First Sentence: A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)
The first time I read Brave New World I was in my grade 12 year of high school, and I read it because I didn't understand Ragtime* well enough to write an essay about it. Brave New World, being an sf novel, was much more my speed.
I've been very curious to find out what I'd think of Brave New World the second time around. I remembered the beginning section with the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning giving a group of students a tour through what is essentially a factory for building humans. I remembered John, the natural man. I vaguely remembered what becomes of him at the end of the book. But there was a lot that I managed to forget.
My plot summaries don't usually extend beyond the one third mark of the book but I'm going to have to go a little further this time. As I mentioned, the book begins by introducing us to its society via a really well-executed info dump. We learn that human reproduction has been industrialized and that citizens are carefully produced throughout the process of gestation and childhood to be hedonistic cogs in a great machine. This is achieved using a combination of physical interventions in the bottles that now perform the office of a womb, as well as various kinds of conditioning. The notion of a "mother" is vulgar. The result is a society that is rigidly controlled and stratified into different castes. The Alphas at the top are the most intelligent and have jobs that require this intelligence, while Epsilons are deliberately disabled in the bottle and taught to love horrible work conditions in deadly environments. Neither Alphas nor Epsilons nor anyone in between should ever think about their lot in life, either, though, so everyone is pumped full of mindless entertainment and a drug called soma. They're also encouraged to maximize their consumption of all kinds.
In this world we're introduced to two main characters at first. Lenina Crowne is a young woman who works at the hatchery. It's never stated in the book which caste she's a part of, but we do learn how "pneumatic" she is, and she's desired by every man in the novel. She's nearly the ideal citizen—someone who just wants fun and novelty, to feel good all the time and to take some to feel even better or to quiet any doubts. On the other hand is Bernard Marx. He's a member of the Alpha caste but he also has short man syndrome which makes him grumpy. He dislikes the shallowness of his culture. He likes Lenina as much as anyone, though, and invites her to go to the Savage Reservation, a place somewhere in America that has been deemed basically worthless and therefore has been cordoned off for "savages" to live in (in other words, people that live outside of the global system).
While visiting the Savage Reservation, Lenina and Bernard stumble upon the existence of a man named John and his mother Linda. Linda was formerly one of them, and became lost while visiting the reservation. Prior to that at some point, she had also become pregnant, something which shouldn't have been possible if she was properly doing her "Malthusian drill." Anyway, John has grown up listening to Linda's stories of the paradise she came from and also reading the complete works of Shakespeare.
(In other words, yes, this is a Star Trek episode where the Enterprise forgot to show up.)
Lenina and Bernard bring John and Linda back to "civilization" with them and the narrative shifts to focus mostly on John's encounter with utopia.
So this book is pretty excellent. The addition of the new main character a little more than a third of the way through does wreak havoc on the pacing, but the book really zips by even with that considered. I'm probably one of only a dozen or so people currently living who has actually read two books by Aldous Huxley, and the prose in this one is jaunty and light with a touch of humour that really belies the darkness of the subject matter, as compared with Point Counter Point, which was often a chore to read.
Brave New World has come up a lot over the last decade because it's really evocative of our current entertainment environment of all distraction, all the time. That is absolutely true. But I think there are other aspects to it that are also really interesting that don't get discussed as much.
One is the mass production of human beings. I don't know if Brave New World is the origin of the concept of rows upon rows of fetuses in jars but if it's not the first it must be one of the earliest examples. One aspect of this that I didn't mention earlier is that they literally are mass-producing people by forcing fertilized eggs to "bud" and creating many identical twins (often 96 or even more). This in combination with the indoctrination process really blurs the line of individuality in this world. It also forces the reader to consider the individuality of the people who currently, in our actual world, fill the positions that are occupied by the lower castes in the Brave New World.
The other thing that doesn't get examined enough is the concept of the necessity of human suffering. Brave New World isn't the only work of art where this concept shows up. On its surface, I agree with it. All my experiences, both the joyful and the painful, h ave made me who I am. But I've also grown up privileged, healthy, and well off. There are many people who have suffered to death on this planet. There is suffering beyond understanding or expression in this real world. For many years, people have been encouraged to turn to God to cope with this, but in a world without God, where is the incentive to say that this level of suffering is necessary? I'm getting a bit carried away here, but I think this is an idea that deserves very careful and critical consideration.
Brave New World and 1984 are often discussed together so I'll briefly do that as well. Brave New World is the more engaging read. Both books use language to flesh out their worlds: 1984 has Newspeak, Brave New World has dumb, infantile names for everything (zippycamiknicks and feelies to name a couple). On a character drama level I think 1984 is better, though. As far as prescience goes, they're equal. Both have things to say about the world of the times when they were published, and about the modern world, but we shouldn't get carried away saying that either one has come to pass.
* The date that Ragtime review was posted is in September 2010. I was six years out of high school at the time and predicted that I'd be reviewing Brave New World in five years. You can do the math to see how long it's actually been.
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Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes; to abolish the love of nature, but not the tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they should keep on going to the country, even though they hated it. The problem was to find an economically sounder reason for consuming transport than a mere affection for primroses and landscapes. It was duly found.
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Our Ford—or Our Freud, as, for some inscrutable reason, he chose to call himself whenever he spoke of psychological matters—Our Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life.
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Success went fizzily to Bernard's head, and in the process completely reconciled him (as any good intoxicant should do) to a world which, up till then, he had found very unsatisfactory.
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The Savage was silent for a little. 'All the same,' he insisted obstinately, 'Othello's good, Othello's better than those feelies.'
'Of course it is,' the Controller agreed. 'But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.'
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