Review: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”

by Miles Raymer

Brave new world

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has long been one of my very favorite works of speculative fiction, so when I heard this exceptional debate from Intelligence Squared toward the end of last year, I couldn’t resist returning once again to the land of soma orgies, hypnopaedic conditioning, and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Almost a century after its original publication, this captivating novel still has much to offer contemporary readers.

This visit to Brave New World reminded me why it has remained an enduring and worthy part of our literary pantheon. From a 21st-century vantage point, the novel can be understood as both an utter failure as well as a tremendous success. This tension derives from my delightful inability to sort out whether there is a utopia hiding in Huxley’s dystopia, or a dystopia hiding in his utopia. It would appear that Huxley accomplished something quite rare and special with this work, which was to write one kind of thoughtful and topical book that, over time, would become a very different yet still thoughtful and topical book. I will use the rest of this review to explain my position.

I’ve not read Brave New World Revisitedbut the text of Huxley’s Foreword in this edition clearly indicates that he regards his Utopia as horrific (xvii). Half a millennium from now, humans are manufactured in factories using advanced genetic engineering. These individuals are raised by the State to occupy assigned positions in a strict caste system of five classes: Epsilons, Deltas, Gammas, Betas, and Alphas. The Epsilons are barely-human automata good only for simplistic manual labor, whereas Alphas are endowed with superhuman intelligence, beauty and strength. Each caste is conditioned from infancy to happily play its part in ensuring social stability, and everyone routinely takes a pacifying, euphoria drug called soma to fend off bad feelings when they arise. Disease and old age have been eradicated, and the practices of monogamy and parenthood have been abolished in favor of frequent, safe sex with as many partners as one likes. Henry Ford has become a deity of consumerism, and a handful of World Controllers (essentially philosopher kings) make all the important decisions for global society.

The story focuses on Bernard Marx, a misfit Alpha from London who takes a vacation to a “Savage Reservation” in America. On the Reservation, people live in the “old way,” their lives replete with religion, disease, traditional tribal hierarchies, primitive technology, and certain freedoms not available to members of Utopia. On his trip, Marx meets the young son of a woman from Utopia who became stranded at the Reservation years ago, and schemes to bring this Shakespeare-quoting “Savage” back to London in what is ostensibly a scientific experiment but truly just a ploy to make Marx more popular amongst his fellow Alphas. In the latter half of the book, we see Utopia through the eyes of this Savage, who becomes the conduit for Huxley’s critique of the Brave New World. Needless to say, the Savage doesn’t quite fit in.

There’s no doubt that Utopia has some pretty nasty features. There is little tolerance for independently-minded people, and those who fail to keep with the orthodoxy of their caste can become ostracized. Citizens must regularly partake in “Solidarity Services”––creepy ceremonies where small groups of similarly-casted people gather to chant ritualistically and have sex in a soma-induced haze. Huxley’s depictions of the lower castes––the Epsilons and Deltas––are especially unnerving; these “people” are diminutive, ugly, extremely stupid, and heavily conditioned to do all of humanity’s dirty work with a vacant smile. They are also grown in large “batches” of clones that possess no individuality whatsoever. These are fair examples of how Huxley successfully persuades the reader that Utopia may not be a good place.

Despite the aforementioned distasteful characteristics, Brave New World ultimately fails as a true dystopia. The Savage’s critiques of Utopia range from somewhat-legitimate to patently absurd, and his obsessions with purity and the “goodness” of suffering are loathsome. The Savage grows to hate Utopia because everything is “too easy” (238); he claims the “right to be unhappy,” defying Utopia’s norms and becoming a hermit (240). Now, it’s clear that Utopia might be ugly indeed to an outsider, but Huxley gives the reader no reason to think that it’s not an excellent world for the vast majority of its citizens (like, 99%+). Even Marx and his friend Helmholtz (another misfit) are sent to islands populated with other weirdoes when it becomes clear they’ll become miserable without a change of scenery (no sinister cullings here). Once you switch out the lower castes for non-conscious smart machines (Huxley can be forgiven for not seeing this coming in the 1930s), Utopia becomes downright desirable––better than almost any of the possible futures that seem currently viable for 21st-century humanity.

It would be easy to conclude that Brave New World is just another antiquated piece of scifi past its prime, but I actually think it’s much more than that. Page by page, I found myself longing for a blissful gram of soma, then wrinkling my nose at the description of a particularly insidious form of social conditioning, then eager for a night out at the “feelies” (full sensory-immersion films), then disgusted by the pompous superiority of the Alphas. This book is an inescapably complex invitation into a world both highly seductive and dangerously dark, a critical landmark in humanity’s battle with the idea of how to make the human life “better.”

Brave New World’s most delicious slice of irony reveals itself in the Alpha-ish elitism that underpins Huxley’s perspective; he just can’t stand the idea that a world designed to meet the needs of “common” people might necessitate a marked loss of the dramatic verve from which artists take inspiration. He seems appalled by the idea that the “good life” for average folks may only require socioeconomic stability, diverting media, and chemical contentedness. Huxley appears to believe that true happiness and meaning can only be found in the highest highs and lowest lows of human experience, and would likely scoff at the suggestion that we ought to pursue much humbler, simpler forms of existence. And while Brave New World may not represent the best way this could be accomplished, it’s certainly not the worst. Not even close.

Rating: 10/10