The readership of 75 years ago would have been speechless to learn that this book would be taught in today’s high schools. That generation would probably determine that, to accept such a book, our time must be as corrupt as they thought Huxley’s novel to be. My first question is, are they right in some ways? And my second question: wouldn’t our corruptness speak to the success of Huxley’s foresight?
Here’s where I think he nailed us.
“A gramme is better than a damn”
In Brave New World, satisfaction is the glue that holds this society together, and the base ingredient is “Soma”, the literal opiate of the masses. The tablet-based drug doled out by the government is a powerful dissociative that everybody takes at the slightest sensation of distress. It sends you into a kind of K-hole, where you come out of a day-long stupor feeling you’ve passed a lifetime away — “euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.”
This is probably where the novel has its strongest resonance with today’s readers. Our being surrounded by mind-altering drugs of both the illegal and legal variety makes Soma all too recognizable. And here’s the scary part –it’s Prozac perfected, everything modern pharmaceuticals and narcotics are building to someday. Addictive, but with no discernible withdrawal effects save the general disappointment you were feeling with life before you last took it.
Sure, Soma knocks you into next week and restrains your passion and creativity, but you have no reason not to take it. Or at least that’s what everyone around you insists.
“The more stitches, the less riches.”
The future is also rife with flippant consumerism: few things are worth having, apparently, more than a “silver-mounted green morrocco-surrogate cartridge belt” like the one Lenina covets. That “riches” slogan, by the way, means you ought to forget mending your clothes and instead spend money on new ones, because spending is what pumps the blood of the economy. Hm.
But it’s somehow a buy-buy-buy culture with no brand names, which makes no sense to Americans. (Is it a Coach cartridge belt or a Louis Vuitton?) In fact, I had trouble understanding how this fit in with everything else until His Fordship Mustapha Mond, the World Controller, explained why Shakespeare is banned: “‘Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here…. and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new things.'”
It’s easier to keep people satisfied with your power structure when the best things come from you, and, in my mind, as long as Shakespeare’s around you’re never going to be the one to give them the best poetry or drama. The only advantage the modern product always has is “newness”, and these people are conditioned to embrace newness above all else. Whether consumer spending actually benefits the economy is beside the point — here it keeps people distracted, which is far more valuable to those in charge.
Speaking of distraction, this is a world without silence or reflection. Music is playing everywhere, not to mention the “hypnopaedic” messages and rhymes that people begin mindlessly quoting as we would catchphrases or ad slogans. Throw in constant leisure activities like Escalator Tennis and sex, and you have minds that have no time to actually think, assuming that anyone should feel the desire to think. And books? Don’t be ridiculous.
These predictions in the novel are shocking because we’re already living them to a great extent. Then there are the aspects of BNW that are still a ways off, should they ever occur, and we’ve already taken some baby steps in the direction.
“What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.”
In BNW, castes aren’t just socially imposed — they’re manufactured! And the citizens are brought up to enjoy their placement just fine, from the gifted Alpha Plus’s down to the moronic Epsilon Minus’s. Even these lowest folk are satisfied with their lives of drudgery because they’re conditioned to be glad they’re not burdened with intellectual stresses like those clever Alphas and Betas, whose lives must be so much harder.
A lot of people see trouble on the horizon with genetic engineering since cloning and breeding for particular traits are already within our grasp. Huxley just sees it being implemented someday as a tool not for progress or happiness — but for stability, which makes the former two impossible.
Naturally (or should I say synthetically?), when you’ve got a world of testtube babies, there are no mothers, no fathers, no families. This is like the cockamamie facets of Plato’s Republic in action, where the idea is to remove the family so “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Plato had this result in mind, too, but what Huxley’s showing us is that without the family, all our relationships can become sterile and impersonal. In other words, by trying to love everyone equally, we may not love anyone at all.
Brave New World’s a fun book to read, kept aloft as it is by Huxley’s buoyant wit and its inherent zaniness. There are many reasons, though, why this book is too haunting to be taken as a joke. It’s hitting too close to home.