landmark science fiction #3: Brave New World

More specifically, Brave New World is another landmark dystopia, on a par with 1984. Or is it a utopia? That depends. Do you prefer comfort, or free will?

The world society in Brave New World is, on the whole, a happy one for its inhabitants. There are five social levels, Alpha through Epsilon, based on intelligence and physical stature, and everyone has a job suited to their abilities. There is no family structure as we know it today. All babies are test tube babies, brought to term in the laboratory and decanted straight into group creches where they are conditioned to desire only what the State wants them to want. Aversion therapy starts in the “womb” with heat or cold, oxygen deprivation or X-rays and changing physical position, all to condition the embryos to their future environment. This conditioning continues through childhood and adulthood with both subtle and direct methods, sleep hypnotherapy or electric shocks when the children see beautiful flowers and other non-consumption based entertainments. There is no marriage or even long term emotional relationships, only short term sexual ones, and ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are obscenities fit only for adolescents to giggle over.

As for the basic plot: Bernard Marx, an Alpha Plus with an inferiority complex due to his short stature is pressured into taking Lenina (and she into accompanying him) to The Reservation, a throwback to indigenous life prior to The World Culture. There they discover Linda, a resident of their World State stranded in the Reservation when she became pregnant, and John, her son…who is also the son of Bernard’s boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. Unable to resist the chance to upstage his boss, Bernard brings Linda and John back to spring them on society. As with all good tragedies, things end unhappily: Bernard is banished to a remote island inhabited by similarly outcast misfits, Linda dies of “old age” and John, unable to adapt to this ‘brave new world’ he so longed to see, commits suicide.

Brave New World‘s much subtler than 1984, to the point that several people I know really were not sure that the primary society Huxley created WAS a dystopia. It is. Trust me. This is a society in which everyone is happy with their existence because they do not know of any other, and they cannot conceive of choosing for themselves. Free will and the ability to choose at all have been programmed out of them; this is all they know so this is all they want. It didn’t occur to me until years after I first read it that Huxley set us up: he created two options, neither of which is particularly desirable from a modern standpoint–the squalid reservations, where people are left to choose for themselves and the clean comfortable civilized majority of well fed, well housed, nicely dressed, and fully employed people, living in a society where all choices are made for them. Which would I choose? I’m not telling, but I wouldn’t care to guess how people today would mind living in the civilized portion of Huxley’s “future”. Not having to think for yourself and having everything provided is a powerful draw.

As with so many other “landmark works”, eighty years after its publication Brave New World seems more than a little cliched and trite–consumer culture, genetic modification in utero, dissolution of the family, blah blah blah. Keep in mind, though: this is where many of those tropes came from, just as Lord of the Rings is the source of many cliches in fantasy.


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