs.
For all its ideological excellence, the novel is not without its drawbacks. Brave New World is less sophisticated as a piece of literature than it is as a creative essay on the evils of an unrelenting pursuit of efficiency. There are some pacing issues with the way Huxley structures his plot; there are chapters that consist of nothing but exposition and the final section of the novel is little more than a ideological diatribe in which the characters become little more than Huxley’s mouthpieces. In some ways, it is helpful to think of Brave New World as a victim of its own modern success – so many of the tropes and devices that it leans on have been adopted into popular culture that it is hard to understand that they were not par for the course at the time. Funnily enough, Huxley’s writing is at its best when he exposes his characters vulnerabilities and naked humanity and at its weakest when he drones on about his worldview through the characters.
No discussion of Brave New World can be complete without also somehow bringing George Orwell’s 1984 into it – a sentiment Huxley agrees with as well. It is always tempting to take a step back from novels like 1984 or Brave New World and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the world we live in is almost nothing like the worlds in these novels. The truth is that both Huxley and Orwell identified fundamental elements of human nature that will almost guarantee that some of the measures set out in their books, measures that we would currently call extreme, will either be considered or implemented at some point in the future. Huxley identified mankind’s endless pursuit of perfection and happiness while Orwell pointed out man’s need for control. Yet, both authors also established that there will always be people who oppose those very measures because as human as it is to seek happiness, perfection and control, it is just as human to be unhappy, imperfect and free.
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