A dystopian novel

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

-Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 8

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to cling to YA in many of my book selections. For this category I specifically wanted to avoid YA, because as much as I loved Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner, I need to branch out a bit. When I was researching possible selections for this category I came across Brave New World, and it dawned on me that this is a classic that I really should have read a long time ago. Being a product of the International Baccalaureate program, a lot of my high school reading lists concentrated on translated works (no complaints here– it was great exposure to a world of literature!), so it wasn’t really on my radar until college. I think it’s really important to read the classics and I’m glad I did, but I don’t think this book will crack my list of favorites.

The story begins at a Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in central London in the future where we follow a tour of the facility with a group of young boys. In the future children are no longer born but rather ‘decanted’. We have apparently learned so much about development that the entire process proceeds from start to finish in a lab. People can be created by the thousands, often in identical batches. Not only can humans be created, they are tailored for designated social castes. For example, Epsilons are purposefully deprived of oxygen to their brains for a brief period of time, making them ‘well suited’ to the mundane labor jobs to which they will be assigned later in life. These descriptions are enough to send chills up your spine. As a scientist, there are times I think we fail to think about whether or not we should create a technology, only if and how we can. Because of these technologies and the control they allow society, words like ‘mother’ become dirty.

Most of what shapes society in Brave New World is indeed built around convenience and carefree living as the supreme goal. Solitary pursuits, including reading, are discouraged as they tend to take away from time people spend money on entertainment and material things. The majority of the plot revolves around two characters. Bernard, an Alpha, is a bit shorter than the rest of his caste (rumor has it there was some alcohol in his ‘blood surrogate’) but perhaps because of this he is naturally a bit more secluded from the rest of society in a quite unorthodox manner. He doesn’t get the same enjoyment as everyone else from mindless consumption of material goods. He also doesn’t rely on soma, a drug that provides a hangover free mental retreat and is poised as a cure all for any negative feelings. This relative social isolation provides the substrate for the beginnings of the realization that this consumerist world is not quite as fulfilling as it could be and he seems at first to escape the mindless conditioning that rules society. On the other hand, Lenina (a Beta) is interested in Bernard but confused by his continual refusal of her advances. She is the ultimate product of of her environment– completely unquestioning, content with the world she has been designed for, and troubled by Bernard’s unorthodox comments.

Through a series of events Bernard and Lenina take a vacation to one of the ‘savage’ reservations still left in America. Certain areas of land have been designated as almost a living museum to the “old ways” where people are allowed to live in something that vaguely resembles our current world. People age naturally, procreate naturally, and they follow a bit of a weird mix of all the world religions as one. During this trip Bernard finds Linda, a Beta who used to live in London but became lost on the reservation during a trip there many years ago and was abandoned. While she was abandoned she gave birth to John, who was actually fathered by the director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in Central London.

Linda and John come back to London with Bernard and Lenina. John provides a little bit of political cover for Bernard spouting his unorthodox views (especially as it ‘outs’ the director for having fathered a child), and John becomes a spectacle for people to meet and comment on. Not surprisingly John becomes tired of being a tool for Bernard and is increasingly frustrated at the strange ways of the ‘new world’ (especially the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else”). Eventually John lives on his own in a remote cabin without the luxuries of the new world but he is still an object of intense fascination and bullying from people.

Although the plot felt a bit stilted and meandering, I found the theme of forgoing truth for happiness to be incredibly fascinating. In essence, if we want to know truth and grapple with it then we will know suffering as well. We could numb the suffering but that requires numbing truth, and the World Controllers in Brave New World know this and have explicitly chosen to do so as the greater good. Of course, the happiness that results in this scenario is false or at least incredibly shallow. There is something deeply satisfying about stumbling (and I truly mean stumbling) to figure something out your own way– it’s hard and it’s messy but you learn in a profound way so much about yourself and about the world. Convenience, for all its glory, can never give you this. One of my chief frustrations was that Bernard at times felt so close to grasping this concept but was more concerned with flaunting the superiority if his unique intellect and ideas rather than truly wanting truth. This perhaps is a fascinating warning in itself, that our intellectual pursuits can either truly be ordered towards pursuing truth or a false cover for our own ego.

Like 1984Brave New World is one of those books everyone needs to read for the sole reason that history repeats itself. It was written in 1932 but might be even more applicable now that our technologies are even closer to the fantasy world described in the book. The intersection of happiness, truth, consumerism, and mass culture is an interesting and worthwhile examination.

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