Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
A modern reader of Brave New World, which was published in 1932, might look at Aldous Huxley’s future vision with a bit of a wry smile. It is, after all, the most utopian of the dystopian novels; disease and sickness are all but eliminated; thanks to the ubiquity of the drug soma, people are generally “happy;” there is relative abundance of wealth; and everyone has a place in the hierachy of the caste system. These are also the things that make it so scary, but it’s the quaint, seemingly out-of-date details that flesh out the world that might amuse modern readers.
Henry Ford, for example, is exalted by Huxley’s characters as a sort of patron saint—part visionary, part savior—even going so far as to use his name as an oath. Characters refer to “Our Ford” with reverence as they cross themselves with the sign of the T (after his Model T mass production automobile) on their stomach, and measure their calendar in years A. F. or After Ford.
Some of the technological advancements are equally amusing. Future houses, apartments, and the like are equipped “scent organs,” indistinct machines that pipe aromas on demand into rooms like a dentist might pipe Muzak into his waiting room. As strange as it may seem, I might prefer an actual whiff of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme to a rearranged version of the Simon & Garfunkle song.
Huxley, however, is not in the business of prediction. And he certainly didn’t anticipate Odorama or its antecedent Smell-O-Vision. He wasn’t striving to tell us about what the future will look like. He wanted to make readers think about their present and the dangers posed by then current trends. What makes Brave New World such an enduring classic is the timelessness of the social and political issues Huxley identifies and exaggerates as the key issues for a future society. Population control, genetic manipulation, oligarchic rule, conspicuous consumption, the systematic promotion of narcissism through personal gratification, the conditioning of citizens to official state dogma, and indifference toward history are all issues that Huxley examines both directly and obliquely.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about Brave New World is precisely the happy shiny people that inhabit it—the happy-go-lucky demeanor of a population that can’t recognize the cold and systematic destruction of individual will and spirit. The ennui of Bernard Marx, and the disdain for the civilized world held by the Savage not withstanding, the inhabitants of Brave New World approach each day with a sense of joyful abandon. When work is done, they engage in sensual pleasures—dancing, drugs, group chorals. If ever they feel unhappy, the state-sponsored drug soma lifts their spirits. Their lives are care-free, but at what cost?
From the moment the book opens in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, emblazoned with the World State’s motto, Community, Identity, Stability, Huxley presents a world that is alternately enthralling and repulsive. And he peoples it with characters that stand in for our own hopes and desires, whether they be for the everyday needs of comfort and constancy, or the more spiritual requirements of joy and love. Most importantly, he suggests that we can never truly achieve those positive states without some sense of their opposites.
Brave New World endures in it’s importance because it tends focus on questions every bit as current as they were when it was published. And it’s funny, which is to be expected from satire. So even as we might smile at the absurdity of Brave New World, we can be equally chilled by a society that—in its goal of Community, Identity, and Stability—so thoroughly reduces the human experience to the base pursuit of sensual gratification.
I really enjoyed rereading such a classic recently. I would love to hear from anyone in the comments who’s had a similar experience, or who might have read it for the first time.