Sunday, September 30, 2012

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

For this review, I had seriously considered just writing “Read 1984 instead” and leaving it at that.  But, the advise from my thesis supervisor came back to me – he says to never judge a work against you want to it be, but rather, judge it for what it is.  Never one to ignore good advise when I hear it (okay, well I try not to), I decided that giving Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World short-shrift wouldn’t be fair.  So, here we go.

Brave New World is firmly in the camp of utopian/dystopian fiction.  This society seems to have pulled its start date from the time of Ford and the birth of the modern consumer culture.  We’re introduced to the society literally where it begins – in the hatchery.  Science has progressed to such a level that children can be created, grown and birthed from test tubes; their castes and skill levels are pre-determined before birth, and the children are socialized using a whole host of psychological methods to acclimatize them to their station in life.  As grown ups, the people of this society are encouraged to consume as much as possible, and to enjoy as many sexual partners as they like.  The only thing that is off limits for the people is non-conformity.  Those who will not fit themselves into the expected model of society are considered detrimental to the whole, and exiled.  

All that this sounds really engaging.  And, on the surface, as a fan of utopian fictions, it was.  But there were certain choices Huxley made that ruined the whole thing for me.  First, he doesn’t explain much about the society beyond what I relayed above.  How did humanity get to this point?  and when did Fordism take over?  More than that, Huxley eludes to some components of daily life without really explaining them – for example, what exactly is a Pregnancy Substitute, and why is it required of the women in the society? 

Beyond the oversights in developing his setting, Huxley makes (in my opinion) a serious over-sight with the plot.  In most utopian/dystopian fictions, the main character (who is generally a dissenter in order to future the story’s development and action) comes from within the society itself.  This gives the reader someone to sympathize with; someone to root for; and a more effective lens on the short comings of the society.  In the case of Brave New World, the character who casts back criticism on this new society is an outsider – someone who’s mother is from the society but, due to chance and accident, was raised outside of it, only to return as an adult.  What the reader then gets is the occasional assessment of how this outsider (none to cleverly named Jim the Savage) sees this utopian society, and two rather long discourses about end about the human condition in relation to God, individuality, and society.  Not gonna lie, I fell asleep while reading the last two chapters.

But, maybe worse that these oversights, is that Huxley’s story (for me, at least), is not a dystopian fiction.  If, tomorrow, I was told “feel free to shop as much as you want, have sex with whom ever you want without social repercussions, and don’t worry about being judged for not wanting children” my response would be “I want to go to there.”  This ‘brave new world’ that Huxley crafted sounds amazing – not at all like the Districts, or the Republic of Gilead, or Oceania.  And, worse, it didn’t even seem that bad to the two dissenters we meet in the story – these two people were judged as not being conformist enough, and willingly (and almost gladly) accepted their exile to another country.  Even the non-conformists seemed to have found the society based on Fordism to be a good one!   

In the end, Brave New World just didn’t do it for me.  I feel sorry for the friends I had in high school that had to read Huxley rather than Orwell.  For a utopian/dystopian fiction, Huxley misses the mark by a mile.  And yet, I know this book has been well received and widely read, so I wonder what it was that I missed in my reading of it.  I think I’m going to have to put this one on the shelf for a while, and come back to it in a few years to see if it improves with time.  So, final verdict?  Read 1984 instead. 

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