"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is set in a dystopian - or arguably utopian - future in which the ‘World Controllers’ have created the perfect society: with the use of test tube babies and hypnotism, the community is based on pleasure without moral repercussions. Bernard Marx, however, through some anomaly, is unhappy with his lot in the new world and sets out to relieve his discontent by visiting one of the remaining Savage Reservations where the old imperfect life continues.

Huxley’s futuristic totalitarian world is imaginative, original and incredibly disturbing. Families are now obsolete and instead all babies are grown in bottles and are bred solely to become part of a particular class, in turn each class fulfils a particular job criteria and hence the whole world runs rather like a giant emotionless machine. The classes range from the super intelligent and beautiful Alphas to the mentally stunted Epsilons, who carry out the most menial jobs. Once the babies have been ‘decanted’ - the word ‘born’, along with other words such as ‘mother’, have become vulgar and taboo - they undergo years of conditioning to ensure that they are happy with their particular class:

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas...And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write...I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

Now that there is no need to reproduce by natural means, sex is purely recreational. In this world “everyone belongs to everyone else” and promiscuity is heavily encouraged and is considered the civilised way to behave; romantic relationships are a thing of the past.

The community are kept happy by the legal narcotic Soma, which people take whenever they feel negative and has no apparent side effect. These two aspects of the setting subvert contemporary social values: nowadays individuals are sometimes judged as immoral for acting promiscuously and taking drugs, so the fact that this is the status quo in the Huxley’s totalitarian state might be shocking to a modern reader - and would certainly have been so to a 1930’s audience, when the novel was published.

What I love about Brave New World is how thought provoking it is. It would be very easy to say that if everyone is happy under this system then is there really a problem? However, what Huxley highlights so well is the question of what would we give up for happiness - is our very humanity worth the cost? Are people truly happy if they are not free thinking and have been brainwashed into thinking particular things and acting a particular way? Huxley underlines these issues through the characters: since they lack humanity they don’t feel like people, but more like robots, and they often repeat phrases they have been conditioned to believe like an automaton might.

However, despite the stimulating subject matter and the unsettling, imaginative setting, the story of Brave New World is quite weak. Once the initial shock and disgust with Huxley’s environment wears off a little, there is not much of interest happening to the characters and at times is dull and disengaging. This is only exacerbated by the robotic characters as they are not exceptionally compelling personalities, with the exception of John the Savage who is definitely the most defined and interesting character.

Brave New World is an incredibly thought-provoking and interesting read. It is often compared to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I think that Orwell’s novel is superior mainly due to the more interesting plot. Huxley’s novel is much more concerned with setting than story, but nonetheless Brave New World has a lot to say, has implicit shock value, evokes plenty of challenging questions, is scary and thoughtful with a harrowing conclusion that will haunt you for days after you’ve finished reading it.

Rating: 8/10 

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