As part of the extensive Christmas hamper Nelly sent me last year, I got two of the books we have for this year’s challenge, one of them being Brave New World. It came with a quirky set of 3D glasses – one eye cover red plastic, the other blue. The artwork on the cover had the signature red-blue colouring intended to be looked through the pair of glasses provided. It got me to remember the initial hype that 3D was, and its following falling out of fashion, and I had to give a little chuckle to myself, as I hadn’t realised it had permeated as far as designs for book covers!
The novel itself is not large, this specific edition was further bulked up by a few forewords, one of which, I was pleasantly surprised, was written by Margaret Atwood, most famous for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which we will be reviewing later this year. It was a snappy, engaging essay, which drummed up much excitement in me to get started with the book, and provided a gripping, if brief, analysis of the main themes in Brave New World and dystopian literature as a whole. I recommend reading this particular forward as much as the book itself.
I pushed through the remaining forewords, which were much drier, and finally got onto the story itself, only to have a strange feeling of having read it before. I got onto the infamous bit where the main female protagonist, Lenina, is dolled up for her date, sporting a brand new belt which is furnished with a multitude of contraceptive slots. Keep in mind this book was written before the pill was rolled out to the mass market, contraception methods were considered taboo, a female’s role was still seen as that of a child bearer. The imagery of Lenina in her promiscuous outfit in that scene would hardly be considered anything much today, but nearly a century ago it was shocking and iconic. So iconic that it jogged my memory sufficiently to realise I had read the book before.
Brave New World has been translated into Bulgarian ages ago, and was printed as part of a collection I have mentioned in previous reviews – Library Galaxy, and we had a copy of it at home when I was a young teenager. I remember leafing through the pages having only just entered puberty and wondering what the book was all about. I also remember losing interested in it quite quickly after that scene, as I simply wasn’t ready to appreciate Bernard Marx’s struggles over being physically different from his peers.
The Shocking – Then and Now
Margaret Atwood’s foreword helped me to keep in mind the year in which the novel was written (1931) and the general circumstances of that time – the great depression between the two world wars, the swift rise of mass production and mass consumerism in America, the uncertain place of women in society, etc. The novel was conceived to shock us into asking crucial questions of ourselves and our leaders about the direction in which the world was headed into. Some of the ideas meant to challenge Huxley’s contemporaries are still unsettling today, and others – not all that much. I found the lack of certain concepts in the novel equally shocking, though I attribute their absence to the times in which the novel was written in.
One of the leading ideas of the book is that “everyone belongs to everyone else” – open sexual relations with no jealousy or other hard feelings. It presents a world where men and women work alongside each other, and enjoy themselves and each other as a matter of course, and whilst the scale of this idea may still be unprecedented in our timeline, in the 1930s it was scandalous – Lord forbid there be a woman with an obvious sexual drive able to handle complex machinery as well as her male counterpart! (heavy sarcasm implied).
The concept of parenthood is a taboo and is ridiculed by the societal structure in Brave New World – babies come out of bottles and the novel begins with a tour of one such factory for new human life, the processes of fertilisation, multiplication and raising are explained at length. Sleep hypnosis is used to condition children of all ages into all social norms genetic manipulation isn’t able to. A female’s fertility is seen merely as a nuisance. What shocked me in those pages was not the mass production of bottle grown humans, but the deliberate debilitation of some of them so they wouldn’t be capable or want to do anything but the most boring, menial, mind numbing labour. Society is graded using the letters in the Greek alphabet, most people of today would fall in the Alpha group. But as Huxley rightly points out – to give an Alpha a job which lacks all creativity is bound to cause unrest. His solution is the pointed damaging of an embryo by exposing it to chemicals and controlled environmental instabilities which would degrade cognisant abilities. Physical disabilities in this (very large inverted commas) “perfect” (close very large inverted commas) are nonexistent.
In my reading of the book, none of the Alphas were pointed out to be people of colour, whereas Gammas and Deltas were. This is one of the “omissions” mentioned above which angered and upset me, and which I would like to attribute to the time in which the novel was written. Another was the complete lack of environmental awareness. In a world where clothes are disposed of after a single wear (sound familiar?) there were no mentions of resource depletion or environmental damage. Natural disasters were still mentioned as a whim of nature, rather than a consequence of deforestation, overpopulation, pollution and over extraction. Even as late as the 1930s, our forebears had little concept of the environmental problems they were laying down for us, their children.
This short book is rich in many other ideas – growing old is “cured”, human bodies are recycled to base components after death, disease, poverty, sense of purpose, religious aspirations, creativity and many more are intertwined with one another in barely more than 200 pages. Trying to unpick them in a few short pages here will do Huxley and his labour a disservice, so I will end my musings here.
