Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Books with Friends – Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – reviewed by Chris King

Today, another guest review, by Chris King:

I am back to review more classics from the terrible world of the past where there was no such thing as feminism, penicillin, the internet or an independent Canada.

Ah, the modern world! Currently we all strive to have a place in the world. The previous generation cajoles the members of the younger one to get jobs, find their place in society and fulfil their role. However, with unemployment being countered with more low-hour and zero-contract jobs, there is still a lot of time for people to think about how little their contribution is needed, as they struggle to find their temporary place in the world. Huxley’s Brave New World solves this problem – but every utopia has its horrible side, the part of humanity that is sacrificed to create what is, if not a perfect world, then at least a well-run one where everyone has their place.

Written in 1931, Brave New World portrays an ordered world of individual happiness at the expense of people’s humanity. Huxley has very biting wit regarding human history and endeavour. He once remarked that after each major war a generation was scarred, and that we might ‘look forward to a period, not indeed of peace, but of limited and only partially ruinous warfare’; he remarked that the old style totalitarianism of mass imprisonment and killings was going out because it was inefficient, and that the new style totalitarianism would have slaves who love their servitude and write the propaganda that they read to each other. In this book Huxley has created his perfect, terrible, utopia, years before Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Everyone has a purpose, everyone has a place and everyone has a job waiting for. There is no need for German Darwinism because everything has been pre-planned. For example, if, in twenty-four years, the administrator of a tropical island is set to retire, then right now a foetus whose mind is predicted to be up to the task, is being immunised against the tropical diseases in that location. I thought it very reminiscent of Plato’s Republic; Brave New World has, like Republic, all the new-borns gathered together and allocated a caste. These become children who are psycho-conditioned to fill roles according to their assigned caste. Manual workers of the future are given building toys but have electrical shocks when they approach something creative like painting, to provide emotional suggestions against that life.

The World State produces near identical embryos, then chemically alters them to be strong or weak. There are five castes. Alphas lead. They are the smartest and the tallest, and their height and physical prowess instils in others a feeling that Alphas are the best and so should lead. The Betas are smaller and administrate. The work gets more physical and the people smaller as the castes rank down. The fifth caste are the epsilons, who are the smallest and fulfil menial chores. Everyone is the best for their type of job and could not comprehend being anything else. Not because of some chemical or hypno-therapy (though this surely plays a factor) but because they would be no good at any other type of work. The Alpha leaders would hate manual work or even basic administration. Betas similarly would hate the drudgery of manual work and feel they would be lost the Alphas above them – and as for the Epsilons, nothing beats a solid day’s work. It is just as my childhood hypno-conditioning told me: everybody is happy now.

I seem to end up looking at dystopian worlds and thinking is it so much worse that our own? I am sure there is something we could take from it of value. Is breeding people for specific jobs worse than having classes that limit job choices? Today a rich child of business owners will be hard pressed to convince their parents that they really want to be a builder and do manual work, while a child from further down the social spectrum is not going to know the right people, and may well be passed over in the job selection of big business management. I could go on and on about the book’s setting and its alternate political value because the setting is the story. The entire plot is about seeing the world from the inside and the outside.

Even with job conditioning, not everyone likes their job. A couple of people think they have been conditioned wrong. Bernard Marx thinks he is too small as an Alpha so the lower casts keep taking a second look before following his orders. His friend Helmholtz Watson thinks he has been made too clever to just write hypnopaedic script. Bernard is unusual in this society in that he shows preferences for being monogamous. This makes him a character the 1930’s audience can relate to and puts forward a theory of Huxley’s that as society gets more oppressed then sexual freedom rises (I theory I do not think is correct considering the sexual revolution in liberal countries). Bernard and others provide the point of view of those inside the system, while John is the viewpoint of the outsider.

On a New Mexico reservation are “savages” who do scandalous things like reproducing and not forcing their children into rigid castes. From the reservation comes John, the child of a savage and a World State mother, who is brought back, Tarzan style, to see the new world. John confuses people by not having casual sex and repressing his feelings and they laugh at his Shakespeare recitals because they contain love and marriage. John also hates the absence of art, science and religion and the use of soma, a drug that stops you feeling sad. John feels like there is no humanity anymore; science and religion have been given up and people instead celebrate Ford for giving the last inventions they needed.

Many of the other characters are present for very transparent roles: the confusing love interest, the woman destined to die to provide angst-driven motivation, and the clever man who will blindly argue the merits of the system. However, as the setting is the story I didn’t mind so much that these were devices to explore the world. The overall style was of tell not show, but for once this was done rather well. I just wanted to see this interesting world.

Normally I would be particularly critical of the misplaced and clunky exposition in this book. Often there are sentences in a similar vein to, ‘said the worker who had just returned from his shift, thinking of his early years in hypno-therapy’. However, the world is so interesting that I really couldn’t care less about how unusual the exposition can be; I just wanted to know more about this strange new world, its social structures and political theories.

Unlike Triumff (which I recently reviewed), I would not call Brave New World a page-turner. I should point out that I do not think being a page-turner is a good thing; it just makes the book leave you sooner. With Triumff I turned the pages quickly to get it over with – the book equivalent of a fast-forward button. However, for Brave New World I wanted there to be more on the page, it just seemed so rich.

I loved this book because it made me think about politics and humanity in an interesting way. For motivation to world-build, even in your head, I think it may be unsurpassed. Like Nineteen-Eighty Four, Brave New World shows a society that cannot strive or advance anymore and so the goal is to make people generally happy. What does it matter if we are predestined through genetics and cannot think to question the system? After all, everyone is physio-chemically equal…

Greatest Strength: Such a wonderful setting that makes you think of it long after you have finally put the book down.

Greatest Weakness: Rather flimsy and bland characters; after a year I could barely remember that there was a ‘savage’ character, I had no chance of remembering his name.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays.’

With many thanks to Chris King for this review. I’ll be back next week with another review.

Click below for more  of Chriss reviews: 



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