Tuesday, August 25, 2009

229. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

History: Written in 1931 and published in 1932. Brave New World was inspired by the H. G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods. Not only was Huxley outraged by the culture of youth, commercial cheeriness, sexual promiscuity and the inward-looking nature of many Americans; he had also found a book by Henry Ford on the boat to America. There was a fear of Americanization in Europe, so to see America firsthand, as well as read the ideas and plans of one of its foremost citizens, spurred Huxley to write Brave New World with America in mind. The "feelies" are his response to the "talkie" motion pictures, and the sex-hormone chewing gum is parody of the ubiquitous chewing gum, which was something of a symbol of America at that time.
Plot: The novel opens in London in the "year of our Ford 632" (AD 2540 in the Gregorian Calendar). In this world, the vast majority of the population is unified under The World State, an eternally peaceful, stable global society, in which goods are plentiful and everyone is happy. In this society, natural reproduction has been done away with and children are decanted and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres. Society is divided into five castes, created in these centres. The highest caste is allowed to develop naturally while it matures in its "decanting bottle". The lower castes are treated to chemical interference to cause arrested development in intelligence or physical growth. The castes are Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, with each caste further split into Plus and Minus members. Each Alpha or Beta is the product of one fertilized egg developing into one foetus. Members of other castes are not unique but are instead created using the Bokanovsky process which enables a single egg to spawn (at the point of the story being told) up to 96 children and one ovary to produce thousands of children.
All members of society are conditioned in childhood to hold the values that the World State idealizes. Constant consumption is the bedrock of stability for the World State. Everyone is encouraged to consume the ubiquitous drug, soma, which is probably a historical allusion to a mythical drink of the ancient Aryans. Soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free "vacations".
Recreational heterosexual sex is an integral part of society. In The World State, sex is a social activity rather than a means of reproduction and is encouraged from early childhood; the few women who can reproduce are conditioned to take birth control. The maxim "everyone belongs to everyone else" is repeated often, and the idea of a "family" is repellent. As a result, sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are obsolete. Marriage, natural birth, the notion of being a parent, and pregnancy are considered too obscene to be mentioned in casual conversation.
In The World State, people typically die at age 60 having maintained good health and youthfulness their whole life. Death isn't feared; anyone reflecting upon it is reassured by the knowledge that everyone is happy, and that society goes on. Since no one has family, they have no ties to mourn.
The conditioning system eliminates the need for professional competitiveness; people are literally bred to do their jobs and cannot desire another. There is no competition within castes; each caste member receives the same food, housing, and soma rationing as every other member of that caste. There is no desire to change one's caste.
In its first chapters, the novel describes life in the World State and introduces Lenina and Bernard. Lenina, a beta plus, is a socially accepted woman, normal for her society, while Bernard, a psychologist, is an outcast. Although an Alpha Plus, Bernard is shorter in stature than the average of his caste—a quality shared by the lower castes, which gives him an inferiority complex. He defies social norms and despises his equals. His work with sleep-teaching has led him to realize that what others believe to be their own deeply held beliefs are merely phrases repeated to children while they sleep. Courting disaster, he is vocal about being different, once stating he dislikes soma because he'd "rather be himself, sad, than another person, happy". Bernard's differences fuel rumours that he was accidentally administered alcohol while incubated, a method used to keep Epsilons short.
Bernard is obsessed with Lenina, attributing noble qualities and poetic potentials to her which she does not have. A woman who seldom questions her own motivations, Lenina is reprimanded by her friends because she is not promiscuous enough. Both fascinated and disturbed by Bernard, she responds to Bernard's advances to dispel her reputation for being too selective and monogamous.
Bernard's only friend is Helmholtz Watson, an Alpha-Plus lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering (Department of Writing). Helmholtz is also an outcast, but unlike Bernard, it is because he is too gifted, too handsome. Helmholtz, successful, charming, attractive, is drawn to Bernard as a confidant: he can talk to Bernard about his desire to write poetry. Bernard likes Helmholtz because, unlike anyone else, Helmholtz likes Bernard. He is also, Bernard realizes, everything Bernard will never be.
Bernard, desperately wanting Lenina's attention, tries to impress her by taking her on holiday to a Savage Reservation. The reservation, located in New Mexico, consists of a community named Malpais (which in Spanish means "bad country", one of many Spanish puns throughout the novel). From afar, Lenina thinks it will be exciting. In person, she finds the aged, toothless natives who mend their clothes rather than throw them away repugnant, and the situation is made worse when she discovers that she has left her soma tablets at the resort hotel. Bernard is fascinated, although he realizes his seduction plans have failed.
In typical tourist fashion, Bernard and Lenina watch what at first appears to be a quaint native ceremony. The village folk, whose culture resembles that of the Pueblo peoples such as the Hopi and Zuni, begin by singing, but the ritual quickly becomes a passion play where a village boy is whipped to unconsciousness.
Soon after, the couple encounters Linda, a woman formerly of The World State who has been living in Malpais since she came on a trip and became separated from her group and her date, whom she refers to as "Tomakin" but who is revealed to be Bernard's boss, Thomas. She became pregnant because she mistimed her "Malthusian Drill" and there were no facilities for an abortion. Linda gave birth to a son, John (later referred to as John the Savage) who is now eighteen.