Brave New World has left me with a mixture of hopelessness that we are already at the point of dystopian nightmare depicted in the novel and the certainty that we will never actually get there. On one hand we have the ingrained consumerism – fast fashion is the epitome of the dream hypnosis:
“We always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending.”,
and we have many more of these slogans besides to bombard us in our waking hours through advertisements, social media, trend setters, etc. On the other hand, we’re still in the middle of the Covid19 pandemic, which has shattered our regular spending habits and has exposed the fragility of the consumerism machine. Stop buying and the machine grounds to a halt, alongside millions of people losing their employment overnight. In the UK we’ve had the scheme “Eat out to help out”, we’re encouraged to shop locally to support small businesses, and many other government initiatives, in order to continue to consume. Another realisation has hit many people both in the UK and outside – with the UK is no longer part of the European Union, import and export charges have risen exponentially. It is a turbulent time for the mass consumer, who will perhaps think twice before purchasing for single use again (one may dream…).
The novel made me laugh a lot too, so I would highly recommend you to give it a go. The seemingly absurd situations the characters find themselves in are comical enough to help you swallow the hard questions the book poses, without preventing you from asking yourself these questions still – does universal happiness truly cost us our individuality? Is our purpose to conform and support society, or the purpose of society to provide comfort to us despite, even because of our flaws? And, most importantly, would you give up your rational thinking alongside your suffering for a gram of soma?
I first read Brave New World possibly 10-11 years ago. I remember picking it up because a month before that I devoured George Orwell’s 1984. Everyone kept telling me to read both of them because they masterfully represent opposing views and predictions of the future.
I also remember 1984 having a greater impact on me because I could relate better to the main protagonist. But more on that in another post. Going through Brave New World for the second time and after so many years, I think I was able to appreciate it better. I can attribute the difference in perception to life experience and to major changes in society in general.
What is Different This Time?
My first encounter with Brave New World was in my late teens/early twenties, so most of my life experience was from school and from what “the grown-ups” said at the time. The problem with this is that the adults in question were the last generation who actually lived under an authoritarian regime and were still learning how to navigate a democratic world.
Although Bulgarians enjoyed many of the free world’s fruits post-1990: many companies were growing in scale, products were being manufactured at a fast speed, and people eventually learned how to be consumers; the communist mentality still prevailed. As such, it wasn’t consumerism for consumerism’s sake. It was mostly buying in bulk so people wouldn’t run out of something, especially after the 1997 and 2008 economic crises.
Of course, there were those who enjoyed being consumerists. However, it took Bulgarians a whole decade to fully catch up to Western trends – branding, influencers, personal gurus and coaches, etc. Having seen these developments and having lived in the UK for a few years prior to that have given me a new perspective on life and how things work. As a result, reading Brave New World felt different because I could see how certain concepts have already become reality even in this corner of the world.
Nobody ever really prepares you to phase from one utopian reality to another.
I am I, and I Wish I Weren’t
Brave New World shows us a world in which natural birth does not exist and babies are born in batches in a lab environment. Everything is sterile and detached from human emotions. Depending on which part of the world suffers from a natural disaster, a new batch is produced and sent to substitute the dead. What’s more, the batches are treated differently during the development process because society is divided into different classes according to genetic superiority. Each caste serves a different purpose in society – some are more suited to menial work, while others are concerned with preserving and contributing to the world order.
“I am I, and I Wish I Weren’t”– Bernard Marx
Who hasn’t felt like this at some point in their life? I feel this has been the motto of the past century, following the rise of mass media.
People love to categorise (including themselves sometimes), but when others put one in a category one doesn’t agree or identify with, one may struggle. Likewise, Bernard Marx, who is not only a sleep-learning specialist at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, but he is also part of an Alpha Plus fetus batch, part of society’s elite. Technically, he should be very happy with his position. But even if he wasn’t, he would have been conditioned to be content with his place in society. Why is there such a glitch in the Matrix?
This shows that no matter how society develops, you can never create the perfect one because people in their very core are imperfect creatures. Bernard Marx struggles with being slightly less than his peers (due to a lab accident with his test tube) – he wants to fit the mould he was created in, but he also wishes to be considered as something more than his peers. Nowadays, this is everyday life for many people – they are born in certain circumstances and, more often than not, strive to become something or someone else.
Other similarities with today’s society include:
- People being treated as products, while having to check all of the ticks for the social group they belong;
- People being conditioned and desensitised to a myriad of situations (think news, both positive and negative, lots of self-help content and social media);
- Corporate hierarchy and social status is everything;
- Social gathering sometimes resemble cult meetings because you can’t deviate from the status quo;
- There is a drug (soma) for all of your problems (*ahem *opioid crisis *ahem*);
- Life affirmations and conditioning slogans make-up the leading core life philosophy;
- Distant societies are considered savage, barbaric and gross, and, also, worth bombing every time they try to claim more freedoms for themselves.
Need I list more?
I definitely appreciated Brave New World more the second time around. I recommend it to anyone who finds comparing different forms of society interesting and wants to find out how some viewed today’s world in the 1930s. Some of Huxley’s predictions are spot-on, while it may take time for others to come true. Who knows, we might live in an entirely different world 20 years from now.
Personally, I’m curious to find out whether my opinion of 1984 will change, too, after I re-read it.
Edition Published: 6 December 2007, First Published: 1932
Language book read in: English
P.S. Since I sent my book to Vel before re-reading it, I decided to find an audiobook version. If you have the time, do listen to Steve Parker’s production of Brave New World.