Brave New World

reproductive technology

soma

Brave New World is Aldous Huxley’s fifth novel, written in 1931 and published in 1932. Set in London of CE 2540 (632 A.F. in the book), the novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology and sleep-learning that combine to change society.

The future society is an embodiment of the ideals that form the basis of futurology (the study of postulating possible futures). Huxley answered this book with a reassessment in an essay, ‘Brave New World Revisited (1958),’ and with his final work, a novel titled ‘Island’ (1962), a utopian counterpart to ‘Brave New World’s dystopian setting.

‘Brave New World’s’ ironic title derives from Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! / That has such people in it!’ This line itself is ironic; Miranda was raised for most of her life on an isolated island, and the only people she ever knew were her father and his servants, an enslaved savage and a spirit. When she sees other people for the first time, she is understandably overcome with excitement, and utters, among other praise, the famous line above. However, what she is actually observing is not men acting in a refined or civilized manner, but rather drunken sailors staggering off the wreckage of their ship. Huxley employs the same irony in his story when the ‘savage’ (born in the wild, outside of civilization) refers to what he sees as a ‘brave new world.’

Another possible source for or reference in the title is from Rudyard Kipling’s 1919 poem ‘The Gods of the Copybook Heading’s: ‘And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins…’

Translations of the title often allude to similar expressions used in domestic works of literature in an attempt to capture the same irony: the French edition of the work is entitled ‘Le Meilleur des mondes’ (‘The Best of All Worlds’), an allusion to an expression used by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and satirized in ‘Candide’ by Voltaire (1759).

The quotation is also used by Edwin A. Abbott on the first page of Part II of ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.’ This begins the section in which A. Square, an inhabitant of a two-dimensional universe, receives visions of Lineland and Pointland, and eventually is visited by a Sphere from Spaceland. Whereas the irony is maintained in the first two examples, obviously it is lost in the third.

Huxley wrote ‘Brave New World’ in 1931 while he was living in Italy (he moved to California in 1937). By this time, he had already established himself as a writer and social satirist. He was a contributor to ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Vogue’ magazines, had published a collection of his poetry and four successful satirical novels. Brave New World was Huxley’s fifth novel and first dystopian work.

The novel was inspired by H. G. Wells’ utopian novel ‘Men Like Gods.’ Wells’ optimistic vision of the future gave Huxley the idea to begin writing a parody of the novel, which became ‘Brave New World.’ Contrary to the most popular optimist utopian novels of the time, Huxley sought to provide a frightening vision of the future. Huxley referred to Brave New World as a ‘”negative utopia,’ somewhat influenced by Wells’ own ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ (who was dealing with subjects like corporate tyranny and behavioral conditioning) and the works of D. H. Lawrence.

George Orwell believed that ‘Brave New World’ must be partly derived from the novel ‘We’ by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Huxley visited the newly opened and technologically advanced Brunner and Mond plant, part of Imperial Chemical Industries, or ICI, Billingham, United Kingdom, and gives a fine and detailed account of the processes he saw. He was inspired to write the classic novel by this Billingham visit.

Although the novel is set in the future, it deals with contemporary issues of the early 20th century. The Industrial Revolution had transformed the world. Mass production had made cars, telephones, and radios relatively cheap and widely available throughout the developed world. The political, cultural, economic and sociological upheavals of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the First World War were resonating throughout the world as a whole and the individual lives of most people. Accordingly, many of the novel’s characters are named after widely recognized, influential and in many cases contemporary people, for example, Polly Trotsky (Leon Trotsky), Benito Hoover (Benito Mussolini; Herbert Hoover), Lenina Crowne (Vladimir Lenin; John Crowne), Fanny Crowne (Fanny Brawne; John Crowne), Mustapha Mond (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; Alfred Mond), Helmholtz Watson (Hermann von Helmholtz; John B. Watson), and Bernard Marx (George Bernard Shaw; Karl Marx).

