Dark Futures Book 2: Brave New World

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week we visit one of the first of the “classic” dystopias.

Predicting the future is a dangerous game. SF as a genre is riddled with corpses of texts that become outdated within years of publication, as society and technology march inexorably onwards, heedless of how they were supposed to develop. Its especially hard, I think, when you’re trying to shock, as what is shocking to your peers may be a lot less so in a couple of decades. And so, when I first read Brave New World, back in my late teens, I was pretty enraptured by Civilised Life, with its casual sex, endless drug parties and predestined, tailored happiness. In some respects, I totally missed the point.

For those of you who haven’t read it, BNW is set at some point (possibly centuries) in the future, where a perfectly ordered world society has emerged from whatever has gone before. People are born to one of the five castes (Alphas at the top, Epsilons at the bottom), predestined by in-utero manipulation in giant “bottling” plants and raised and indoctrinated communally to their station in life. Everything is built around making everyone content; the work hours are just right, the work itself is just right, sex is a communal activity, the one-size-fits-all drug, soma, is prescribed to combat any adverse feelings, and the whole system, from top to bottom, flows along.

There is really two stories at play in the novel, one external, and one internal. The former is probably the more striking, when a holidaying couple visit a “savage” reservation discover that a Beta woman was lost here years ago, thought killed in a fall, but instead has lived here, and raised a son, caught between his mothers teachings and the local beliefs. John is actually quite a difficult character to like. The world of Civilisation may be alien to him, and shocking, but his reactions are too often too priggish, and ultimately too violent, to make him a good audience proxy. When Lenina comes onto him, his reaction is violent. When he’s confronted with the death of his mother and societies handling of that, he first threatens violence and then goes off and starts a minor riot. His exile, period of self-flagelation and ultimate death are certainly tragic, but he’s a strident, hectoring figure too much to really connect to.

The other story, the internal one, is less problematic but no less tragic. This deals with the misfits that Civilisation throws up, Bernard, Lenina and Helmholtz, all slightly apart from the norms thrust upon them, and all yearning for something they cannot quite identify. For me, it’s their story, not Johns, that highlights what has been lost in the creation of this “perfection”. John’s story makes it clear that the cost has been felt in the arts, in history, but the others show that cost in more simple human terms, in the right to have relationships, and friends, and ultimately the right simply to be different. These tighter bonds, of parenthood, of monogamy, or looser ones, of dissidence, or solitude, are sources of potential unhappiness and have been eliminated, and society, you start to realise, may be happy, but it certainly isn’t free.

In the end it’s John who expounds this best, when he takes the option to grow infirm, to be wrong, to be old and diseased, rather than give up his free will, even if, it must be said, that his free will is fuelled with self-hate and bitterness.

To go back to my opening point, I think Brave New World has aged pretty well. Swap in Genetic Engineering for the Bottling Rooms, The Pill for Mathusian Drill and the pink-lit Abortion Centres, and much of the rest would work the same; mass consumption driving the economy, cheap entertainment for the masses, sex and drugs freely available. It doesn’t sound too unlikely, really, does it?

Next time: Big Brother is Watching You. Possibly the most famous dystopia of them all, George Orwell’s 1984.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures ” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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