Please excuse (or thank me for, depending on your perspective) my extended hiatus. It’s not that I was exiled to an island or anything like that; I simply hadn’t read anything that felt worthy of posting about. I read at least one mildly entertaining book (The Know-It-All), but also started and bailed on countless books that for one reason or another didn’t do anything for me (Cutting for Stone, Skippy Dies, A Visit From the Goon Squad). Then, as I’ve done before out of desperation and frustration, I decided to return to the classics, and to another one that I hadn’t read before — Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. What a neat book.
I had read George Orwell’s 1984 a few years back, and while it was a struggle for me at first to truly engage with that book, by the time I did I couldn’t put it down. Orwell’s future and its depiction of the power of power and the dynamic between the different classes of society was so scary and so gripping that all one could do was to thank heavens it hadn’t come true. Well, little did I know, but Brave New World was written about a decade and a half before 1984. And while the two share little in common with respect to their stories, they both take place in a dystopian future in which the extent to which power and control are exercised over the masses isn’t obvious at all to the oppressed, for very different reasons.
In Huxley’s future, The World State exists in what seems to be perfect harmony. Humans are genetically engineered through a process that assures they will fit into one of five types (Alpha through Epsilon), with pluses and minuses thrown in there. Each class has a predestined role in society, and society has a predetermined set of values and objectives, and worships “Ford” (Henry Ford, the God of The World State). Children are put through the “hypnopaedic process” to subconsiously train them of those values and objectives. The result is a society in which waste is encouraged, because the more that is wasted, the more manufacturing is necessary to fill the gaps caused by the waste. It’s sort of a societal perpetual-motion-machine. Recreational sex is the norm, monogamy is not, and everyone thrives on soma, a government-supplied drug.
The story itself centers on Bernard, an Alpha-plus psychologist in London who seems to question the order of things. In his efforts to woo Lenina, he takes her to a “Reservation” — an area that has been quarantined and in which the inhabitants, referred to as “Savages” (in this case Native Americans) are allowed to live as they please outside of The World State. While there, they witness ceremonies and behaviors that frighten and intrigue them, and Bernard comes across a woman (Linda) and her son (John) that Bernard believes they should bring back to London with them. The remainder of the story centers on how these two individuals and their values fit within The World State and the conflicts between our main characters and society.
I wouldn’t say whether this book is better or worse than 1984 — I think they are both “must reads”. What I find surprising is how 1984 seems so iconic as a reference to the dystopian future, while Brave New World only seems to merit a passing mention. A terrible shun in my opinion.
Check out this brilliant cartoon comparison of 1984 vs. Brave New World.