Huxley used the setting and characters from his science fiction novel to express widely held opinions, particularly the fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future. An early trip to the United States gave Brave New World much of its character. Not only was Huxley outraged by the culture of youth, commercial cheeriness, sexual promiscuity and the inward-looking nature of many Americans, he had also found a book by ‘Henry Ford’ on the boat to America. There was a fear of Americanization in Europe, so to see America firsthand, as well as read the ideas and plans of one of its foremost citizens, spurred Huxley to write ‘Brave New World’ with America in mind. The ‘feelies’ are his response to the ‘talkie’ motion pictures, and the sex-hormone chewing gum is a parody of the ubiquitous chewing gum, which was something of a symbol of America at that time.

Huxley was revolting against the ‘Age of Utopias.’ Much of the discourse on man’s future before 1914 was based on the thesis that humanity would solve all economic and social issues. In the decade following the war, the discourse shifted to an examination of the causes of the catastrophe. The works of H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw on the promises of socialism and a World State were then viewed as the ideas of naive optimists.

‘After the Age of Utopias came what we may call the American Age, lasting as long as the Boom. Men like Ford or Mond seemed to many to have solved the social riddle and made capitalism the common good. But it was not native to us; it went with a buoyant, not to say blatant optimism, which is not our negligent or negative optimism. Much more than Victorian righteousness, or even Victorian self-righteousness, that optimism has driven people into pessimism. For the Slump brought even more disillusionment than the War. A new bitterness, and a new bewilderment, ran through all social life, and was reflected in all literature and art. It was contemptuous, not only of the old Capitalism, but of the old Socialism. Brave New World is more of a revolt against Utopia than against Victoria.’

‘Brave New World,’ received nearly universal criticism from contemporary critics, although his work was later embraced.

The novel opens in London in 632 (CE 2540). The vast majority of the population is unified under The World State, an eternally peaceful, stable global society in which goods and resources are plentiful (because the population is permanently limited to no more than two billion people) and everyone is happy. Natural reproduction has been done away with and children are created, ‘decanted’ and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centers  where they are divided into five castes (which are further split into ‘Plus’ and ‘Minus’ members) and designed to fulfill predetermined positions within the social and economic strata of the World State.

From birth, members of every class are indoctrinated by recorded voices repeating slogans while they sleep (called ‘hypnopædia’ in the book) to believe their own class is superior, but that the other classes perform needed functions. Any residual unhappiness is resolved by an antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug called soma (named for an intoxicating drink in ancient India) distributed by the Arch-Community Songster of Canterbury, a secularised version of the Christian sacrament of Communion (‘The Body of Christ’).

Fetuses chosen to become members of the highest caste, ‘Alpha,’ are allowed to develop naturally while maturing to term in ‘decanting bottles,’ while fetuses chosen to become members of the lower castes (‘Beta,’ ‘Gamma,’ ‘Delta,’ and ‘Epsilon’) are subjected to chemical interference to cause arrested development in intelligence or physical growth. Each ‘Alpha’ or ‘Beta’ is the product of one unique fertilized egg developing into one unique fetus. Members of lower castes are not unique but are instead created using the Bokanovsky process which enables a single egg to spawn (at the point of the story being told) up to 96 children and one ovary to produce thousands of children. To further increase the birthrate of Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, ‘Podsnap’s Technique’ causes all the eggs in the ovary to mature simultaneously, allowing the hatchery to get full use of the ovary in two years’ time.

People of the lower castes make up the majority of human society, and the production of such specialized children bolsters the efficiency and harmony of society, since these people are deliberately limited in their cognitive and physical abilities, as well as the scope of their ambitions and the complexity of their desires, thus rendering them easier to control. All children are educated via the hypnopaedic (sleep learning) process, which provides each child with caste-appropriate subconscious messages to mold a life-long self-image and social outlook chosen by the leaders. To maintain the World State’s Command Economy for the indefinite future, all citizens are conditioned from birth to value consumption with such platitudes as ‘ending is better than mending,’ i.e., buy a new one instead of fixing the old one, because constant consumption, and near-universal employment to meet society’s material demands, is the bedrock of economic and social stability for the World State.

Beyond providing social engagement and distraction in the material realm of work or play, the need for transcendence, solitude and spiritual communion is addressed with the ubiquitous availability and universally endorsed consumption of the drug soma. Soma is an allusion to a mythical drink of the same name consumed by ancient Indo-Aryans. In the book, soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free ‘holidays.’ It was developed by the World State to provide these inner-directed personal experiences within a socially managed context of State-run ‘religious’ organizations; social clubs. The hypnopaedically inculcated affinity for the State-produced drug, as a self-medicating comfort mechanism in the face of stress or discomfort, thereby eliminates the need for religion or other personal allegiances outside or beyond the World State.

