Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley Brave New World (1932)

Reading this many years ago, back in the days when I would have considered three novels a year (excepting anything published by Target) good going, I read Brave New World and was left with the impression of a chilling, dystopian future resembling that of Orwell's 1984 but different. Now returning to Huxley's classic with a hopefully less gormless perspective, I'm struck by how much I missed first time around, or had at least forgotten; but probably missed given that I was something of a divvy back then.

The opening chapters - a guided tour of a factory wherein production line humans are mass produced from the egg thus doing away with motherhood, their embryos chemically predisposed towards future societal function - remain as powerful as ever; but the rest is a revelation. I'm not sure how I missed the industrial strength satire, but there you are. It appears that I have evolved from Delta to Beta Minus during the intervening years, which is nice.

Another aspect I somehow failed to spot first time around was quite how much this novel is embedded in 1930s England. There's minor dating with use of words like beastly or scenes occasionally suggesting The Man in the White Suit, although nothing so intrusive as, for example, John Wyndham's more Arthur Askified efforts; more overtly, there's a certain sensibility loosely tied into cultural details like D.H. Lawrence fucking off to live in Taos, New Mexico back in the 1920s; or even the rapid editing of modernist cinema evoked in  disjointed snippets of dialogue which bring chapter three to a close. These elements seem to betray the influence of Huxley's contemporaries, specifically people whose work remains outside of the mainstream even long after their passing so, drawing upon sources which never quite devolved to quaint - unlike the Ealing comedies which seemingly inspired Wyndham - Brave New World retains its immediacy. Such is its power that it's easy to forget the fact of it being written in the wake of the Great War with talking pictures, aviation, conspicuous promiscuity, and chewing gum as startling and new; and it probably doesn't hurt that Brave New World makes such a radically different statement to that of its arguably more popular successor 1984, as Neil Postman observed in his Amusing Ourselves to Death in terms that I'm lifting directly from Wikipedia on the grounds that I'd just look like a wanker if I tried to paraphrase something already so well argued:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

I'd hate to be so obvious as to start banging on about The X-Factor and Justin Bieber but, well - you know... As literal prophecy, Brave New World may creak a little, but as satire, it's unnerving.

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