Review: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Believe it or not, I’d never read Brave New World until now. I’m the first to admit that my exposure to the literary canon was sorely lacking in high school. I went to the kind of place where they’d never admit that, say, Shakespeare was “better” than Amy Tan—“they’re just different!”—and so we were forced to supplement each classic with a modern critics’ darling. Which sounds all well and good in theory, except it meant that I was one of exactly five people in my freshman-year-of-college Great Books class to raise a hand when the professor asked all those who’d never read Sophocles to identify themselves. I’ve been trying to remedy this disservice on my own ever since, and, upon the recommendation of a good friend whose taste and intellect I admire to a startling degree, I picked up this dystopian classic, published in 1932. 

It may be the finest piece of anti-American literature ever produced. Huxley was ostensibly inspired to write the book in part by a Tocquevillian journey through the States, during which he was shocked by the freewheeling and libertine attitudes that characterized the Roaring Twenties in America. Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production, shoulders most of the what-has-the-world-come-to burden in BNW; the book is set in 632 A.F., as in Anno Ford. Charing Cross in London has become Charing T (as in, Ford’s Model T). People say “Oh, dear Ford” or “praise Ford,” instead of God. Western religions are considered extinct, quaint philosophical traditions; humans are produced in test tubes, separated into strict castes and conditioned accordingly. Lower-caste people are produced using the Bokanovsky process, basically advanced egg-splitting that can generate up to (I believe) 92 identical humans, all of whom will be genetically shaped and trained to endure the mind-numbing tasks necessary for societal stability. Promiscuity is the norm and monogamy the anomaly, and a hallucinogen called soma is the cure for all emotional ills.

For me, the best parts of the book were the intricate descriptions of the World State, displaying both Huxley’s creativity and his political bent. What’s so interesting, though, is that for all his focus on how essential freedom is, even if it ends up sanctioning human misery, the target of his utopian critique is not the Soviet Union—the common whipping boy of dystopian fiction—but the beacon of liberty and progress itself, America during the Industrial Revolution. (I should mention here that the book is set in London, and that Huxley was also claimed to have been inspired by a visit to a chemical plant in Billingham, England, but America—and, most importantly, what influence American trends may have over the rest of the “civilized” world—pervades the book.)

It’s always hard to place a novel like this in historical context (first of all, the book was published, if not written, after the Great Depression was in full swing, invalidating some of the more incendiary claims about American values), and I’d need to be a lot better-schooled than I currently am to do it justice as a political treatise. So instead I’ll move on to its merit as a piece of literature. It’s gripping, it’s exceedingly well-drawn and, most importantly, Mustapha Mond’s speech to the Savage toward the end actually convinces you that maybe the World State got it right after all. Huxley’s point is that asceticism is underrated; that the world is becoming more shallow, more indulgent, more willing to forsake meaning for contentment; that desires are significant only when they are not sated. And, in a world where people are conditioned to want only what they can easily have, freedom is the only way to fully realize the scope and the sacredness of the human condition. “Happiness is not grand,” Mustapha Mond says, and it’s assumed that grand beats happy because, after all, without tragedy and conflict and longing, what would Shakespeare have had to write about?

I lean towards the view that I’d only want to live in a world that could inspire Romeo and Juliet, but the alternative remains tempting, especially under my general presupposition that God does not factor into the equation. (I consider myself an agnostic, but regardless, my de facto starting point is always that God does not exist, since the burden of proof is always on believers.) It’s a true credit to Huxley that, approximately eighty years after the fact—and, interestingly, amidst the ongoing debate over liberal democratic versus authoritarian models of government—his novel still seems to present a real choice.

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