Recreational sex is an integral part of society. According to The World State, sex is a social activity, rather than a means of reproduction (sex is encouraged from early childhood). The few women who can reproduce are conditioned to use birth control (a ‘Malthusian belt,’ resembling a cartridge belt holding ‘the regulation supply of contraceptives,’ is a popular fashion accessory). The maxim ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’ is repeated often, and the idea of a ‘family’ is considered archaic and offensive; sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are rendered obsolete because they are no longer needed. Marriage, natural birth, parenthood, and pregnancy are considered too obscene to be mentioned in casual conversation. Thus, society has developed a new idea of reproductive comprehension.

Spending time alone is considered an outrageous waste of time and money. Wanting to be an individual is horrifying. This is why the Savage is afforded celebrity-like status. Conditioning trains people to consume and never to enjoy being alone, so by spending an afternoon not playing ‘Obstacle Golf,’ or not in bed with a friend, one is forfeiting acceptance.

In The World State, people typically die at age 60 having maintained good health and youthfulness their whole life. Death isn’t feared; anyone reflecting upon it is reassured by the knowledge that everyone is happy, and that society goes on. Since no one has family, they have no ties to mourn.

The conditioning system eliminates the need for professional competitiveness; people are literally bred to do their jobs and cannot desire another. There is no competition within castes; each caste member receives the same food, housing, and soma rationing as every other member of that caste. There is no desire to change one’s caste, largely because a person’s sleep-conditioning teaches that his or her caste is superior to the other four. To grow closer with members of the same class, citizens participate in mock religious services called Solidarity Services, in which twelve people consume large quantities of soma and sing hymns. The ritual progresses through group hypnosis and climaxes in an orgy.

In geographic areas nonconducive to easy living and consumption, securely contained groups of ‘savages’ are left to their own devices. These appear to be similar to the reservations of land established for the Native American population during the colonization of North America. These ‘savages’ are beholden of strange customs, including self-mutilation and religion, a mere curio in the outside world.

In its first chapters, the novel describes life in The World State as wonderful and introduces Lenina and Bernard. Lenina is a socially accepted woman, normal for her society, while Bernard, a psychologist, is an outcast. Although an Alpha Plus, Bernard is shorter in stature than the average of his caste—a quality shared by the lower castes, which gives him an inferiority complex. His work with sleep-teaching has led him to realize that what others believe to be their own deeply held beliefs are merely phrases repeated to children while they are asleep. Still, he recognizes the necessity of such programming as the reason why his society meets the emotional needs of its citizens. Courting disaster, he is vocal about being different, once stating he dislikes soma because he’d ‘rather be himself.’ Bernard’s differences fuel rumors that he was accidentally administered alcohol while incubated, a method used to keep Epsilons short.

Lenina, a woman who seldom questions her own motivations, is reprimanded by her friends because she is not promiscuous enough. However, she is still highly content in her role as a woman. Both fascinated and disturbed by Bernard, she responds to Bernard’s advances to dispel her reputation for being too selective.

Bernard’s only friend is Helmholtz Watson, an Alpha Plus lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering. The friendship is based on their similar experiences as misfits, but unlike Bernard, Watson’s sense of loneliness stems from being too gifted, too handsome, and too physically strong. Helmholtz is drawn to Bernard as a confidant: he can talk to Bernard about his desire to write poetry.

Bernard, desperately wanting Lenina’s attention, tries to impress her by taking her on holiday to a Savage Reservation. The reservation, located in New Mexico, consists of a community named Malpais. From afar, Lenina thinks it will be exciting. In person, she finds the aged, toothless natives who mend their clothes rather than throw them away repugnant, and the situation is made worse when she discovers that she has left her soma tablets at the resort hotel. Bernard is fascinated, although he realizes his seduction plans have failed.

In typical tourist fashion, Bernard and Lenina watch what at first appears to be a quaint native ceremony. The village folk, whose culture resemble the contemporary Indian groups of the region, begin by singing, but the ritual quickly becomes a passion play where a village boy is whipped to unconsciousness.

