The Future is Now and it’s Our Fault: A Review of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s fifth novel and his first work of sci fi, was said by George Orwell to be influenced by We the dystopian novel authored by Yevgeny Zamyatin and published in 1924. Orwell, who was always a better writer than Huxley, wrote, “The first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact — never pointed out, I believe — that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence. The atmosphere of the two books is similar, and it is roughly speaking the same kind of society that is being described, though Huxley’s book shows less political awareness and is more influenced by recent biological and psychological theories.” (1) Huxley evidently denied any derivation. (2)
Brave New World (BNW) as it tumbles from the dusty 1932 shelf is creepy and weird as Freudism meets Fordism. In this new world adults gawk at frolicking prepubescent children and an interminably long opening details the system of genetic and social engineering. The result is castes of people, from Alphas on down with increasing ugliness and mental turpitude culminating with the Epsilons who are designed to handle the most mundane jobs. In this world ‘Others’ are Mexicans, Chinese, and “savages of Samoa.” Women are consistently “girls” and they are consistently described as “charming.”
But no worries evidently. Everybody’s happy because they’re cranked up on the soma, except it seems too many people have an unusual amount of self-will and reflection and consequently they doubt and are bothered. So, for example, happy Bernard is “miserably isolated.” Either Huxley missed the contradiction for the sake of the novel or Dr. Feelgood’s opiate and programming isn’t working and nobody notices.
In this future world of authorial contradictions there is a “perennially blue sky” except when it gets cloudy. People can or cannot control the weather, or they can or cannot recognize cloudiness when it comes. People are not supposed to be monogamous and yet they admire relationship stability. And while brainwashed by the engineering, the people are granted the ability to step outside of themselves to see their predicaments.
Undeterred, Huxley plugs onward with his near plotless product. If the aimlessness doesn’t near kill you the flat footed and literal writing will. Brave indeed is the reader who can tolerate this quagmire. I had to put the book down and read from what I consider to be the antithesis to BNW — Ron Silliman’s fantastic The Age of Huts — just to get back into what it means to go with a creative associative mindset, to linger in a place of word speculation, and to discover a true utopia where language opens up instead of closes down. Yes that cleared the cobwebs nicely.
I first read BNW when I was in high school and when I came to Calvin Stopes and his Sixteen Sexophonists I thought, even then, “Really? Is that the best you can do?” It was at that moment I lost faith in Huxley’s writing. Even today I recall my shock at discovering a writer for adults could let a reader down so severely. But I was no virgin to the disappointment of a book, the first was discovering how utterly pointless and boring were passages of Norton Juster’s young adult bushwacking titled The Phantom Tollbooth.
The long back-and-forth between Fanny and Lenina in BNW as they are finishing up in the locker room ignores novelistic time completely. Throughout the book people are said not to know history and yet they know all about birthing and Shakespeare. Characters’ names are for the most part historic mashups: Bernard Marx, Lenina, Helmholtz Watson (this latter which I can’t help but read as I see you and I hear you based on the original mens’ respective areas of research) Benito Hoover, and Jean Jacque. One gets the impression these were either stand in names for what were later to be replaced and weren’t or intended by Huxley to be satire. You’d think so today if you picked up a novel and the characters were named Trump Hawking, Modi Merkel, Putina, and Osama Bin Bezos.
To joust a bit more, if one annihilated the plot from a Stephen King novel, one would end up at Huxley with the lack of coherent time, the tin ear sentences, and the repetitiveness of phrases. Yes, this novel is Netflix serial soap opera meets data dump meets plodding scene chunking. Here is an excerpt to show the lack of consideration in the writing. “The taxicopter landed on the roof of Lenina’s apartment house. ‘At last’ she thought exultantly as she stepped out of the cab. At last — even though he had been so queer just now. Standing under a lamp, she peered into her hand mirror. At last. Yes, her nose was a bit shiny. She shook the loose powder from her puff….That fragment of face in the little round mirror suddenly smiled at her.”
My pet peeves are displayed like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Obviously the taxicopter landed on the top of the building and not the side. The starting a sentence with a gerund is a beginner’s issue. For example, “Thinking of bread, I walked to the store. Seeing the bread, I picked it up,” etc. The gerund demands a linking verb and this in turn detracts from the action. “Exultantly” is hyperbole here isn’t it? The taxicopter becomes a cab. She “peered” or “looked” or “glanced?” I’ll grant that “peer” might be to look narrowly or curiously but the word asks for special emphasis. Is her nose “a bit shiny” or just shiny? It’s night and the scene is illuminated with pale blue lights, so what exactly would she see on a dark roof while looking into a small mirror? If she only sees a “fragment of face,” she must be looking at the mouth-part fragment in order to see it smiles at her, no agency on her part evidently — another beginning writer device. Here this tic is in full display a couple of sentences later: “Her foreshortened figure rushed away from him…” So she is not rushing but her body is doing something she simultaneously sees from a distance thus “foreshortened” and apparently has no control over. Most of these problems I think come from Huxley’s ‘round the block manner of avoiding free indirect discourse. This then sets up a double-mind condition such as, “So I asked myself, do I have two brains in order to talk to myself?” The defense will be he’s simply colloquial. I might grant it although what I’m discussing is not dialogue so I’ll rephrase: it’s lazy writing. In a final evaluation, BNW amounts to what writers call preliminary world building, and it’s an initial step to writing a sci fi novel but I don’t see a great deal of Huxley refining this raw stuff into a final form.
