This article is not a review of the book ‘Brave New World’, but is my reaction to the ideas presented in the book. While the book is said to be dystopian, presenting a worst case scenario society could go to, I found the world described in ‘Brave New World’ a far cry from dystopia and even a happy one to be in. Here, I describe this brave new world, explain why it didnt strike me as dystopian and lastly, whether we would ever go towards such a society. In the last section, I think about how the rise of Information Technology, unknown to the world when the novel was written, has abetted or hindered the world toward a society imagined in the novel.
The book ‘Brave New World’ was strongly recommended by a couple of friends who were surprised I hadn’t heard of it until then. A Google search confirmed that their surprise was not misplaced; the book, per many was a timeless classic. Written by Aldous Huxley in 1931, it has found a place in the ‘100 best novels of all time’ surveys by multiple organisations. Aldous Huxley, by the end of his career, was widely regarded as a foremost intellectual of his time and had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times. I learned that the ‘Brave New World’ is regarded as one of the best works of Huxley and was a dystopian science-fiction novel that showed how society will be organised in the future (the story is set in AD 2540), imagined around 1930 after industrialisation and mass production became widespread.
What is the Brave New World ?
This book was a precursor to ‘1984‘ and George Orwell was inspired by this. If George Orwell’s books ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ were parodies of communism, this is a parody of capitalism, or more precisely industrialisation.
It was in 1913 that the auto manufacturer ‘Ford’ under the leadership of Henry Ford introduced assembly line in the production of cars, and flooded the market with the Ford Model T . The assembly line developed within Ford’s industry reduced production time of a car from over 12 hours to less than 93 minutes and was seen as the epitome of efficiency in industrial production. The model T made mass consumption of cars possible and had sold 15 million units when it stopped production, accounting for a half of all cars sold till then.
It was in these times that Huxley wrote ‘Brave New World’. Mass consumption and standardised products were the fad of the time. The book presents an alternate reality where the development of factory line by Henry Ford has led to a quest for efficiency in society. The society imagined by Huxley is the epitome of such efficiency.
The book opens dramatically taking us through the process making humans on a factory line. Pregnancy and caregiving by mothers are inefficient to society. All humans are made under lab conditions, from fusing the sperm to the ovum to nursing to childcare. The development of the egg in the testtube and the type of childcare is conditioned on the basis of the type of work the person is destined to perform. It creates a society of humans of different classes – few highly intelligent people to manage and run the society and occupy the prime positions. And many in lower classes who are genetically engineered to do arduous physical effort with intelligence necessary to follow instructions and perform menial tasks. Everyone is engineered to be the best at their job and conditioned to enjoy their work. For standardisation, there are efforts to make twins, triplets, quadruplets and upto 70 or 80 babies from the same egg. This creates standardised and similar people which is better for stability in society. The early years of a child after birth are spent in conditioning and training him for the task he was developed to do. The children are recited precepts during their sleep which will condition them to the life they will lead. Thus, the society has such Hatcheries and Nurseries that make socially useful human beings – a factory that makes standardised humans.
The basic unit of society, the family is seen as inefficient and is broken down for a society where everyone belongs to everyone else and no one is related to anyone. There are no mothers or fathers. Everyone is a part of the society and nothing more. Emotions and attachment are frowned upon and has been engineered away. People are encouraged to be promiscuous and having a relationship with a single person is seen as odd and harmful. When anyone feels emotional or is stressed, they are encouraged to have soma. Soma is a lab developed intoxicant that gives a happy high and has no hangover.
While the book opened with the horrifying description of mass production of humans, further chapters also describe life in such a society as the story unfolds. Learning about life on this world makes me question whether it is even dystopian.
Is it indeed Dystopian ?
One would expect that people are unhappy in such a society. But , quite the contrary. In Huxley’s world everyone (almost!) is happy. Technology has grown such that all diseases have been wiped out. Everyone is healthy and fit. The society is encouraged to actively pursue all pleasures and be limited in this pursuit only by constraints of resources or physical ability. People actively engage in casual sex and there are hallucinogens available easily. Daily life is made easy with mechanised massages, baths, various entertainment options, fashionable and functional clothes, quick and comfortable transport and what not.
While reading the book, i was initially repulsed by the routineness of life and imposition of uniformity. But, in the book there is a description of an uncivilised world untouched by the modernity and whose inhabitants are called ‘savages’ by the civilised society. This society is more like society today where religion and superstitions exist. Family is the basic unit of society and promiscuity is scorned upon. There are dirt and diseases, fights and wars, attachment and loss. This contrast presented makes one like the civilised world more.
There are some limitations to this world. The upper classes have much more facilities and options in the society in comparison with the lower classes. These classes are water tight and one is born into either class in the factory. But, the winning stroke of stability in such a society is that everyone is conditioned to like their career and fate. The lower classes are conditioned from when they are a zygote in a test tube to like the life they are destined to. No individual wants to be any one different. Everyone believes that their class has it best and are thankful that they are born into the class they are in. It is very much like a caste system, where your caste determines your place in society and your job. You are not allowed to do anything your caste is not supposed to. You are predisposed to your caste by birth. But the main difference is that every caste, upper and lower, is happy with the caste system.
The most frightening thing about this dystopia is that everyone is happy and content. No one knows what they are missing and dont know of any alternate. Religious books, art and literature are kept away from the masses as they either encourage free thought or dont support the current way of society. Nevertheless, looking at the comfortable lives in this new world in comparison with all the evils in the reality we live in today, makes one wonder if freedom of thought and uniqueness are only fair price to pay for a good life.
Will we ever have a Brave New World ?
Reading the book now, over hundred years after industrialisation, it is clear that society didn’t move in that direction. There have been many larger changes, like information technology. This has led to larger individualism and not community living. We have become more independent and secluded from society. Smart phones have made us avoid talking to a human unless extremely necessary.
Also, freedom of expression and thought are seen as very important in today’s world. I dont see a Brave New World coming any time soon. Information technology has helped spread ideas faster and provides avenues for more individualism. Customisation is valued more than standardisation. While the world benefitted from mass produced standardised goods, it has rediscovered the beauty in individualism and products with an individual touch are prized.
In parting, I am going to quote from the book. The following is an excerpt which is an answer to whether the comfortable life in the world is meaningless and what is the point of life without passion and emotion. Lastly, do read the book !
“Actual Happiness looks squalid in comparison with over-compensations for misery. 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.”Brave New World by Aldous Huxley