Soon after, the couple encounters Linda, a woman formerly of The World State who has been living in Malpais since she came on a trip and became separated from her group and her date, to whom she refers as “‘Tomakin’ but who is revealed to be Bernard’s boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Thomas. She became pregnant because she mistimed her ‘Malthusian Drill’ and there were no facilities for an abortion. Linda gave birth to a son, John (later referred to as John the Savage) who is now eighteen.

Conversations with Linda and John reveal that their life has been hard. For eighteen years, they have been treated as outsiders: the natives hate Linda for sleeping with all the men of the village, as she was conditioned to do, and John was mistreated and excluded for his mother’s actions, not to mention the role of racism. John’s one joy was that his mother had taught him to read, although he only had two books: a scientific manual from his mother’s job, which he called a ‘beastly, beastly book,’ and a collection of the works of Shakespeare (a work banned in The World State). John has been denied the religious rituals of the village, although he has watched them and even has had some of his own religious experiences in the desert.

Old, weathered and tired, Linda wants to return to her familiar world in London; she is tired of a life without soma. John wants to see the ‘brave new world’ his mother has told him so much about. Bernard wants to take them back as revenge against Thomas, who had just threatened to reassign Bernard to Iceland as punishment for his asocial beliefs. Bernard arranges permission for Linda and John to leave the reservation.

Upon his return to London, Bernard is confronted by Thomas Tomakin who, in front of an audience of higher-caste workers, denounces Bernard for his asocial behaviour. Bernard, thinking that for the first time in his life he has the upper hand, defends himself by presenting the Director with his long lost lover and unknown son, Linda and John. John falls to his knees and calls Thomas his father, which causes an uproar of laughter. The humiliated Director resigns in shame.

Spared from reassignment, Bernard makes John the toast of London. Pursued by the highest members of society, able to bed any woman he fancies, Bernard revels in attention he once scorned. The victory, however, is short lived. Linda, decrepit, toothless, friendless, goes on a permanent soma holiday while John, appalled by what he perceives to be an empty society, refuses to attend Bernard’s parties. Society drops Bernard as swiftly as it had taken him. Bernard turns to the person he’d believed to be his one true friend, only to see Helmholtz fall into a quick, easy camaraderie with John. Bernard is left an outcast yet again as he watches the only two men with whom he ever connected find more of interest in each other than they ever did in him.

John and Helmholtz’s island of peace is brief. John grows frustrated by a society he finds wicked and debased. He is moved by Lenina, but also loathes her sexual advances, which revolt and shame him. He is heartbroken when his mother succumbs to soma and dies in a hospital. John’s grief bewilders and revolts the hospital workers, and their lack of reaction to Linda’s death prompts John to try to force humanity from the workers by throwing their soma rations out a window. The ensuing riot brings the police, who soma-gas the crowd. Bernard and Helmholtz arrive to help John, but only Helmholtz helps him, while Bernard stands to the side, torn between risking involvement by helping or escaping the scene.

Following the riot, Bernard, Helmholtz and John are brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. Bernard and Helmholtz are told they will be exiled to islands of their choice. Mond explains that this exile is not so much a threat to force freethinkers to reform and rejoin society, as it is a chance for them to act as they please because they will not be able to influence the population. He also divulges that he too once risked banishment to an island because of some scientific experiments that were deemed controversial by the state, giving insight into his sympathetic tone. Helmholtz chooses the Falkland Islands, believing that their terrible weather will inspire his writing, but Bernard simply does not want to leave London; he struggles with Mond and is thrown out of the office. After Bernard and Helmholtz have left, Mustapha and John engage in a philosophical argument on the morals behind the godless society and then John is told the ‘experiment’ will continue and he will not be sent to an island.

