Brave New World

Recommendation: Yes, but in a hostage video kind of way

Where to read: I’m pretty sure this was a free ebook on my phone, so who cares

Read with: Absinthe probably

In brief: I will be honest, I didn’t find it particularly compelling, possibly because the novelty has worn off with time and ubiquity, possibly because the omnipresent sexism grated on me, and possibly because it just felt a bit shallow. That said, it is “canon” so you can probably justify reading it on that basis.

This is one of those classics everyone is at least vaguely familiar with – a foundational dystopian text sitting on the shelf next to 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. The dystopia of Brave New World is, however, a “softer” world of mandatory happiness, with the population controlled by a combination of conditioning, embryonic and genetic manipulation and happy-haze inducing drugs as opposed to the state terror, mandatory hate of the “other” (whoever that happens to be that week) and inescapable surveillance portrayed in Orwell’s text.

Both texts, and dystopian fiction generally, are concerned at least in part with thought control and propaganda. In 1984, history is systematically eliminated and the lexicon of Newspeak progressively narrowed in order to make it harder to even think subversively, let alone communicate those thoughts. In Fahrenheit 451, books are burned by “firefighters” and the population encouraged to spend their time in front of endlessly trivial and trivialising television programs. In Brave New World, a rather bland form of happiness and contentedness are enforced in part through drugs and in part by removing or banning anything which might suggest that alternative ways of living, feeling or thinking are possible. Indeed, one of the concepts explored through the character of Helmholtz in particular is the limitations of both language and art when complex human emotions (envy, romantic love, loathing etc) and fear, notably the fear of death, are removed. Perhaps more fundamentally, however, Brave New World suggests that, given a choice between uncomplicated happiness and the complex mess that is human existence, many if not most people would chose the former (though the people John are trying to raise in revolt are all severely affected by foetal alcohol syndrome so, you know).

Similarly, there is a common interest in how a tyrannical and conformist state is maintained. In 1984, the unifying “Big Lie” is an endless cycle of superpower warfare, a permanent fear of nuclearised external threat which justifies both total obedience and loyalty to the state and the state apparatus of control (secret police to root out traitors, rationing, propaganda etc). In Brave New World, Huxley envisages instead a relentlessly consumerist world, a hamster wheel edifice where humans are manufactured in order to consume and produce ever more goods, mostly for the sake of doing so. This probably has a certain resonance in a world of busy work and Bullshit Jobs.

It is also an interesting alternative construction of the eternal present, a state of perpetual short-termism in which contemplating the future and therefore an alternative future is impossible. Orwell portrays perhaps the typical methodology – constant deprivation and daily insecurity such that the population never has time or mental energy to think ahead. In this, however, it is maintained by drowning people in excess and endless diversion. Both of these concepts are worth thinking about today.

Continuing relevance aside, some of it is extremely antiquated. Huxley’s portrayal of women sits somewhere between “sexist as fuck”, “rationality is the sole purview of men” and “women do not have higher emotional and mental faculties”. As a result, his female characters all behave like toddlers rather than adult human beings. Probably also unsurprisingly, the whole thing is pretty fucking racist, complete with drunken and dehumanised Native Americans and a white “noble savage”.

The other point to note is that by itself, in isolation and not viewed in conjunction with other texts or concepts, it does not feel particularly substantive. That is not necessarily a problem and there are plenty of things you can take out of this as a reader (or, more to the point, read into it) but in and of itself I found this fairly unsatisfying.

Oh, and don’t bother with the TV show. WTF is that about.

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