Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Brave New World - Analysis

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful, well-written novel by Huxley and I wanted to elaborate on how I think the themes in this book translate into our society today.

The structure of society
Even though America prides itself on being upwardly mobile for most of its citizens it is clear that the caste structure in BNW (alpha, beta, gamma, etc) exists here today. In BNW the caste structure is maintained by controlling genetics and development, and later through conditioning and social conformity. The latter two matter significantly since it requires the state actively manipulating individuals throughout their entire lives. In BNW conformity is induced by controlling media, promoting conformist activities for each caste and by giving caste members drugs (soma) to keep them complacent.

Controlling society
Today I think we are manipulated by state institutions, large corporations and the media. We are taught to conform to a consumerist society where we feel compelled to compare our possessions, lifestyles, careers and other choices to our neighbor's. We don't have "soma" but we have many other drugs to help keep us happy. It could be said that money, alcohol, computer games, reality television and sports are all used to keep us "happy" and easily malleable. The only people who can transcend the caste structure today are those who can resist these temptations and the compulsion to measure self-worth using society's tangible criteria of success.

A society of equals?
Near the end of the book, the "World Controller" Mustafa Mond reveals that there was once an experiment to create a society full of alphas. It was a disaster since not all alphas could be doctors and lawyers, but some had to be factory workers and laborers. The alphas performing menial tasks detested those working in the high profile jobs. The experimental society collapsed into chaos. Mustafa says that society is like an iceberg, where 8/9ths of society must be at the bottom and only 1/9th on top.

I recognize that not everyone can be doctors, lawyers or "world controllers". However, I cannot imagine society would collapse in a world full of equals, assuming everyone is rewarded proportionately to their job. Also, I believe there is more than just genetics in determining what career is most suitable to us and our success. Things such as passion, ambition and work ethic should count for as much as our chromosmes. Likewise, fairness in compensation and rewarding effort with opportunities to move through the social hierarchy would create the best society, in my mind.

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.