Photo Courtesy: Sako Asko
I first came across A Brave New World in another book, called Amusing Ourselves To Death (quite a title indeed).
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Post argues that although two great dystopian novels were published in the 19th century predicting the future of humanity, only one of them got it right.
And it wasn’t the novel that most people thought would get it right.
It wasn’t 1984 by George Orwell, no.
It was indeed A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
A Strange New World
Picture 2540 C.E., or as it’s written in A Brave New World, 632 A.F. where A.F. refers to After Ford.
The world of 632 A.F. is not a brave one; rather a strange one. With the “headquarters” set in London, the novel begins with Mustapha Mond, one of the “Ten World Controllers” (or the current equivalent of an oligarch dictator), taking a bunch of school children on a tour around the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center where children are created outside the womb and cloned relentlessly in order to increase the population and efficiency.
Children are sorted into one of the five classes from the moment they’re an embryo: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. Those in the upper classes enjoy the greater privilege.
Further, since children are created outside the womb, they are thoroughly conditioned. To do what, you might ask? All sorts of things. To hate books and flowers, to love Soma (a drug that makes people happy), to never think about history, to revere technoloy, to be with as many partners as they’d like, and to value society over any form of individuality.
In such a world, you’re never alone. You’re surrounded by people. You take soma everyday. You sleep with anyone you want. And solitude is a laughable idea.
Similarities, and Differences
Huxley wrote this novel in 1932, between WWI and WWII. A time when technology was proclaimed to be the solution to war and disease; and the idea of efficiency and mass production was championed thanks to Henry Ford.
While reading this book, I couldn’t help but notice many similarities (and differences) between world painted by Huxley and the world we live in today. Here are my observations:
Their hypnopaedic messages = our advertisements: I opened YouTube today to watch the ad “Yes to Prop 27” for the 10th time this week (and this week just started). In A Brave New World, the “conditioning” happens when the children grow up in a high-tech decantation center. Messages get whispered in their ear on loop while they sleep. The messages might say, “Alphas work much harder than we do. They’re so much cleverer. I’m so glad I’m a Beta so I don’t need to work so hard.” Or they could say, “A gramme (of Soma) in time saves nine.” The world we live in now does that to us while we’re wide awake. We’re repeatedly and obsessively exposed to messages: ranging from why we need to vote for Prop 27 to how Mint mobile is the best for you to why pillow-cube is better than a regular pillow. And who can forget the damn GEICO gecko?
Their soma = our one-click access to entertainment: In Huxley’s world, all someone needed to do to forget their worries and become happy was pop in a gramme of soma. In our world, while drugs are still illegal in many parts of the world (although the situation is changing), we’ve found other ways to keep ourselves entertained. Or said differently, we’ve found other ways to escape our worries. As I write this, I’ll confess that I’m no more immune to this than you my friend. I’ve had days when I chose to binge-watch The Office instead of sitting with my feelings. This is scary, mainly because there’s no going back from this degree of convenience.
Their hate for solitude = our fear of solitude: There’s a specific moment in Huxley’s book when Bernard Marx, a troubled young man, is out on a date with Lenina Wallace, the quintessential byproduct of thorough conditioning. They’re hovering over a sea in their helicopter when Bernard stops the engine to look at the sea.
“I want to look at the sea in peace,” he said. “One can’t even look with that beastly noise going on.”
“But it’s lovely. And I don’t want to look.”
“But I do,” he insisted. “It makes me feel as though…” he hesitated, searching for words with which to express himself, “as though I were more me, if you see what I mean. More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body. Doesn’t it make you feel like that, Lenina?”
But Lenina was crying. “It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” she kept repeating. “And how can you talk like that about not wanting to be a part of the social body? After all, everyone works for everyone else. We can’t do without anyone.”
This scene represents the output of conditioning a population to hate being by themselves; to rob them of the pleasures of solitude.
I don’t think our world is as bad; but I fear we’re not much better either.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the differences, which I found to be more than the similarities honestly.
We still love books and history: One of the more upsetting facts of the world painted by Huxley is the people’s hatred of books and history. Once again, this is thanks to hypnopaedic messages whispered in their ears 1043 times for 8 months. I don’t believe this is the case in our world. More books are published today per year — 1.7 million — than ever in history. However, one could argue that that’s not just because we love reading books, as much as we’re able to publish more easily today than ever before. Still, if anything, we’re on the dichotomy of Huxley’s world. We’re gluttons of information today; consuming more than we need to or can handle. Still, we don’t hate books. And we certainly don’t hate history.
Family is still a core value: In Huxley’s world, there’s no concept of a mother or father. In fact, those words bring out a reaction of disgust and horror when uttered sparsely throughout the book. But I’m elated that that’s not the case today. I love my mom and dad, and the idea of a family is still championed everywhere across the world. One interesting point though is our openness to polygamy today than a century ago. Less than 0.1% of the population in America practice open polygamy. So we’re far from that becoming the norm.
Our connection to religion and a higher purpose: There’s no idea of a God in Huxley’s world; only Ford. One of the few people who has read the Bible in that world is Mustapha Mond, who locks it away from the general public. Our world is still a religious one, with over 80% identifying with one religion or the other. Thanks to the rise of self-development, psychology, and also our rise out of poverty, more % of the world today think about self-actualization and higher purposes than a century ago.
Finally, our movements to end segregation: Segregation is the norm in Huxley’s world. I’d say our ancestors have worked very hard to drive us in the opposite direction. Thanks to the likes of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Ambedkar, we live in a more humanistic society now with laws that protect our basic human rights.
A little-known fact: Huxley sent a letter to Orwell after Orwell published his book 1984.
In the letter, he begins by first praising him for his philosophy, only to undermine that by saying the world painted by Huxley is much more probable than the one painted by Orwell.
The letter ends with,
“Within the next generation, I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large-scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.”
Well, Huxley didn’t get a lot right. And I suspect he wasn’t planning to.
He wanted to paint an absurd world 90 years ago.
But it’s scary to notice that the absurd world is starting to become a real one today.