Friday, January 4, 2013

Classic Fiction: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is another one of those classic books that I was somehow never forced to read as a kid, but probably should have been. It belongs in that category with 1984 and Catch-22, but somehow not Catcher in the Rye, as I have come to believe that no one should be forced to that...ever. And with this being my first post of the new year, it felt appropriate to start 2013 off with a book about the future.

The Situation: Bernard Marx is a sleep-learning specialist in London, England. It is what would be the year 2540 to us, but the future society that Bernard lives in know it as the year A.F. 632 (A.F. stands for After Ford). Henry Ford, due to his discovery and advancements with the assembly line, has become a messianic figure to this world, as everything is now about efficiency and consumption and keeping everyone sublimely happy. The way they do this is by extensive conditioning from birth. Bernard is an Alpha, which places him on the top rung of society. But even if he was a Gamma or even an Epsilon, he would still be content with his station in life. In fact, he would be happy that he was not an Alpha, because he was conditioned to be perpetually content even before his birth. And with everyone content in their lot in life, and with everyone given a specific purpose and job in society, and with everyone encouraged, almost mandated, to have as many sexual partners as possible and to not limit themselves to one person ever, this is one of those "utopian" societies where everything does seem to be pretty perfect and everyone actually is happy. 

The Problem: Everything is not perfect. First, Bernard is not completely happy, despite being an Alpha, and despite being conditioned from birth to be content where he is. He is shorter than most of the Alpha males, and it is believed something went wrong during his early conditioning. While he gets a decent number of women, he doesn't get as many as other Alphas, and this has made him resentful and bitter. In fact, he is now resentful to the point that he has thoughts and ideas that undermine the practices of the society he inhabits. Eventually, while on holiday to a savage resort, where men and women are still born instead of manufactured through a tube, and don't have all of the advancements of the civilized society, he makes a discovery that brings him the fame and recognition he has always desired. But because of his own arrogance, his discovery not only brings down a few people in front of him, but may cause him to lose this society that has just started to recognize him - a society he now sees the value of, now that he is on top.

Genre, Themes, History: Brave New World is a dystopian novel that I would also like to put in the category of science fiction due to its taking place far in the future and describing technological advancements that we have yet to see in our lifetime. For me, the main underlying theme of this novel is that of free will. The people in Bernard's society do have free will, but they have been conditioned to only want to do a specific set of things, and they are truly happy despite their ignorance (in Huxley's novel, ignorance truly is bliss). The argument is that to go back to the way things were before Ford, where people could read Shakespeare, choose to worship God or Allah or whatever entity they choose, make groundbreaking scientific discoveries, appreciate art and music, etc, is to make people miserable again, which leads to strife and conflict and war. Also, if people are reading and listening to music, it is argued that they aren't consuming, and this society runs on consumption. It's like George Orwell's 1984, except most of the people are actually happy and the government tries to make sure they stay that way. It also appears that the entire world is on the same page. And those that don't conform to this world aren't exterminated as they would be by Orwell's Thought Police, but instead they are banished to an island to be with the other free thinkers. 

My Verdict: While the book didn't change my world or anything, I did enjoy it and found the dystopian society that Huxley presented here incredibly fascinating. It is hard to imagine a world where no one is ever a mother or a father because children are no longer born, but that is what Huxley presents to us here. And by presenting a society that actually tries to make everyone happy as opposed to just controlling them, Huxley gives the reader the chance to decide for themselves if forced happiness is better than true free will with all of its downsides.

Favorite Moment: When Bernard's friend, Helmholtz, is able to see right through Bernard for the hypocrite he is. All of a sudden Bernard is okay with this society he lives in only because he is currently its shining star.

Favorite Character: I would definitely pick Helmholtz. He actually doesn't have that big of a part in the book but he is somewhat of a free thinker like Bernard, but he isn't a hypocrite about it. Granted, he always enjoys more benefits than Bernard ever could, so he isn't bitter, but he still seems to be able to see society for what it is.

Recommended Reading:I can easily recommend George Orwell's 1984, as it is another dystopian novel set in England, but not quite as far in the future. Both books present a world very far removed from our own experience, but yet, they still manage to make us slightly uncomfortable because some of the issues and ideas hit a little too close to home, and may not be that far away from where we are now.

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