I first read Huxley’s first novel at school. How cool is that? English literature class aged 15, and I was learning about class, drugs and oppression. Except I wasn’t really learning what I thought I was. I can’t recall the name of my teacher but I would like to thank her for opening my eyes, even if it took a few more years to see. It was 1986 and I’d already become familiar with the dystopia’s of Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but I was unprepared by the impact that Brave New World was to have on me.
The characters live under a stable society which at first glance appears to be utopian, known as The World State. Everyone is happy. The opening is a masterful stroke of storytelling and exposition, which introduces us to the world we’ve entered. We’re invited to a tour a Hatchery. Natural reproduction is no more and children are created in hatcheries and then brought up in Conditioning Centres. So far, so creepy. The Alphas are allowed to develop naturally, but the other levels of the castes (Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon) are subject to chemical interference which causes arrested development leading to a physical or mental deficiency. They are bred for their jobs. There are other complex birthing and child-raising techniques described in detail, all of which sound, on the face of it, horrendous. All people are conditioned to value consumption, to accept their place in the world and contribute to the healthy world economy. Recreational sex is encouraged; spending time alone is not only frowned upon but seen as a waste of resources; the legal drug soma (based on the alleged Indo-Aryan drink of the same name) allows the user to take hallucinogenic holidays; people live a healthy life until 60 and then die – no-one has a family so no-one mourns. Individualism is seen as the worst of crimes. This world has more complexities and horrors, which the reader should discover for themselves.
We’re introduced to Bernard who, despite being part of the elite Alpha Plus class, is physically shorter than average and socially an outcast. He bravely, or stupidly, speaks out about being different. It is rumoured his birthing process was interfered with. His only friend is Helmholtz, who understands Bernard’s individualism as he is the most gifted, most intelligent, most perfect specimen. Bernard is infatuated with Lenina, who is not as promiscuous as her friends and is fascinated, as a child can be with an insect, with Bernard.
Bernard takes Lenina to a savage reservation to impress her, and this is where the story, the satire, really begins. Lenina is horrified, Bernard rapt. Interweaving back stories lead the reader to a savage called John who has an important heritage, who, along with his mother, doesn’t really belong to the savages. John wants to visit this brave new world, so Bernard arranges a trip. However, John cannot adapt to his new life, and once is mother dies, retreats to the life of a hermit. Bernard remains a social outcast. The novel, then, ends in disappointment and tragedy, with people of the brave new world apparently not changed in any way.
Huxley, famously a pacifist and humanist, wrote the novel when he was associated with what are known as the Bloomsbury Set, including Bertrand Russell. He was very much into the idea that science was corrupting humanity and the march of technological progress could only be damaging. There are various stories about Huxley’s drug use, such as his introduction to peyote by Crowley. What is known is that he took mescaline in 1953 before writing The Doors of Perception in 1953. Long after the drug references of Brave New World.
My guilty confession. I wanted to be a part of that class system when I first read it. I thought that life in the Brave New World would be marvellous. Social privileges, recreational sex on tap with perfect women, legalised drugs and as much leisure time as I desired. Placed with my intellectual equals, I would have the life I deserved, that suited my personality (or what I thought my personality was as a teenager). I wouldn’t need to struggle to reach my life’s fulfilment. I would be happy. It wasn’t until I re-read the book a few years later when I was university that I fully understood the story Huxley was telling.
Huxley was clearly setting me up for a fall. He was offering me easy pleasures and more importantly to the teenage me, a place where I wouldn’t be alone. I would think and feel the same things as my peers. However, as young man at university, it soon became clear that my beliefs and ideals didn’t match those of the society of Bernard’s lords and masters. While at university, my ideas and ideals became clear. Fiercely liberal, pro-equality, tending against capitalism, tending towards intellectual-snobbery, pacifist, scientist, environmentalist, pantheist. This is person I became and I think at this point I understood Brave New World. I do, however, believe that the underlying messages that I read aged 15 pushed me in a certain direction and allowed me access to friends, music and literature that informed me and moulded me into the person I grew into at university and the person I am today. It is not what you have that makes you, it is the struggle to live that does. He who dies with the most toys, still dies. Hence Brave New World is my book of my lifetime.