Goodreads: Brave New World
Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…
Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.
Minor spoilers about the message of the book.
I first read Brave New World in high school, in conjunction with George Orwell’s 1984, at which time I concluded 1984 was much more horrifying and Brave New World was a bore. I hoped that this reread of Huxley’s classic dystopian novel would give me a fresh perspective on it, since I’m older and have some more literature studies under my belt. Unfortunately, while I can admit that the themes of Brave New World are thought-provoking and extremely relevant to today’s society (at least American society, with which I am most familiar personally), I still found the narrative itself flat.
1984 still scares me because I find the portrayal of the surveillance in the novel terrifying. Rebellion against the established order is impossible because someone is always watching. There is no privacy; even in your own home you are not alone and cannot behave as you wish. It’s appalling and stifling. Brave New World doesn’t inspire that same visceral horror in me , the feeling that makes me superficially declare 1984 a more moving book, because on the surface Huxley’s world is much more innocuous. In the end, that’s what should be really terrifying about the book--that it’s not scary, that some people would legitimate consider the world utopian rather than dystopian.
After all, the values of the Brave New World society are not so different from what we would consider left-wing viewpoints today (though of course I’m not saying every person who is left-wing agrees with all of these things or agrees with them to such extremes). The society values recreational sex and promiscuity; sleeping with many people is good. Parenthood or pregnancy is no longer an “inconvenience.” Abortion is on demand. So is euthanasia; when a person becomes too old to be useful to society, they’re put to sleep. The government has legalized and subsidizes recreational drugs. It also pays for birth control and sterilization. Education and job training appear to be free, as well.
The major problem with all of this, of course, is that none of it is optional. It’s not that you can have sex with everyone without judgment or get an abortion or spend your entire weekend high; it’s that you must. At least, I think that’s the problem many readers would initially see. The problem, as the book presents it, is that many of these things this society values are not good at all. The society, in the name of making everyone happy, has also made them complacent. Life is flat. There’s no purpose because there’s nothing to truly do, nothing to overcome. Love, passion, sacrifice–none of these things exist, and life is emptier for it. I can’t say I disagree with this. Throughout history arguments have been made for the necessity of people experiencing at least some pain, at least some obstacles they can overcome.
However, the problem of writing about a world/life that is flat is that the story itself must also be somewhat flat, must also be bit about the pointlessness of it all. None of the characters have ever been truly compelling to me, precisely because they don’t experience much opposition or shocks to their worldview and subsequently don’t experience much growth. There’s a message to that, too: the book takes the pessimistic view that no one really can grow. They can feel they ought to, but too much of history and culture and freedom of choice has been destroyed for them to know how to. That’s interesting philosophically, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging plot or characterization.
So is Brave New World worth reading? Yes. It’s a staple in dystopian literature, and I think readers who want to know about the genre, or just be well-read in the classics, should add it to their list. It’s referenced often enough in Western culture that having a working knowledge of it can be beneficial. I think it’s also very eye-opening in terms of the things it posits as belonging in a dystopian world. But am I promising it will be the most exciting book you read this year? No, not really.