In the final chapter, John isolates himself from society in a lighthouse outside London where he finds his hermit life interrupted from mourning his mother by the more bitter memories of civilization. To atone, John brutally whips himself in the open, a ritual the Indians in his own village had denied him. His self-flagellation, caught on film and shown publicly, destroys his hermit life. Hundreds of gawking sightseers, intrigued by John’s violent behavior, fly out to watch the savage in person. Even Lenina comes to watch, crying a tear John does not see. The sight of the woman whom he both adores and blames is too much for him; John attacks and whips her. This sight of genuine, unbridled emotion drives the crowd wild with excitement, and—handling it as they are conditioned to—they turn on each other, in a frenzy of beating and chanting that devolves into a mass orgy of soma and sex. In the morning, John, hopeless, alone, horrified by his drug use and the orgy in which he participated that countered his beliefs, makes one last attempt to escape civilization and atone. When thousands of gawking sightseers arrive that morning, frenzied at the prospect of seeing the savage perform again, they find that John has hanged himself.

The World State is built upon the principles of Henry Ford’s assembly line—mass production, homogeneity, predictability, and consumption of disposable consumer goods. At the same time as the World State lacks any supernatural-based religions, Ford himself is revered as a deity, and characters celebrate Ford Day and swear oaths by his name (e.g., ‘By Ford!’). In this sense, some fragments of traditional religion are present, such as Christian crosses, which had their tops cut off in order to be changed to a ‘T.’ The World State calendar numbers years in the ‘AF’ era—’After Ford’—with year 1 AF being equivalent to 1908 AD, the year in which Ford’s first Model T rolled off his assembly line. The novel’s Gregorian calendar year is CE 2540, but it is referred to in the book as AF 632.

The biological techniques used to control the populace in Brave New World do not include genetic engineering; Huxley wrote the book before the structure of DNA was known. However, Gregor Mendel’s work with inheritance patterns in peas had been re-discovered in 1900 and the eugenics movement, based on artificial selection, was well established. Huxley’s family included a number of prominent biologists including Thomas Huxley, half-brother and Nobel Laureate Andrew Huxley, and brother Julian Huxley who was a biologist and involved in the eugenics movement. Nonetheless, Huxley emphasizes conditioning over breeding; human embryos and fetuses are conditioned via a carefully designed regimen of chemical (such as exposure to hormones and toxins), thermal (exposure to intense heat or cold, as one’s future career would dictate), and other environmental stimuli, although there is an element of selective breeding as well.

Social critic Neil Postman contrasts the worlds of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Brave New World’ in the foreword of his 1985 book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death.’ He writes: ‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in ‘Brave New World Revisited,’ the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In ‘1984,’ Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In ‘Brave New World,’ they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

Journalist Christopher Hitchens, who has himself published several articles on Huxley and a book on Orwell, notes the difference between the two texts in the introduction to his 1999 article ‘Why Americans Are Not Taught History’: ‘We dwell in a present-tense culture that somehow, significantly, decided to employ the telling expression ‘You’re history’ as a choice reprobation or insult, and thus elected to speak forgotten volumes about itself. By that standard, the forbidding dystopia of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ already belongs, both as a text and as a date, with Ur and Mycenae, while the hedonist nihilism of Huxley still beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus. Orwell’s was a house of horrors. He seemed to strain credulity because he posited a regime that would go to any lengths to own and possess history, to rewrite and construct it, and to inculcate it by means of coercion. Whereas Huxley … rightly foresaw that any such regime could break but could not bend. In 1988, four years after 1984, the Soviet Union scrapped its official history curriculum and announced that a newly authorized version was somewhere in the works. This was the precise moment when the regime conceded its own extinction. For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.’

‘Brave New World Revisited,’ written by Huxley almost thirty years after ‘Brave New World,’ was a non-fiction work in which he considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision of the future from the 1930s. He believed when he wrote the original novel that it was a reasonable guess as to where the world might go in the future. In ‘Brave New World Revisited,’ he concluded that the world was becoming like ‘Brave New World’ much faster than he originally thought. He analyzed the causes of this, such as overpopulation as well as all the means by which populations can be controlled. He was particularly interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestion. ‘Brave New World Revisited’ is different in tone because of Huxley’s evolving thought, as well as his conversion to Hindu Vedanta in the interim between the two books.

In Huxley’s last novel, ‘Island,’ he again expounds similar ideas to describe a utopian nation, which is generally known as a counterpart to his most famous work.

Kurt Vonnegut said that in writing ‘Player Piano’ (1952) he ‘cheerfully ripped off the plot of ‘Brave New World,’ whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We.”

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