Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Brave New World
Brave New World
© 1932 Aldous Huxley
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.