September 30, 2011

Friday Review: Brave New World

One of the few books I’ve returned to repeatedly over the years is Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s audacious dystopian classic. When I was young I read it for pleasure. In college, I read it as part of an independent study project on utopia and dystopia in fiction. A few weeks ago, spurred by a sale at Audible, I decided to read . . . er, listen . . . to it again. Fortuitously, I finished it up just as Banned Book Week began. Given that Brave New World is still one of the most controversial books of all time (in the top 10 books challenged in the United States last year), it seemed like a perfect choice for this week’s Friday Review.

For the unfamiliar, Huxley’s dystopia is developed in a completely different way from the nightmarish authoritarian worlds of, say, 1984 or Anthem. Orwell famously wrote that “[i]f you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” The world of 1984 is grey, depressing, brutal, and no place than any sane person would want to live. Huxley’s world, on the other hand, is at least superficially enticing. Everybody’s happy. Family strife and trauma have been eliminated, since families themselves are obsolete. There’s loads of things to buy and do to keep people occupied outside of work where, by the way, everybody does what they’re designed to do, so nobody gets fed up with their job. Sex as recreation is encouraged, if not mandated. And, if nothing else, there’s soma, a wonder drug that squelches any lingering worries.

Of course, it doesn’t really work out as well as advertised. If it did there’s be no conflict right? Thus no drama, thus no book. We meet characters who are outsiders, even in a world where everyone is so carefully crafted to be one of the horde. Things go completely haywire when a “savage,” that is a man raised outside the carefully crafted world in which most people live, shows up and begins to ask uncomfortable questions. Usually, at this point, I’d say “wackiness ensues,” but any book that ends with a major character killing himself really isn’t all that wacky.

That said, here are a few observations I picked up reading through Brave New World this time.

First, a writerly observation. Huxley starts the book off in a way that just about every “how to” book on writing says you shouldn’t. He doesn’t introduce any of the main characters. He doesn’t kick off the plot to get you hooked. Instead, he spends several chapters data dumping about how the people who live in this world are created and conditioned. It transitions nicely into the introduction of most of the major characters, but I can’t think a modern editor would be pleased with it. Which just goes to show that you follow the rules, unless you’re good enough to break them and get away with it.

A big part of Brave New World is about conditioning. As I said, Huxley spends several chapters at the outset explaining how children are bred, “decanted,” and conditioned via various means into the caste-bound happy adults they will become. What I never really picked up on before was how that conditioning bumps up against a more traditional form of conditioning, in the character of John “the Savage.” Raised on a reservation by a woman from the wider world left behind during vacation, he grows up as hard wired as the two main bottle-raised characters, Lenina and Bernard. That’s particularly evidence in his reaction to Lenina’s sexual advances, his revulsion driven by what he learned about sexuality in the reservation (namely that his mother, who shared Lenina’s conditioning, was outcast and beaten for having sex with several men in the area). Similarly, his drive to seek refuge in Shakespeare seems to come about in the same unthinking way. It all speaks to me as a commentary on how we are all conditioned by our environments, whether intentionally or not.

Which leads to an altogether less comfortable observation. The philosophical climax of the book is a long discussion between John and Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, who basically runs that part of the world, in which they go back and forth about issues of free will, liberty, and the like. Particularly, John asks about the lower caste workers, who do the truly shit jobs. “Don’t they want better out of life?” he asks (I’m paraphrasing). It’s a question that would come to most us, raised as we are on the importance of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Mond’s answer, of course, is “no,” for the simple reason that they are doing the jobs they are conditioned to do, not just physically by psychologically. They don’t know what they’re missing, in other words.

That conversation resonated to me in that it reminds me of the problem of cultural imperialism and human rights. Like I said, most “Western” nations place a high priority on individual liberty, even at the expense of social order or tranquility. But other cultures – I’m thinking of some Asian ones – don’t place the same emphasis on individuals, instead focusing on group dynamics and social functionality. Does Mond’s explanation of why the lower castes aren’t unhappy with their lot apply equally to people who grow up in other cultures who don’t know they’re being denied the individual liberty others take for granted? Of course, the difference between us and them in the real world is much much less than the difference between the Alphas and Deltas of Brave New World. But I’m not sure that doesn’t just dodge the question.

I always viewed John as “our” representative in the book. After all, he’s the character whose upbringing most closely resembles our own. This time through, I came to the conclusion that I don’t want John representing me. He’s a closed minded fundamentalist asshole, only he quotes Shakespeare instead of the Bible. Not that he doesn’t make some potentially valid criticisms of the world he confronts. He’s just written in such a way that he’s not all that sympathetic. Of course, neither are the representatives of the modern world, either. In that sense, Huxley pushes everyone to the extremes of their positions, for whatever reason. It makes the conflicts ring a bit hollow, in the end, and presents an either/or choice, where something more subtle is possible.

John does have one thing going for him, although it ultimately hastens his demise – empathy. When John and his mother return to society with Lenina and Bernard, she quickly slips into a soma-induced coma and dies. In fact, her convalescence causes quite a spectacle, as people aren’t familiar with aging and are conditioned not to be afraid of death. John behaves in quite recognizable ways when his mother dies – he’s grief stricken, angry at those around him who aren’t, and generally miserable.

By contrast, at the end of the book John leaves the city and tries to live a hermit’s existence in the English countryside. That all goes to hell when a small group of workers catch sight of him flogging himself outside (more problems with sex, of course). Word quickly leaks out about the ritual, which a first brings the press to the area and then a collection of gawkers and curiosity seekers. Looking on from helicopters, they don’t see in John what most of us would – a troubled soul in pain trying to deal with something difficult. They see entertainment, because they’ve been conditioned to treat everything outside of work as entertainment, even other people. As a result, there’s no empathy there and they cheer on John’s flogging for the sake of spectacle. It’s quite nauseating, really. Normally we think of dehumanization as something we do to others, but Huxley turns it around.

Ultimately, what I think struck me most on this go round with Brave New World was my willingness to look critically at whether Huxley’s world is really a dystopia. Yes, the idea of a happy, if shallow, existence free from fear and doubt strikes me as inherently wrong in the gut. In fact, my gut reaction to it is similar to my feelings about transhumanism I wrote about a while back. But as in that piece, I have a hard time making a cogent rational argument as to why a world without pain would be a bad thing. Yes, if we were all eternally healthy we’d take it for granted, but is it necessary to be occasionally ill or injured (perhaps seriously) just to appreciate it? Is my reaction to Huxley’s world mere a result of my own conditioning?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to run for president under a “soma for all!” platform anytime soon. In the real world, transitioning to the type of world Huxley proposed would involve so much coercion and violence that, even if the end product would be desirable, the horrors of getting there would be too much. For a fictional world in which to brainstorm ideas, however, I’m much more skeptical of the dystopian label than I’ve been before.

Which just goes to show you why Brave New World endures, both as a work of literature in its own right and as a target for censors. It makes people think, which can lead to all sorts of wackiness.

The Details
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
First published in 1932

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