Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brave New World

Brave New World
© 1932 Aldous Huxley
270 pages

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman introduced the book with his suspicion that Brave New World's predictions were coming to fruition -- namely, that human happiness will be pursued by destroying human culture, or to put it in more ironic terms, all that makes us human. It's a book you've probably heard of: I was introduced to it through a Star Trek novel. The story is set in the future, where Earth is controlled by the World State, which dominates the lives of its wards. Every human institution you know and love -- or despise-- is gone. Even the most basic, the parent-child relationship, has been removed: the opening chapter has a group of teenagers being taken on a tour of a hatchery. As the guide gleefully tells the story of how human beings come to be in this world, she also explains how the World State arose in the after math of a nine-years war.

Humans are now biologically engineered and socially conditioned to fall into caste systems, ranking from administrators (Alpha++) to brute labor (Epsilon--). Pavlov-like conditioning is implemented throughout a person's lifetime to keep them loyal to their caste, to their job, and to the ideals of the world state. When emotional distress occurs, it is dealt with through soma, a drug of some sort. The World State doesn't control everyone: there are "savage reservations" where people still live off the land, and WS people sometimes tour these areas for their own amusement.

The book's story shows that despite all of this conditioning, the human animal has still not created a society in line with its nature: several of the main characters are frustrated by it, and some by their inability to fit in as well as they would like. One of them -- Bernard Marx -- takes a female acquaintance of his to a Savage Reservation, where he meets a World State citizen named Linda who was lost on her outing here -- and who has in the meantime become a mother, an act which is obscene in the extreme for World-Staters. Her grown son John ("John the Savage, typically referred to as The Savage") has grown up trying to behave like a man of two worlds: he tries to please his mother, who has been conditioned to live in the world state, and he tries to live like those on the reservation. He can do neither well, so he asks Bernard if he might join him on a trip back to the World State.

From the Savage's reaction to what he finds in the world state -- not the utopia his mother described but a shallow, sterile, and shockingly indecent place where no one cares about anyone else -- where the joys and miseries of human existence are absent, replaced by self-indulgent human-sized infants. He eventually confronts a world controller (a top bureaucrat), and the two talk for a few pages as the controller explains why science, art, religion, and the family had to be destroyed -- and the Savage defends them.

I don't know a lot about the book's historical context. I'm more familiar with HG Wells' idealistic notions. It's certainly thought-provoking. One question it raises is the source of human happiness: does it come from avoiding unpleasant things and enjoying as many pleasurable sensations as possible? Or do we as sentient creatures really need things like wonder, art, and family to feel fulfilled? Again, I don't know the context Huxley was writing, and I'd like to know more about the social developments that led him to write this to see what their long-term implications might mean. I think it, like Ibsen's A Doll House, could be a "discussion" work, rather than one you just read for the story.

2 comments:

  1. It certainly is a discussion book! I love love love this book. As a woman, it was the idea of loss of motherhood that effected me most. A similar type of future is represented in The Giver by Lois Lowry. Certain "jobs" of society are dealt out only to certain people. I can't imagine being told that I am not allowed to mother children. The happiness question is certainly relevant, but I'm far more interested in the idea of human rights. Isn't it our right to choose our class? Our right to parent, to stress out, to question authority? The World State the Huxley presents is far too much like Orwell's Big Brother for my taste. I like to think of Humans as Free beings, capable of choosing for themselves by right.

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  2. Caste systems are a feature or a problem in any...planned society like the one we see here. When you're planning a society, you know how many adminstrators you need and what skills they have: you know how many grunts you need and what they need to be capable of. From our perspective, institutions like India's caste system are terrible because they don't allow people any freedom, they're grossly unfair, and they allow for abuse of the "lower" classes. These people, though -- I wonder if it's really unfair to them. They ARE conditioned to like their work. Some people want to do something else Besides that work, like Humboldt, but mostly they like their work.

    It also reminds me of a quote from one of my mentors: "We can create a system where everyone has PhDs, but somebody's still gotta work at McDonalds."

    Perhaps the only way of creating an ideal society AND making things pleasant for all humans is make all of the unfulfilling labor to be done by robots. Then humans could read or paint or -- if they're Zen monks -- sweep floors all day.

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