I write this on St Valentine’s Day (2016). I’ve been witness to conditioning and conformity as one of the many annual rituals comes and goes; for society, consumerism, capitalism and normalcy. Aldous Huxley first published Brave New World in 1932, a year after it was written. I listened to the BBC unabridged audiobook version, narrated by Michael York. It is a book I’ve read at least 6 times but the first time I’ve listened. I’ve spoken about it before here: My Book of My Lifetime so this won’t be as deep a description as usual in this series.
Briefly, the plot focuses on a few characters in London, in AD2540, which is known then as 632 A.F.—”After Ford”. Bernard Marx is a psychologist in the Directorate of Hatcheries and Conditioning. He’s very smart, but he’s not happy with life. He’s not normal in terms of physical stature, for his caste. Lenina Crowne works in a hatchery, and loves live. She is perfectly conditioned and perfect in every way. Bernard knows and understands how society works, and why it doesn’t work for him. However, he is infatuated by Lenina.
The world that they exist in is governed by the World State. Following on from Henry Ford’s ideas of consumption of disposable consumer goods, mass production, homogeneity and predictability (and he is now a messiah figure), society is stable, resulting from social conditioning and hypnopaedia, or sleep-teaching. There are five castes who are conditioned to know their place in society. At first glance, this appears to be a utopia. Everyone gets what everyone wants. But can anyone think for themselves?
The cracks in the society are shown when Lenina agrees to go with Bernard to a savage reservation – a place where the old values of family and religion persist. There they meet Linda and her son John. Their true identity is revealed and they return with the couple back to civilisation. Lenina falls for John, and John for Lenina, but he cannot abide her ways. When Linda dies, everything falls apart for John and Bernard.
The conditioning process that opens Brave New World and that continue to be explored are genuinely shocking today. Imagine reading this story in 1932! Social conditioning wasn’t as obvious in 1931 as it is today, and yet we are led to believe that we have more freedoms now than ever before. And yet, for those that behave in any outsider manner – not celebrating Valentine’s Day, not looking forward to Christmas as so as the summer sun sets, standing up for public libraries, creating art – life isn’t easy. The normal folks can’t understand the choices made. In Brave New World, of course, there is no choice. Citizens are sleep programmed to behave in their consumer fashion. Bernard, and his friend Helmholtz, are so intelligent that they can only be different, however. Which brings about the only real problematic area of the plot. Someone of Bernard’s intellect shouldn’t really find Lenina as attractive as he does. Although I suppose there may be some conditioning left in him. He is, however, a deeply flawed character, as exemplified with his relationship with Helmholtz. This is one of Huxley’s themes: beauty trumps intellect. Again, John falls for Lenina when he really should know better. Emotion is uncontrollable.
Another slight gripe, but maybe a result of the times Huxley lived in, is the lack of diversity within the story, which is a shame. Not so much in race, but in gender and sexuality. If everyone belongs to everyone else, why are gender and relationships so binary?
In Chapter 5 when Bernard talks to Lenina about being alone, this is what makes Brave New World so important. It fired my own individualism and lack of conformity when I was younger. Being the outsider alone! The main theme of the book is that it’s better to be me and unhappy than conform and be happy. Huxley hit upon the very definition of ignorance is bliss.
Huxley examines a lot of humanity throughout the book. The worship of Ford and the rapturous delirium of the ‘orgy’ in the solidarity meetings within this rational and technologically advanced word indicates that Huxley thought that humans need that religiosity in their lives, for example. Even the World Controller admitted as much later in the book when discussing religion with John. Another, again from that same passage, is that science and art (truth and beauty) are the twin crutches of freedom. And how! Much could be written – and has been – about the intricacies of this wonderful book, and how it is still relevant today. In Brave New World the citizens are not free to choose, but they are happy. In our real world, we are free to choose, and yet we choose to conform. And we are not happy.
The only other flaw in this book is one that crops up in so much early science fiction. Despite it set so far in the future and Huxley extrapolating and dreaming up so much of the horrors of our future, there is no evolution of communications technology. Bernard still needs to go to the post office to use a telephone and look people up in a phone book. I wonder why, amongst all things, science fiction authors fail to consider communications tech?
Brave New World is such a leap forward in the science fiction novel, even from the likes of Stapleton and Wells. It is a properly told story with fully rounded characters and a plot that makes sense. Huxley took the art of writing a science fiction story in a brilliant new direction. The seamless shift between the world building introduction to the book and the main narrative in the early chapters is masterful storytelling, quite unlike anything before it. And as for the brilliantly shocking ending…