Before I leave the tip of the iceberg of specific critiques, the entire loving cup loving Ford orgy porgy section might as well be snipped. Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised that the whole Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning’s (DHC) account of his western vacation provided an idea for West World the novel, and I wouldn’t be surprised that Huxley’s dystopia was a bar to strive for for Margaret Atwood in her frighteningly poorly written book about handmaids. On the positive side, there are some nice sentences worth quoting in BNW, but they don’t compensate for the problems. Should one read BNW? Not really. Sci fi’s come a long way and there are books that do every star spark of it much better.
BNW’s planetary motto is, “Community, Identity, Stability” and this sounds eerily like Hillary Clinton’s presumed motto, “Peace, Progress, and Prosperity.” (3) Or was it “Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity,” no, wait, that was William McKinley in 1896, or was it “Peace. Progress. Prosperity,” no, that was James Cox in 1920, or was it “National Unity. Prosperity. Advancement,” no again, that was Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 although “Peace and Prosperity” was Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and “Reform, Prosperity and Peace” was John McCain in 2008.
Whichever motto is found in BNW, the “upwards of sixty-two thousand repetitions in the dark had made them accept, not merely as true, but as axiomatic, self-evident, utterly indisputable.” Ugh, I feel like I’m planning a presidential campaign with such meaningless platitudes. The point is, floating signifiers have been a part of political gesturing since the detection of Röntgen Rays and, presumably, Huxley took what was out there and adopted it writing: “Everyone belongs to every one else” he wrote which is eerily similar to “It Takes a Village.” The DHC as HRC.
BNW as a Prediction of Future Totalitarian Societies
With the election of Donald Trump, Huxley was bandied about as the harbinger of a plunge into totalitarianism by many who I doubt actually read Huxley. If those who declaimed such a condition are admitting we live in a totalitarian state, we might say we’re making progress. But no, they won’t go that far that because it doesn’t fit their started with/ended with Trump bashing. Well, it’s ingenuous because we know that they know they are aware something is different and has been for a long time. Author and self-professed anarcho-capitalist Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. wrote, “The most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the red-State bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian state nationalism.” (4)
We didn’t end up at Huxley’s Brave New World, we started at BNW and ended up much worse. And since we either don’t recognize totalitarianism or we don’t care, I get to ask, who’s high on soma now? Who’s the result of social engineering now?
When we obtain glimpses of our own lack of freedoms we shrug it of. When we read an article about an injustice to people in the world we hit the like button or we sign another useless moveon.org petition and then we rush off to the mall to buy some new cotton thingy made by little fingers in a merciless sweatshop, but we don’t let that bother us, we still have to figure out what to order from Skip the Dishes. Day after day we rationalize there’s nothing we can do about injustices even if we wanted to. Or we donate a small amount to some global helper institution and act self righteous. Orwell would turn over in his grave with absolute disgust at the entitlement and arrogance of this sort of thinking.
The real “enemy of society,” to use the accusation of the DHC, is that our new brand of totalitarianism is one we citizens seem not to want to criticize, or for that matter we often cannot because any attempt at criticism is being legislated away. Examples include censorship in the media including social media, our giving away our airwaves to corporate media, the continual invasions of our privacy for the sake of security, hyper spending on the military-industrial complex and our forever wars as though we are a tiny country prone to invasions rather than the mega-country prone to weaponized bullying. And evidently we enjoy our subjugation and violations because we keep supporting them.
Thus, it’s not that we must fear outspoken people like Donald Trump, that narrative is only the distraction to keep us from worrying about the real totalitarianism that continues to grow almost exponentially. We, the near Epsilons, are engineered not by Huxley’s hypnopaedic conditioning but by a pervasive focus grouped likability of the repetition. We are engineered to be perfect consumers, who generally eschew education because service jobs need to be filled and they don’t require critical thinking, who confuse criticality with consumer choice, and who confuse learning with pop culture savvy. To quote Huxley, “all conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” We do. In fact we love it. Brave new world, indeed.
I think that BNW is positioned as a dystopia because most people’s conception of the future, to be enchanting, must promote individuality and control over one’s destiny. While the story focuses on those who have all the free will they can think up, and in this Huxley retains the hierarchies and labor of capitalism, seemingly unaware of his own acceptance of then UK capitalist norms, and this hobbles any future conception that demonstrates real difference. Life is not good for many in BNW but Huxley focuses on the elites, a normal strategy to avoid difficult discussions. Drilling down, I suspect the most problematic idea for most readers of BNW is that the presupposed objectivity of science has been corrupted, not via the delusions found with Bentham’s nonsense on stilts, but purposefully for abusive intent via the genetic and social engineering. Well that’s faulty thinking. Science inherently does not embody deontological ethics.
