Sunday, October 21, 2012

Brave New World

Brave New World
By Aldous Huxley

I am in the middle of the biggest book I have ever read and it would have been at least another week before I updated my blog so I decided to dip into my pool of recently re-read novels that I have read with a class over the past year. I'm a little tired, so this post might seem a bit disjointed, but I'll do my best to edit it over the next few days.

Aldous Huxley's classic 1932 novel Brave New World, along with with George Orwell's 1984, set the bar for dystopian fiction. Brave New World is not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination. The narrative is flimsy and often tedious and those who read this novel for the story are bound to be extremely disappointed. But if you read it with the Western world as an immediate comparison, Huxley seems to have has a startlingly clear vision of the future.

What strikes me as odd is that in 2012 the comparisons between Huxley's version of the future and that of Orwell not only remain valuable, they have, to a certain degree, been actualized in our world. Both of them. At the same time. I'll touch on the comparison, but I'll concentrate a good deal more on Brave New World as it is the novel I have most recently read (I haven't read 1984 in about 15 years).

Orwell's dismal notion of the future is still very much a concern especially when you look into the restrictive regimes of China and North Korea. With their social, cultural and economical restriction, China has realized Orwell's nightmare in a very real way and their culture and population suffer for it. The Great Firewall of China is the most visible symbol of China's big brother style control. Whereas, in the west, the Orwellian notion of Big Brother spoke to an entire generation raised under the ominous specter of Soviet-style governance and the possibility of Cold War nuclear holocaust, it is Huxley's version of the future that has manifested itself as our own sort of dystopian nightmare. While Big Brother certainly lives on in the West through our over-litigized court system, Google Earth, book banning and video surveillance (to name just a few), it has lost some of its steam over the years.

In Huxley's version of the world, humans are engineered in a laboratory (Bokinovsky process), spared from the aging process and divided and sub-divided into several classes and sub-classes of people who never intermingle except for hedonistically disposable encounters that have no emotional currency. Each class of human comes complete with favorite colors, a disposition for certain kinds of work, a similar IQ and a predilection for specific activities. The trade off for this eternally youthful life is a lower life expectancy and complete adherence to the rigid caste system.

The manufacture of humanity is akin to our own ever-increasing demand for eternal youth. While we have not gone so far as to implement eugenics programs or bio-engineering Olympic athletes, were certainly have made a massive industry out of cosmetic surgery in an attempt to maintain that which cannot be maintained. Botox injections have become as commonplace as the application of mascara. Body modification has become socially acceptable. Scientists tease us with talk of frayed telomeres and their effect on aging. We look everywhere and anywhere for reassurance that we will retain our youth. It has become imperative to maintain vitality into your 50s and 60s. How many times have we heard someone say "Fifty is the new forty," or "Life begins at sixty."

I'm certainly not implying that living a healthy lifestyle into into your autumn years is somehow inhuman, but our obsession with youth and beauty has reached manic proportions. If one extrapolates this desire to remain young for as long as possible, the extremes expressed in Brave New World don't seem so far fetched.

But what of control?

The people in Huxley's novel have no inherent value other than their work. Therefore it is of the utmost urgency that those in control maintain stability among the population (in the novel the world is controlled by a vague organization of which a man by the name of Mustapha Mond controls Western Europe). Rather than implement Orwellian control measures (which, of course, did not yet exist in 1932), Huxley supposes that in this world people are given every possible distraction and pleasure they desire. Those in control (whoever they are) provide everything and anything that a person might want as a method of pacification and mollification. There is simply no reason to question anything if you are constantly entertained. However, with so much entertainment comes abject ignorance and blind adherence to the system.

When we juxtapose Brave New World with the Western world there are shocking similarities. If you take a look at society as a whole's obsession with reality television, social media, conspiracy theories, K-Pop, FarmVille, Fifty Shades of Gray, The New York Yankees (etc... etc...) and couple that with are almost constant use of technology as entertainment (just look around at the hordes of smart phone zombies completely disengaged from the world around them) one can plausibly opine that we are very much heading in such a direction. We are engorged with information and entertainment (infotainment). We run the risk of being at once the most informed and technologically advanced society in the history of the world and the most ignorant.... at the same time. That's not to say that any of these things are bad by themselves (except reality television. Reality television is to the human brain what ten gallons of Coke a day is to human teeth). But they are distractions from much of what is happening around us and we have proven to be less than responsible in dealing with what is important and what is not. We willfully distract ourselves with utter nonsense, and in turn eat up valuable time and energy. Now, I'm certainly not making a case for limiting or banning anything but we do have addiction and attention deficit issues, don't we?

This notion of ubiquitous entertainment, by itself, makes Brave New World every bit as prescient today as it was in 1932. The West is a woefully (and willfully) ignorant society. The East is too, but via very different (Orwellian) means. It's interesting that Brave New World and 1984, two books so often compared, have become more than just symbols of the American dominated Western world and the Chinese dominated East. They have become virtual trail markers on an ever-more-clear cultural trajectory. High school students for decades have compared and contrasted these titles only to discover that such comparisons and contrasts exist on a macro-scale.

While China struggles with Orwell, we wrestle with Huxley. If Brave New World can teach us anything about our own world it is that we run the risk of losing common track for some vain notion of hyper-individuality (which, at its extreme is just a form of hyper-conformity). In the process we may have derailed into a banal wasteland of nonsensical nihilism.

Well, that was uplifting. Who's up for a Soma vacation?


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I've not read this one, but it does sound like a shame that the cleverness of the ideas can't be matched with a good story - Orwell manages it in 1984.

Brian Joseph said...

It has been a few years since I read this one but I remember thinking that it was superb. I have always thought of too much conformity as one of the great evils of society. As you allude to, this book was very much a warning to future generations.

Jenny said...

Yet another book I have on my shelf but haven't read.

Sharon Henning said...

I've heard about this book for awhile and I've heard Huxely quoted quite a bit. I really need to read this book. Thanks for the review!

....Petty Witter said...

A favourite of my husbands, its not my kind of novel though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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