Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Although many people read "Brave New World" in high school, I never experienced it until now. This is my new favorite book.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was an English writer and philosopher whose most well-known work was "Brave New World", which imagines a dystopian view of the future. The title comes from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest.
"O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in't!"
Although Brave New World was written in 1931, Huxley's book predicted future events with great clarity. In BNW the state exerts near total control over people's lives (think Hitler or Stalin) and we have in vitro fertilization, birth control, helicopters, televisions and drugs which help regulate our moods.

All babies are from in vitro fertilization and there are no "mothers" or "fathers". Everyone belongs to everyone else. You can have sex with anyone, but no one can have a child. Promiscuity is encouraged, but no one is allowed to have a relationship, since this creates a bond which is not shared with everyone else. The developing embryos are manipulated in vitro so that they produce babies who fall into different castes such as alpha, beta, delta, gamma and epsilons (think of A, B, C, D and F students). The alphas are the highest caste, the most intelligent and physically perfect. Progressing downward, the epsilons are practically imbeciles, capable only of the lowest, most menial tasks.

To ensure harmony, the euphoric drug "soma" is freely available and it is especially useful in controlling the epsilons in their mindless work and near meaningless existence. In substitution for God, Henry Ford (yes, Model T Henry Ford) is worshipped as a god. The year is 632 AF (after Ford) and the deity's words of consumption and social engineering are considered sacred text. All Christian crosses have their tops sawed off so as to resemble "T" as in "Model T Ford".

Consuming material goods is very important, as this keeps everyone in society working. If people are not working, they cannot be happy. Therefore the state controls exactly how much needs to be consumed to keep everyone busy. The state also manipulates its citizens with "hypnopedic" messages to "condition" them into being happy in their jobs and desiring the correct things in the correct proportions.

The book centers around three characters who reject this "perfect" society. Bernard Marx is an "alpha plus" who detests the complacency induced by "soma" and expresses his desire to feel emotions (rather than have them dampened or clouded by drugs). Helmholtz Watson is another alpha plus who wants to understand poetry (which is banned) and he recognizes the manipulation that is occurring in this "civilization". John is a "savage" born in a free-world reservation, who is brought to this civilization by Bernard. John detests this new society which he finds god-less, materialistic and ignorant. He says that everyone gets things too cheaply and easily, no one knows what hard work is, or has a chance to feel their emotions. Everyone is able to indulge in infantile desires and a steady supply of soma keeps all the people happy and easily controlled.

This book makes me wonder about our own role in society and the influence of the state in keeping us in our "castes". Just like in BNW, I think we are subtly manipulated by the media and controlling substances to maintain our place in society.

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