Book Review: Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’
Aldous Huxley’s futuristic parable Brave New World was published to some acclaim in 1932. Huxley as a novelist, essayist and a social commentator was very much at the forefront of literary life in Britain in the early to mid-twentieth century.
The novel has been compared to George Orwell’s 1984. Although the actual chronological year of 1984 is now well in the past, at the time Orwell published the novel (1949), it was 35 years into the future. Huxley’s novel is set in AD 2540, over half a millennium away. Both are visions of dystopias directly attributable to the rapid scientific and technological advances initiated by the West following the Industrial Revolution. When Huxley published his book, the British Empire was very much at the centre of world events with World War 2 only five years away. Yet Huxley was aware of the impending shift in power and dominance across the Atlantic to the USA. While Orwell concentrated on a dystopian vision inspired by totalitarian regimes represented by the Soviet Union, Huxley, more accurately, predicted the consequences of today’s rampant capitalism and Americanization. It is significant that Communist Soviet Russia collapsed in just five years after 1984.
That is not to say that Orwell’s predictions are less valid than Huxley’s. Indeed, ‘groupthink’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘newspeak’ have entered the lexicon of the English language, whereas Huxley’s preoccupation with Pavlovian conditioning and the Ford factory assembly line appeared already dated by the end of the 20th century. Huxley, very much the middle-class, highly educated and atheistic Englishman expects Ford to be deified and referred to in expressions of exasperation like ‘Oh for Ford’s sake’, uncharacteristic of a robot-like pharmacological creation named Lenina. Huxley is again very much of his time when he gives his characters a second name or surname even when he portrays them as having neither a father nor a mother, and indeed regards parenthood as anathema to the prevailing ideology.
Huxley in a later essay (1946) regretted omitting to mention nuclear fission as a significant influence on his futuristic book. Unfortunately though, it is developments like the discovery of the genome, satellite technology, automation, microcomputers and mobile phones which he could not have foreseen, which did change our world beyond recognition even from Huxley’s imagined but technology-driven world. Huxley’s setting of the first chapter is reminiscent of an old university hospital laboratory staffed by a close coterie of academics. Even the students carry notebooks and pens/pencils now made obsolete by electronic notebooks and micro-computer technology. Gloves are of ‘corpse-coloured rubber’, a natural ingredient, when synthetics should have been the order of the day.
Huxley is obsessed with sexual freedom, making a big thing about what he still (1932) calls ‘promiscuous sex’. His characters use old-fashioned ‘precautions’ instead of a simple chemical or physiological intervention which could last throughout life. Feminism has passed him by, since the directors and bosses are all men in the novel. Women are decorative and take on subordinate roles. There is also a hint of racism in that in a filmed encounter, a sexually dominant Negro who ‘ravished a Beta blonde’ gets his comeuppance at the hands of three ‘handsome young Alphas’. ‘The Negro was packed off to an Adult Re-conditioning Centre’. If Huxley could not foresee events extending to the second half of his own century, how could he have written a novel with a plausible 26th century setting? The events he describes are very much of his time and to credit him with any prescience would be a mistake.
Six centuries into the future, Huxley does not deem it strange that his characters have names borrowed from 20th century luminaries such as Marx, Helmholtz, Hoover, Monod and Kawaguchi. Two non-western first names, Mustapha and Sarojini appear in the text, but there is no valid reason for them to be there. It has to be just an idiosyncrasy since religious and linguistic identities would have been ironed out in the World State. If he had set the novel, as Orwell did, in the not too distant future, Huxley could have got away with such historical irrelevancies like the use of money, or cash, for everyday transactions. Plastic or smart cards are likely to be more appropriate in AD 2540 (AF 632).
His ‘savage’, John, is not a true primitive but a white child born to white parents, and brought up in ‘Malpais’ inhabited by ‘Indians’ and ‘half-breeds’. Since the names sound Spanish, the half-breeds are perhaps the result of miscegenation between the natives and the Spaniards. In spite of much sexual intimacy with the natives, Linda, John’s mother does not sink so low as to produce any ‘half-breed’ offspring. John’s isolation from the tribal community and his study of English, from a not at all ironical reference to, ‘Cat sat on the mat’ phraseology, is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is his capacity to quote appropriately from Shakespeare when the occasion demands. Only Huxley with his First Class Honours degree in English from Oxford could have pulled a stunt like that. Lesser mortals, even highly educated ones, would find the savage an utterly unbelievable character. Although Huxley had been exposed to ideas on Pavlovian conditioning and sleep programming, he may not have read Piaget, Vygotsky, or other developmental psychologists of the time. John’s upbringing is delineated as an improbable and inexplicable mystery. The plot is one of the weakest aspects of the novel along with the characterization.
Bernard Marx as one of the main characters is distinguished by his ‘oddity’. This is put down to a chemical abnormality during his ‘hatching’ days. That there are not many more ‘abnormalities’ among robotic creatures manufactured by a crude ‘bottling’ process seems incredible when even cloning scientists of today do not boast of one-hundred percent successes. Huxley’s political correctness is very much emphasized by its absence. He appears to have overridden Human Rights Legislation of his time when he allows the World State to grade humans from high Alphas down to low-level Epsilons. But they are all equal when they are allowed to purchase their ration of soma to ease the daily frustrations of living. Obviously there are no side-effects even with extensive use of this drug.
Where did John, the savage, learn such arrant prudishness? He uses middle-class terms like ‘strumpet’ and ‘whore’ to condemn and keep Lenina at bay. He is a savage not because he has been brought up on 20th century middle-class values that the 26th century World State citizens despise, it is because he is psychologically impaired and emotionally stunted in spite of his ‘love’ for his mother Linda, and his barely explained fondness for English literature. Huxley insists on calling the Head Mistress of a school Miss Keate in his strait-laced way, while deliberately mocking the Archbishop of Canterbury with the title Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury.
Huxley’s Brave New World is a far too unself-conscious parody of his own British upper middle-class upbringing that it falls short of being what it was intended to be – a futuristic dystopian vision of the contemporary world.