Brave New World book review
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I
Brave New World was not the first dystopian novel of the 20th century; that honour goes, most likely, to Yevgeni Zamyatin’s We, a satire on life in a collectivist futuristic state located in the middle of a jungle. And although he denied it, it’s probably safe to say that Aldous Huxley was at least partly influenced by We when he sat down to write his own version of a totalitarian society.
Where Brave New World differs from We, and from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is in its concept of a regime that controls its populace not by terror but by genetic engineering. Instead of “a boot stamping on a human face, forever”, we have embryonic conditioning and recreational drugs.
In his foreword to the 1947 edition of the book, Huxley wrote the following:
“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude”.
Written in 1931 and published the following year, the novel is set in London in the year A.F. (After Ford) 632 (about 500 years from now). Traditional societal norms have been turned on their heads: “mother” is a dirty word, babies are not born but decanted, sexual promiscuity is actively promoted, and the natural aging process is viewed with horror and disgust. The World State operates along the lines of Henry Ford’s assembly line – God, in fact, has been replaced by Ford. Citizens celebrate Ford Day and invoke his name when swearing.
The story begins in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre where human eggs are fertilized and genetically modified in order to be placed into five distinct classes: Alphas and Betas, who are at the top of the social hierarchy, conditioned to be intelligent and capable of performing work that requires a certain level of decision-making; and Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, genetically engineered to be fit for the most mundane and mindless tasks.
The Director of the Centre is taking a group of students on a tour of the Centre, beginning at the Fertilizing Room, and moving on to the Bottling Room, the Social Predestination Room, and the Decanting Room. Along the way he explains the Bokanovsky Process, whereby fertilized human eggs belonging to the lowest classes are repeatedly cloned. This, he says, is “a major instrument of social stability”:
“One egg, one embryo, one adult – normality. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress.”
The cloned eggs are deprived of oxygen and their blood surrogate is poisoned with alcohol, in order to stunt their growth and reduce their mental capabilities as adults. Once the babies are decanted, they are subjected to years of hypnopaedic conditioning while they sleep, in order to reinforce class consciousness: “Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse”. And so on.
Halfway through the tour we are introduced to one of the main characters, a beautiful young nurse named Lenina Crowne. Huxley refers to Lenina, several times, as “pneumatic”, a word that puzzled me when I read the book back in high school. Its literal meaning is “filled with air” but when applied to a woman I believe it’s meant to be “curvaceous”. Besides being curvy, Lenina is also a “freemartin”, one of the 30% of women who haven’t been sterilized. Popular and conventional, Lenina enjoys sex with a variety of men and is generally quite happy. On the rare occasions when she feels a little stressed, she treats herself to a “soma holiday”, a drug-induced period of relaxation that leaves her with only a very slight hangover.
Lenina has been having a four-month affair with a co-worker, Henry Foster. During that time, she’s done something unusual: she’s abstained from having sex with anyone else. In a society where “everyone belongs to everyone else”, this is distinctly quirky. Her friend, Fanny, urges Lenina to see other men; after all, Henry certainly has other women:
“Trust Henry Foster,” Fanny says, “to be the perfect gentleman – always correct”.
Lenina agrees: “He patted me on the behind this afternoon”.
“There, you see!” Fanny was triumphant. “That shows what he stands for. The strictest conventionality”.
At this point Lenina confesses that she’s attracted to another co-worker, Bernard Marx, an Alpha-Plus psychologist who has some very odd notions. For one thing, he likes to spend time alone (horror of horrors) and for another, he hates her sleeping with other men. He’s also shorter than most Alpha males, due, rumour has it, to an accidental injection of alcohol into his blood surrogate. Bernard is critical of much of society, and doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinions. Nevertheless, when Bernard invites Lenina to accompany him to a remote Savage Reservation in New Mexico, she agrees.
Before they leave, the Director confides to Bernard that he visited the Reservation years ago. The woman he was with went missing during the trip, and he returned to civilization without her. Having confessed his terrible secret, the Director then turns on Bernard and threatens to deport him to Iceland.
For Lenina, the Reservation is a terrible place – dirty, uncomfortable, and full of unattractive, half naked savages. The natives still marry and have children in the old way, and, unlike the citizens of the World State, they practice religion. A non-native woman named Linda comes out to greet them. She’s middle-aged, wrinkled and fat. Neither Bernard nor Lenina have ever seen an old person who actually looks old. Where they come from, technology keeps people youthful and fit right up to the moment they die. Unable to bear the hideousness of this terrifying natural world, Lenina takes a large dose of soma and spends the rest of the holiday in a stupor.
Bernard, however, is intrigued. He discovers that Linda is the woman who accompanied the Director 20 years ago. She has stayed on the Reservation because she was pregnant and gave birth to a son, sired by the Director. This shameful event has prevented her from returning home. Reviled for her promiscuity, Linda is an outcast her on the Reservation. She has, however, taught John to read, and he’s memorized almost every word of the only book he owns, the complete works of William Shakespeare. Linda’s stories of the “civilized world” she left behind make it sound like a kind of paradise, something out of one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Bernard seizes the opportunity to have the upper hand; he invites Linda and John to come to London with him, where he achieves a kind of celebrity as a friend of John “the Savage”. He introduces Linda to his boss, referring to the Director as John’s “father”. Humiliated, the Director leaves, refusing to have anything to do with Linda. As everyone else finds her equally repulsive, Linda takes refuge in soma, lying in bed permanently drugged.
John is confused and then repulsed by the superficiality of this society. Crowds of people flock to see him, as if he’s an exhibit in a zoo. He and Lenina are attracted to each other but his idea of courtship doesn’t fit her idea of normal behaviour. When Lenina tries to seduce him, he physically attacks her, and then learns that his mother, Linda, is dying. He hurries to the hospital and runs into a group of Delta workers awaiting their daily allowance of soma. The words from The Tempest come back to mock him: “O brave new world!” The phrase rings in his ears as a clarion call to action – he must stop the workers from taking this “poison”. Bernard and his friend Helmholtz Watson arrive just in time to see the workers turn on John in a fury. The resulting riot ends in John, Bernard and Watson being arrested and taken to face judgment from Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe
Mond explains that the World State was created to ensure stability and happiness. In order to do that, it was necessary to eliminate truth. Bernard and Watson are banished to the Falkland Islands, but John will be kept in London so Mond can keep an eye one him. Left alone, Mond and John carry on a debate which is really at the heart of the novel: is it best to be free to live as an individual, risking death, disease, despair, and all the inconveniences that afflict humankind? Or is it better to give it all up for the sake of being happy? In a speech that sounds very much like that of the author, John rejects the comforts of this mechanized, mass-produced life:
“I don’t want comfort,” he says. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” says Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy”.
“All right then,” the Savage says, defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy”.
The book should end there, but it doesn’t. John removes himself to a remote lighthouse where he works in his garden and practices self-flagellation. Word gets out that the Savage is behaving weirdly; dozens of helicopters descend on the property, filled with sightseers. Lenina is among them.
“Strumpet!” he cries, rushing at her like a madman. As he whips her the crowd stampedes towards them: “Pain was a fascinating horror”. They begin to strike each other, mimicking his movements, while John continues to beat himself and Lenina in turn. Finally, around midnight, the helicopters leave, and John falls into a soma-induced stupor. The next day it all comes back to him, his own behaviour and that of the others. Overcome with remorse, he hangs himself.
We’re left with the feeling that yes, there will always be rebels, but most of us, like the Romans, will opt for bread and circuses.