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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Vintage Canada 2007 (1932)
Trade Paperback
229 pages
Classics; Dystopian Fiction

Several centuries into the future, after a hundred years of war that decided which way humanity would go, the human race is stable, satisfied and happy. They don’t have families – no parents or siblings; they aren’t born but are hatched. They’ve each been genetically modified before birth to fit a certain class, a level of intelligence, a particular job. Feel like some sex? Just ask! All their needs are taken care of, though it helps that the messages their subconscious receive during sleep indoctrinate them in what they want and what they don’t want. They have sacrificed family, love, independence and individuality in order to always be happy and safe. And to endlessly consume. They don’t see it as a sacrifice.

When Bernard, an Alpha-class, takes Lenina on a trip to a Savage Reservation in what was America, they are both shocked to meet one of their own living amongst the primitives. Linda was just like Lenina once, until her own trip ended in disaster. Not only was she accidentally left behind after becoming lost and injured, but she was pregnant and, with no abortion centres anywhere, had to give birth. Her boy, John, is the first child born naturally to this new kind of human. Having been raised amongst the natives, John is a conflicted youth. His mother’s philosophy of life is often at odds with the tribes-people, and John fits in with neither. When Bernard offers to take them both back to civilised London, they’re eager to go.

But nothing’s that simple. Unlike everyone else, Linda is fat, ugly and old after all her years in the wild. John, young and strong and handsome, is an object of great curiosity and even desire. He feels himself in love with Lenina and, having learnt the ways of the world from a rare old copy of Shakespeare, wants to prove himself worthy of her. But his “old-fashioned” ideals don’t fit in with this “brave new world”, as he calls it, quoting The Tempest, and neither does he.

I can understand why Margaret Atwood, who wrote the introduction, loves this book; I can also see how it inspired her own post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. I feel that, having come to it after reading so much that’s been inspired or influenced by it, it seems too old-hat to me. Kind of familiar. I was impressed by it, but I didn’t love it.

The beginning was great, launching you straight into this new world order and how these “new” humans are made the way they are. After that, it slowed down until picking up again right at the end. Some of the imagery is simply drawn with a few well-chosen words to create this futuristic world – and highly effective for it; at other times, it was a little hard to follow and a bit clumsy or vague. It’s hard to know whether this is deliberate, and stylistic, or not. I did find it distracting from the story itself.

One of the reasons why it seemed so familiar is the structure. I wonder if this structure is familiar because it started a new formula? The lead-up to John Savage and the Controller having their philosophical debate lacked tension, and the debate itself was such an obvious device. I’m sure when this first came out it was fresh, but it reminded me too much of books like Stranger in a Strange Land and, yes, The Da Vinci Code, which used “conversations” between characters – usually one ultra-intelligent one and one foil – to get across the author’s message. That was what the device brought to mind, but here it was much more fascinating. Both the Controller and John had what seems like valid points, and at such opposite extremes. There is no easy answer to this ethical dilemma. We pursue happiness but we wouldn’t know what to do with it if we had it, we’d destroy it. So you have to change people. With the new technology available, that’s precisely what they did.

A between-the-wars novel, Brave New World shows Huxley’s astute understanding of humanity and latches onto the probable consequences of new trends at the time. It’s still relevant today, not least because the debate is on-going. I’m sure you’ve heard of the possibilities of having “designer babies” and the ethics around that. Huxley has an entire world of designer babies, and by removing the family unit, it runs smoothly.

In this futuristic world, Henry Ford is held up as a god figure, the god of endless consumption. Ford’s Tin Lizzy must surely have been a symbol of change – in lifestyle, economics, expectations; though I couldn’t help but remember that, according to Giles Slade in Made to Break, it was General Motors that came up with Planned Obsolescence in order to compete with Ford. But I vaguely recall that Ford had some dodgy ideas that no doubt inspired Huxley to put him in the spotlight, so to speak.

This is no straight-forward dystopian novel. As you’re hearing the Controller’s arguments for this brave new world, you can’t immediately side with John – he speaks for our time, but it’s just as flawed as this brave new world. The question is, what are we willing to sacrifice? Because we can’t have independence and individuality and absolute happiness and safety. They’re incompatible because of human nature. Fascinating stuff.

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