Through conversations with Linda and John, we learn that their life has been hard. For eighteen years, they have been treated as outsiders; the natives hate Linda for sleeping with all the men of the village, as she was conditioned to do and John was mistreated and excluded for his mother's actions, not to mention the role of racism. John's one joy was that his mother had taught him to read although he only had two books: a scientific manual from his mother's job and a collection of the works of Shakespeare (a work banned in The World State). John has been denied the religious rituals of the village, although he has watched them and even has had some of his own religious experiences in the desert.
Old, weathered and tired, Linda wants to return to her familiar world in London; she is tired of a life without soma. John wants to see the "brave new world" his mother has told him so much about. Bernard wants to take them back as revenge against Thomas, who threatened to reassign Bernard to Iceland as punishment for Bernard's antisocial beliefs. Bernard arranges permission for Linda and John to leave the reservation.
Upon his return to London, Bernard is confronted by Thomas, the Director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre who, in front of an audience of higher-caste Centre workers, denounces Bernard for his antisocial behaviour and again threatens to send him to Iceland. Bernard, thinking that for the first time in his life he has the upper hand, defends himself by presenting the Director with his lost lover and unknown son, Linda and John. The humiliated Director resigns in shame.
Bernard makes John the toast of London. Pursued by the highest members of society, able to bed any woman he fancies, Bernard revels in attention he once scorned. Everyone who is anyone will endure Bernard to dine with the interesting, different, beautiful John. Even Lenina grows fond of the savage, while the savage falls in love with her. Bernard, intoxicated with attention, falls in love with himself.
The victory, however, is short lived. Linda, decrepit, toothless, friendless, goes on a permanent soma holiday while John, appalled by what he perceives to be an empty society, refuses to attend Bernard's parties. Society drops Bernard as swiftly as it had taken him. Bernard turns to the person he'd believed to be his one true friend, only to see Helmholtz fall into a quick, easy camaraderie with John. Bernard is left an outcast yet again as he watches the only two men he ever connected with find more of interest in each other than they ever did in him.
John and Helmholtz's island of peace is brief. John grows frustrated by a society he finds wicked and debased. He is moved by Lenina, but also loathes her sexual advances, which revolt and shame him. He is heartbroken when his mother succumbs to soma and dies in a hospital. John's grief bewilders and revolts the hospital workers, and their lack of reaction to Linda's death prompts John to try to force humanity from the workers by throwing their soma rations out a window. The ensuing riot brings the police who soma-gas the crowd. Bernard and Helmholtz arrive to help John, but only Helmholtz helps him, while Bernard stands to the side, torn between risking involvement by helping or escaping the scene.
When they wake, Bernard, Helmholtz and John are brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. Bernard and Helmholtz are told they will be sent to Iceland and the Falkland Islands, two of several island colonies reserved for exiled citizens. Helmholtz looks forward to living on the remote Falkland Islands, where he can become a serious writer but Bernard is devastated, throws a fit and has to be dragged away. Mond explains that exile to the islands is not so much a threat to force freethinkers to reform and rejoin society but a place where they may act as they please, because they will not be an influence on the population. After Bernard and Helmholtz leave the room, Mustapha and John engage in a philosophical argument on the morals behind the godless society, which leads to the decision that John will not be sent to an island. Mustapha says that he too once risked banishment to an island because of some experiments that were deemed controversial by the state, alluding to an understanding of Bernard's, Helmholtz's and John's position as outsiders and even ceding to John's perception of the flawed society.
In the final chapters, John isolates himself from society in a lighthouse outside London where he finds his hermit life interrupted from mourning his mother by the more bitter memories of civilization. To atone, John brutally whips himself in the open, a ritual the Indians in his own village had said he was not capable of. His self-flagellation, caught on film and shown publicly, destroys his hermit life. Hundreds of gawking sightseers, intrigued by John's violent behavior, fly out to watch the savage in person. Even Lenina comes to watch, crying a tear John does not see. The sight of the woman whom he both adores and blames is too much for him; John attacks and whips her. This sight of genuine, unbridled emotion drives the crowd wild with excitement, and—handling it as they are conditioned to—they turn on each other, in a frenzy of beating and chanting that devolves into a mass orgy of soma and sex. In the morning, John, hopeless, alone and horrified by his drug use, debasement and attack on Lenina, makes one last attempt to escape civilization and atone. When thousands of gawking sightseers arrive that morning, frenzied at the prospect of seeing the savage perform again, they find John dead, hanging by the neck.
Review: Huxley was able to use the setting and characters from his science fiction novel to express widely held opinions, particularly the fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future. Huxley's satire only increases in intensity as the book progresses. The metaphors of the book are all taken to the extreme, such as the assembly line: in this society, people make the sign of the "T" and say of their deity, "Our Ford." The concrete reality of the book, while a compelling story, isn't the point. Huxley is worried about a state of mind, one that puts happiness into a materialistic paradigm, and then uses it as a method of control, justified as what the people want. This human tendency is hardly news, but Huxley saw quite clearly how technology would change everything. A look around at our society shows no sign of World Controllers or soma in the literal sense, but the specific technologies of happiness are just as perturbing as Huxley's fictions. This overarching idea is well justified The novel is seamlessly written with a tight plot that never wavers. The original ideas and the way they are expressed remain fresh today.
Opening Line: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.”
Closing Line: “Slowly,very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left, South-south-west, south, south-east, east….”
Quotes: "You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high
"You all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's: History is bunk."
Rating: Very Good

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