We’re huddled around a candle-lit table at the Headless Horseman bar in Union Square. I’m disappointed because everyone around me has a head and I don’t see any horses. My friend Matt is being a pig though, because he’s the only one that orders food. This is our first book club meeting (me, Matt, and Will), and we each hold a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World* in our hands, eager to talk about what the moral code of a dystopic society looks like as long as the waitress keeps replenishing our beers (amiright).
I read this novel for the first time four years ago, simultaneously witnessing the sun rise through the slit in my deer stand as I hunted with my dad. I finished right before I shot and killed a coyote. I’m from Texas, so I can say these kinds of things. At the time--blinded by the picturesqueness of the moment and the thrill of a first kill--I really enjoyed it. Now that I read more critically and have read enough of Huxley to understand his own philosophy, I think the book is very meh. I only truly started to enjoy it when the three of us were able to tease out and extrapolate some of his ideas; standing on its own, the novel is (sometimes) repetitive, dull, and a bit simple in retrospect.
Before I rant about its shortcomings and rave about its successes, I’ll offer some context. Brave New World uses third-person perspective to introduce a society whose main goals are efficiency and stability. Anything (or anyone) that disrupts those objectives is eliminated. In consequence, their world is structured starkly different from today’s world. Humans are mass-produced--genetically and emotionally conditioned to behave and think in a specific way that best fits their role in the socioeconomic system. As such, there are castes distinctly identified by dress and appearance. But this isn’t India; people do not have the capacity or opportunity to experience undesirable emotions, so they are not jealous of other castes. If they begin to feel any tingling of discontentment, they take a ration of “soma”, a hallucinogenic drug that transports the user into a blissful state of mind without any hangover. Despite being published almost 20 years apart, “soma” sounds eerily reminiscent of Huxley’s mescaline descriptions in The Doors of Perception.
Of course, in a dystopian fiction there are select disgruntled and confused citizens within the well-ordered society. Here are the types that Huxley chooses to focus on:
- Bernard Marx (think Karl Marx—political insinuations abound in this novel): an Alpha-Plus whose abnormal height leads to rumors that something went amuck in his genetic conditioning. He is dissatisfied with the nature of society not because he is fundamentally, philosophically opposed to its structure, but because he doesn’t belong. He is a stagnant character-- more non-conformist by fate rather than choice.
- Helmholtz Watson (think behavioral psychologist Watson): a propaganda writer at the College of Emotional Engineering who begins to feel that there is more to life despite his ability to seamlessly fit in.
- Lenina Crowe (think Lenin): suuuuuuch a basic bitch. She is lucky to be surrounded by intelligent men in a sea of sameness, yet she can’t break out of the bubble. She is a victim that you don’t feel sorry for—a woman with the tools to contemplate life seriously who doesn’t end up picking up the wrench.
- John (think John the Baptist): a “savage” displaced from a reservation intentionally untouched by the new global way of being. He has an affinity for Shakespeare (which is where the phrase “brave new world” stems from—The Tempest) and is openly disgusted by the banning of literature in this so-called New World. Originally, he is fascinated by society; quickly, he understands that his values totally contradict society’s set of conditions. He does not want to forgo emotional intensities for the sake of blanket, unquestioned, disingenuous serenity.
When Huxley wrote this novel—in 1931 during a depression in Britain—he truly believed that a world like this was imminent. He felt this all the way up to 1963, when he asked his wife for some LSD at his deathbed (swag). While I see some resemblances in terms of large-scale consumption, information overload, and pleasure-seeking habits, I am not as fearful as he was. I think (hope) that humans value freedom of choice enough to reject such a system. I’m sure that at the time of publication, this novel introduced unheard of cultural ideas and radical notions of government control. Now, having been more readily exposed to dystopia as a genre, I also considered the plot itself, which is wasted and lackluster. He focused so much on providing a philosophically shocking setting that he failed to make anything actually interesting happen within that setting. It’s like having a pizza with badass Mellow Mushroom crust and then topping it with mayonnaise and olives. As a philosopher, Aldous (if I may) is brilliant. As a novelist… I’m unimpressed.
Thankfully, because he did present such a thought-provoking framework from which to bounce off of, the novel served its purpose well as a “book-club book”. We discussed the consequences of abolishing the spectrum of emotions, how Huxley transformed and utilized tenants of religion, what “true freedom” means, how Huxley felt about “extremes” in general, the sarcastic nature of the title, and where we should go to dinner to watch the Rangers hockey game. I was initially inclined to give the book a “2” because of my disappointment in the story. Instead, I give it 3 out of 5 camel humps. I think the fact that it is a classic “must-read” in the dystopian fiction world bumps it up a hump. Even if you don't enjoy it, its practical political, moral, and religious ties mean that thinking about why you don’t enjoy it can also be rewarding and intellectually provocative.
*Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1932. Print.