I was reading a book by Margaret Atwood on science fiction, and she mentioned Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a kind of also-ran dystopia that happens to be more likely than its rival 1984.  That is, 1984 gets all the attention, but since the 1960s it’s been hard to be seriously worried about a global communist takeover.  BNW is the other side of the coin, the capitalist dystopia, and it doesn’t look unlikely at all.

The book

A refresher if, like me, you haven’t read it since high school.  This is the one where you gestate in bottles: parenthood is abolished, and five different castes are made by careful manipulation of the fetal environment.  Near-perfect conformity and stability is ensured by hypnopedic instructions– which are (Huxley says) useless for actual education, but great for instilling moral views.  Everyone is highly promiscuous, solitude is discouraged, frivolous consumption is the basis of economics, and everyone is happy… if you’re temporarily not happy you take soma, a euphoric drug without side effects.  Religion has been replaced by idolatry of Henry Ford, with community sing-alongs that end in orgies.

You need an outsider to explore a -topia, and Huxley supplies one in the form of John the Savage, the child of an Englishwoman who’s been raised by American Indians out in New Mexico.  John was an outsider in the pueblo, because he was white, and he’s an outsider in “civilization”, because he finds it trivial and dehumanizing, and because it’s lost Shakespeare.

The tone is very different from 1984; Orwell was genuinely angry about communism, and his book is a tragedy.  Huxley’s tone is light but fierce satire; his characters are vivid but caricatured, and though John’s story ends badly it’s hard to entirely sympathize with him.  He doesn’t fit in, but he doesn’t try, either.  He makes what could generously be called an attempt to revolt– he throws the soma pills of a bunch of Deltas out the window– but really, as political action goes that’s pathetic.

For a mainstream writer attempting sf, I think Huxley does remarkably well.  He’s a little too fond of the word “surrogate”, but he begins with an excellent set piece– a tour of the baby factory– and he’s adept at adding details that make the world come alive.  Even after 80 years it holds up scientifically and socially.  The satire is remarkably undated.

Mustapha’s challenge

In some ways the most intriguing character is not John, nor the mild dissidents he hangs out with, but the World Controller, Mustapha Mond.  Mond was a dissident himself, you see; he was a physicist, doing science a little too well: new things and new ideas threaten stability.  He was offered a choice of exile to an island– where he could pursue his studies– or a path to Controllership.

Mond thus understands John quite well; he has even read Shakespeare, as he has a stock of forbidden books.  And Huxley gives him a very fair chance to explain and defend his society.  And he makes a good case!  John is reduced to demanding the right to be unhappy.  Mond expands on this:

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”  There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders.  “You’re welcome,” he said.

But all the Savage can offer to accompany his defiance is suicide.  Mond deserves a better answer.  Mond’s world is peaceful, stable, and specifically designed for human happiness.  What’s wrong with that?

Why not BNW?

Well, it’s totalitarian, of course.  But half of that is satire.  As Huxley himself said, Orwell’s imagined rulers were sadists, and overachievers.  You don’t need brute force to stay in power; it works much better to distract people with things they like.  Even John can’t claim that the natives of this BNW want a different system.

BNW is pretty much a satire of America– which is why it’s still relevant.  It’s a capitalist consumer society whose chief value is personal fulfillment.  If that’s wrong, we’re already well along the dystopian path.

John’s reaction is that of a prissy intellectual with a spiritual bent.  He recoils at the easy sex, at the cheap entertainment, at the dismissal of God, at the lack of challenges that might make us noble and heroic.  But the premodern culture that provided those things was frankly horrible.

I considered this problem in designing the Incatena.  Doesn’t widespread misery and evil produce a higher class of human being, the sort who can struggle against them?  Well, I’m not sure it does.  Misery usually just produces miserable human beings, and in prodigious quantities.  And even if we do want some heroes, should we really aim at a society with widespread misery and evil?  The people who worry about modern softness rarely leave our society to go live in the jungle.

The horrible thing about BNW’s dystopia isn’t the materialism, or the drugs, or the sex.  It’s applying the assembly line mentality to human beings– treating them as, literally, manufactured parts.  But this is the one part of Huxley’s vision that seems outdated.  We don’t need a caste of conditioned, identical “Epsilon Semi-Morons”.  In Huxley’s day setting a third of the population to work on the land didn’t seem unreasonable; today it’s absurd.  Let machines do the mindless work; let humans do interesting work.  Maybe that’s creating web pages or marketing or being a chef or texturing video games or analyzing data or designing clothes… it may be frivolous but it will require a fairly high level of intelligence.

To put it another way: Mond underestimates human potential, but his values are not evil, as Big Brother’s are.  He doesn’t want to stamp on the face of humanity forever; he wants peace, prosperity, and happiness.  It’s a very bourgeois vision, yes, but to despise the bourgeoisie is priggish. (Marxists used to have a neat trick of despising the bourgeois on behalf of the proletariat but really from the perspective of the idle intellectual.  But we no longer have to plan on society consisting of a majority of menial workers.  Elevate them into the bourgeoisie and then, if you like, worry about elevating their taste in art.)

Or another another way: I can enjoy BNW as satire without endorsing the satirist’s implied alternatives.  Huxley was genuinely interested in spirituality, and felt that the modern world was too quick to throw it all out.  But I think spirituality is something you have to achieve on your own anyway.  It may conflict with modern life, but it conflicted with premodern life too.  When you have organized religions that 90% of the population theoretically accepts, you have widespread hypocrisy, clerical venality, and out-and-out persecution anyway.

In any case, I’m not too worried that life will get so soft that we’ll all turn into coddled Eloi.  Living standards can be improved, but it does seem like we are never out of problems to work on.

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