Book Review: Exploring Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

brave-new-world-cover Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress. Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece. (Goodreads)

If there is a list of books I wish I read in college, Brave New World would definitely be included in that list. The book was a constant reference of one of my favorite professors in college. It was a habit of his to mention the book in a way that you would not normally expect an instructor to do, as in a way an instructor would carefully and especially refer to an external source, but in a way that would assume you have already read the book. He spoke about Brave New World so casually that it was almost painful to sit down and listen in class, all the while knowing deep in your brain that you have not read the book just yet.

About a month ago, I finally had the luxury of time to sit down and read Brave New World. In a matter of days, I was able to finish the book, but not without difficulty. The novel left me with a lot of questions, even more than when I first started reading it. And only now, after almost a month of toying with these ideas, will I settle to face and write all these questions.

My questions come in a form of declarations: statements that I have formed in my head as a kind of rejection or resistance to what Huxley presented in the book. And although these statements contain very little important literary questions, I have carefully developed these thoughts as a way of crafting my own solid initial impressions about the book.

Brave New World opens up with a rousing intro: an elaborate educational tour inside Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre—a monster factory for the mass production of human species. Here, human life is produced through a procedure called the Bokanovsky’s Process.

A normal reproduction takes place with one egg, which is later fertilized to become one embryo and later on, to produce one adult. “But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress.” (Brave New World, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. p.3)

When someone on the educational tour posed a question regarding the advantage of the Bokanovsky’s Process, the response was one of social importance: “Bokanovsky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability.” The answer is followed by the planetary motto of the New Found World: Community, Identity, Stability.

By taking charge in the production of human life, the Controllers of the New World now possess the power to create and design individuals based on an especially classified social hierarchy, divided accordingly into different social order and functions: Alpha, Beta, Delta, Epsilon, Gamma.

The artificial reproduction continues. After splitting the bokanovskified egg, they are directed to the Bottling Room where their containers are filled with make-shift membrane called peritoneum. After creating a wall membrane for the eggs, they are transferred to the Matriculators (and here comes an elaborate scientific explanation which I will not attempt to reiterate to spare you, dear reader, of utter boredom.)

After this process, the bottles containing the eggs are passed onto the labellers where the once anonymous eggs are now given their one and only chance at identity. Here, they are marked with heredity, date of fertilization, and membership of the Bokanovsky Group, after which the bottles are sent to the Social Predestination Room (and I think this is the most mind-blowing part of the process) where they are assigned to a life chosen for them by the Directors of Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. The Alpha embryos are given the most suitable condition to equip them for their superior life. The lower caste members such as the Epsilons and the Gammas are exposed to varying degrees of discomfort and pain, conditioning them to adapt to this kind of harsh environment.

Hot tunnels alternated with cool tunnels. Coolness was wedded to discomfort in the form of hard X-rays. By the time they were decanted the embryos had a horror of cold. They were predestined to emigrate to the tropics, to be miners and acetate silk spinners and steel workers. Later on their minds would be made to endorse the judgment of their bodies. (Brave New World, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. p.10)

“And that,” proudly and triumphantly said the Director, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their social destiny.” (Brave New World, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. ibid)

I will leave the story-telling up to this part. I strongly believe that this first section of the book is the most well crafted and carefully considered part among all the other chapters in the novel precisely because Huxley was able to succeed in drawing a ghastly and terrifying image of the future consisting primarily of artificial human reproduction combined with the most appalling application of biotechnology and genetic engineering. As if that was not lurid enough for the reader, Huxley drew an alarming setting wherein the banner of Community, Identity, Stability is taken to its most perverse extremes, and is ultimately hailed with honor by way of a twisted worship of the social.

The following chapters of the book were, to me not only trite and irrelevant but more so, forgettable. The plot’s dramatic shift to highlight the individual lives of featured characters such as Bernard Marx, Lenina, John the Savage and Linda appeared to me a bit convoluted, even completely out of the original mood from which the book started out, thus making it hard to read through to the end. The sudden attention to these characters also made it hard for me to reconcile between the direction to which Brave New World was supposed to lead its readers, and the kind of characters these individuals revealed themselves throughout the story.

Past the middle section of the book, Brave New World seemed to me to lose most of its initial appeal, only to be reduced to a kind of tangled tale populated with confusing, underdeveloped characters. Huxley mentions this apparent error in his foreword to the book:

…it seems worth while at least to mention the most serious defect in the story, which is this. The Savage is offered only two alternatives, an insane life in Utopia or the life of a primitive in an Indian village, a life more human in some respects, but in others hardly less queer and abnormal. […] The Savage is often permitted to speak more rationally than his upbringing among the practitioners of a religion that is half fertility cult and half Penitente ferocity would actually warrant. (Brave New World, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. viii)

It is my personal assumption that part of the failure to deliver Brand New World to its end lies in Huxley’s oversight on the crucial role that language plays both on an individual but more importantly on a social level. For all intents and purposes, I think it is worthy to note the accomplishment of Orwell’s acclaimed tale of dystopia stems largely from the destruction of language and the utilization of a new coded means of communication in the form of Newspeak.  Even the names of cities and continents are replaced with new terms so as to diminish their historical implications and to march progressively towards the future of their new found society. (Nineteen Eighty Four, 1949)

Brave New World is burdened with the weight of history, and this is evident in the consciousness of its characters. The very idea that they are exposed to the memory of what natural viviparous reproduction was like in the old days only speak of the lack of success of the New World to completely do away with the fragments of the former order.  The Savage was permitted to pore over the literary oeuvre of Shakespeare, thereby stirring within the Savage’s mind a longing for some transcendental third place. Even the notion of the soma is not only reminiscent of the previous world (as in the case of people taking drugs) but it also attest to the failure of even the most advanced human modification technology to completely eliminate man’s natural inclination and attachment to desire and pleasure.

Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology. (Brave New World, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. p.36)

Finally, the end part of the book was to me both comic and tragic—for one sole reason: while the Brave New World is heralded by its subjects as an icon of social stability, technological progress and world order, it remains to be anything but new. This world proves to be only a step ahead in terms of scientific advancement, but with respect to the notions of humanity and morality, the inhabitants of this world still sadly resemble our people today—the same callous individuals who only care for ideas such as collectivity and the Common Good only when it benefits them, or when they are first and foremost seated safely on the comforts of their own convenient lives.

But if there is anything brave about the book, it is most strategically located in Huxley’s attempt to forge an image of the future—one that honestly illustrates the horror of human invention and the excess in the application of science and technology. Towards the end of the book, a philosophical exchange took place in which one of the characters posed this thought-provoking question?

“Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Isn’t there something in that? Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”

“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. […] “That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory. […] Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system in adrenalin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,”  said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” (Brave New World, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. p.163)

A new world is only new for a day. After all, it is just a world, a place, another piece of the planet where we mere mortals fumble blindly or organize ourselves. At the end of the day, this world is still what we construe it to be, along with out acquired ideas and thoughts and opinions. No amount of flight or escape towards a certain ideal can just as easily transform this world to a kind of utopia we envision or imagine. Nothing is new except to live—that is, to live dangerously.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Exploring Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

  1. I read the book when I was in High School and we had BNW in our finals. This book is amazing and I can’t believe what an intelligent man Huxley was! And it is still so relevant today.

    Great post!


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