MY BOOK OF A LIFETIME: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

BraveNewWorld_FirstEditionI first read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World at school. We’re talking 1986 here. English literature class. Aged 15, and I was learning about the class system, drugs and oppression. And it was science fiction. In a lesson. At school. How cool is that? Except I wasn’t really learning what I thought I was.

I can’t recall the name of my teacher, but I would like to thank her for opening my eyes, even if it took several more years to see. I’d already become familiar with the dystopias of Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, but I was unprepared for the impact that Brave New World was to have on me.

The characters live in an advanced, stable society – which at first glance appears to be utopian – known as The World State. Everyone is happy.

The opening is a masterful stroke of storytelling and exposition, which introduces us to the world we’ve entered. We’re invited to a tour a Hatchery. Natural reproduction is no more and children are created in hatcheries and then brought up in Conditioning Centres. So far, oh so creepy. The Alphas are allowed to develop naturally, but the other levels of the castes (Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon) are subject to chemical interference, which causes arrested development, in turn leading to a physical or mental deficiency once born. They are bred for their jobs. Their life is predetermined.

There are other complex birthing, and child-raising, techniques described in detail; all of which sound, on the face of it, horrendous. They are based on the production line technology popularised by Henry Ford – indeed Ford is almost deified (although society is now atheist) and the story is set in 632 After Ford (2540 in our calendar). All people are conditioned to value consumption, to accept their place in the world and contribute to the healthy world economy. Recreational sex is encouraged; spending time alone is not only frowned upon but seen as a waste of resources; the legal drug soma (based on the alleged Indo-Aryan drink of the same name) allows the user to take hallucinogenic holidays; people live a healthy life until 60 and then die – no-one has a family so no-one mourns. Individualism is seen as the worst of crimes. This world has more complexities and horrors, which the reader should discover for themselves.

We’re introduced to Bernard, who despite being part of the elite Alpha Plus class, is physically shorter than average and is a bit of a social outcast. He bravely (in the reader’s eyes), or stupidly (within the context of the story), speaks out about being different. It is rumoured his birthing process was interfered with. His only friend is Helmholtz, who understands Bernard’s individualism as he is the most gifted, most intelligent, most perfect specimen. Bernard is infatuated with Lenina, who is not as promiscuous as her friends and is fascinated, as a child can be with an insect, with Bernard.

Bernard takes Lenina to a savage reservation to impress her, and this is where the story – the satire – really begins. Lenina is horrified, Bernard rapt. Interweaving back stories lead the reader to a savage called John who has an important heritage, and who, along with his mother, doesn’t really belong with the savages. John wants to visit this brave new world he learns about from his visitors, so Bernard arranges a trip. However, John cannot adapt to his new life, and once his mother dies, retreats to the life of a hermit. Bernard remains a social outcast. The novel, then, ends in disappointment and tragedy, with people of the brave new world apparently not changed in any way.

Huxley, famously a pacifist and humanist, wrote the novel when he was associated with what are known as the Bloomsbury Set, including Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. He was very much into the idea that science was corrupting humanity and the march of technological progress could only be damaging. There are various stories about Huxley’s drug use, such as his introduction to peyote by the infamous Crowley. What is known is that he took mescaline in 1953 before writing The Doors of Perception in 1953, long after the drug references of Brave New World.

My guilty confession: I wanted to be a part of that class system when I first read it (remember, 15!). I thought that life in the Brave New World would be marvellous. Social privileges, recreational sex on tap with perfect women, legalised drugs and as much leisure time as I desired. Placed with my intellectual equals, I would have the life I deserved, that suited my personality (or what I thought my personality was as a teenager). I wouldn’t need to struggle to reach my life’s fulfilment. I would be happy. It wasn’t until I re-read the book a few years later when I was university that I fully understood the story Huxley was telling.

Huxley was clearly setting me up for a fall. He was offering me easy pleasures and more importantly to the teenage me, a place where I wouldn’t be alone. I would think and feel the same things as my peers. Of course, every 15-year-old feels alone, alienated, different and wanting to belong to a cool group of peers exactly like – but not quite as good as – they are. However, as young man at university, it soon became clear that my beliefs and ideals didn’t match those of the society of Bernard’s lords and masters. While at university, my ideas and ideals became clear. Fiercely liberal, pro-equality, erring against capitalism and consumerism, pacifist, scientist, environmentalist, pro-individualism.

The themes I found in Brave New World – government control of the masses, eugenics, etc – cropped up in fiction and music I turned to again and again during my formative years. The underlying messages that the young 15-year-old read pushed me in a certain direction and allowed me access to friends, music and literature that informed me and moulded me into the person I grew into at university. Hence, Brave New World is my book of my lifetime.

Reporter: Ian J Simpson

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