I’ll say it again. I think Huxley was for the most part reproducing his time rather than predicting the future. Survival of the fittest (think of the Darwin) was warped by Huxley to survival by best bred. Nothing new in Britain with this idea. It was a Brit, Francis Galton who coined the word eugenics. The Eugenic Society was founded in Britain in 1907 about twenty five years after Darwin’s death. In 1908 James Crichton-Brown spoke before the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded. His view was that people with disabilities and mental illness might be “garnered and utilized as far as possible.” (5) In 1910, Winston Churchill wrote the Prime Minister Asquith saying, “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race.” (5) Britain was right there in the midst of eugenics.
Breeding, as lineage, has also fascinated the British whether to support royal inheritance or that form of upper echelon, smart-casual dressed snobbery. Americans have always yearned for the birthright of leadership but they couldn’t quite jig it, although we’ve done well with with inherited money and political dynasties — think Kennedys and Bushes, and Hollywood families — think the Sheen and Douglas.
From another viewpoint, how ironic is it that we fault fault genetic and social engineering found in BNW as unethical when jokingly we think as cute and necessary the mini-army of orange, square-headed Oompa Loompa epsilons laboring happily to make chocolate in their white jodhpur overalls. We can only speculate on why they are as they are, perhaps it’s due to a force feeding of vermicious knids. Or seriously we accept the right of first worlders to enforce a sort of social engineering to occur when we allow systems and structures that routinely block food, water, medicine, housing, and education to hundreds of millions of people, effectively stunting their abilities and self-determination.
In the end analysis, we find that Capitalism has done just fine promoting the worst of BNW, without that stinky label of dystopia. We’ve managed to marginalize and exoticize Others, that is when we haven’t forced Others are into subjugation to create things to meet our desires. We’ve managed to create soma with the names of Netflix and social media. We’ve supplemented them with liquor and opiates. We’ve set up a nearly untouchable division of labor between elites and the poor, between managers and service workers, we’ve trained our citizens to desire gleeful conformity and least common denominator in all commodifiable domains.
The only problem with BNW is that Huxley didn’t correctly foresee was that first worlders would end up presenting themselves simultaneously as persecutors, victims, and saviors, who in any of these roles fail to have any remorse, the sort of remorse we find John has at the end of the novel. Little good it does him however. He withdraws and becomes simply another spectacle.
Interestingly, comparatively left wing and right wing news sources came out on the same day, February 2, 2017, with warnings about our brave new world. Andrew Postman said in the Guardian about his father Neil Postman who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, “My father predicted Trump in 1985 — it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.” (6) Tom Nichols for the Federalist wrote similarly a title of an article“We Should Fear ‘Brave New World’ More Than We Do 1984.” (7)
I disagree with the authors. We have been living in the situation of BNW for quite a while. And it’s worse by far. According to Sheldon Wolin in his book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism we’ve reached a position of inverted totalitarianism, a position where we both accept and approve of totalitarianism. We have now a democracy in which powers collude, these powers being politics, military, and corporate (I’d add media) to reduce freedoms, to deny civil liberties, and the ignore the rule of law.
In fact we helped usher in this new world not by brave confrontation but by passive acceptance of the infringement, surveillance, data collection, and fakery in all these domains. Remember government of, by, and for the people? Sigh. No worries, we still call this situation Freedom with a big F. If anyone brave dares to criticize that person is told, “look at that banana republic over or down there, it’s much worse so accept what you have.” For Sheldon this is all managed democracy, or as he says, the smiley face of totalitarianism. We have little need to fear the future outlined in Brave New World but we should fear Wolin’s account of our current world. That we don’t is the really scary part.
(1) Found online at the Orwell Foundation https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/freedom-and-happiness-review-of-we-by-yevgeny-zamyatin/
(2) Chaudhuri, R. (June 25, 2017). Orwell vs Huxley vs Zamyatin: Who would win a dystopian fiction contest? Revisiting three ground-breaking novels in the genre. Which one’s closest to our world today? Scroll.in Found online at https://scroll.in/article/841420/orwell-vs-huxley-vs-zamyatin-who-would-win-a-dystopian-fiction-contest
(3) Seitz-Wald, A. (August 11, 2014) Is this Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan? MSNBC. Found online at http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/hillary-clinton-campaign-slogan
(4) Rockwell, L. (2013). Fascism versus Capitalism. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.
(5) Brignell, V. (December 9, 2010). The eugenics movement Britain wants to forget by Victoria Brignell. New Statesman. Found online at https://www.newstatesman.com/society/2010/12/british-eugenics-disabled
(6) Postman, A. (February 2, 2017). My dad predicted Trump in 1985 — it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World. Guardian. Found online at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley
(7) Nichols, T. (February 2, 2017). We Should Fear ‘Brave New World’ More Than We Do ‘1984.’ Federalist. Found online at https://thefederalist.com/2017/02/02/fear-brave-new-world-1984/