Brave New World is a groundbreaking dystopian novel that imagines a hideous future in which everyone is happy. It’s a lot worse than it sounds. Published in 1932, the book is one of the first modern science fiction novels, and I’m honestly not sure if a better one has ever been written. Huxley describes a society in which reproduction is managed on a mass scale by the government, each child is conditioned to fit in a certain place in society, and life is filled with the appropriate amount of work and play to keep everyone happy. And if happiness eludes, there’s a pill called Soma which takes all your cares away.
The book can be roughly broken into three parts. In the first, we get an in-depth tour of this new society itself. We start at the beginning with a tour of the reproduction centers, learning how Alphas, Betas, Gammas, and Epsilons are all conceived, raised, and conditioned. This broadens out as we meet several of the main adult characters and get to see what their lives are like. We only ever see Alphas in any depth.
The second part follows two of the main characters, Bernard and Lenina, on a vacation they take to a savage reservation, which is the Arizona desert where some indigenous people still live in their primitive ways. Bernard is a bit of an outsider, and is on the verge of being banished for having too many independent thoughts, so he delights at this glimpse into a different world. Lenina, on the other hand, is a perfect citizen, questioning nothing and enjoying every bit of it, and she recoils in horror at the things she sees. On the trip they meet a woman from London who had gotten lost there on a similar trip many years earlier, and her son, “John Savage,” who was raised with the savages.
The third part of the book follows John Savage as he is brought back to civilization and treated as a novelty. Bernard enjoys the celebrity he has as John’s keeper, and Lenina gets frustrated with John’s unwillingness to have sex with her. But John is bewildered by this society, then disgusted by it, and ultimately tormented by its utter madness. The book ends with John’s sad demise, attempting to live as a hermit, but still dogged by civilized sightseers.
John is a proxy for the reader, believing as he does in our own morality, our belief in struggle and triumph, of joy and pain intertwined. He was raised reading Shakespeare, and this greatly informs his view of humanity. This is so at odds with the civilization in the book that even this touchstone serves to alienate him from those around him. He balks at the notion of a world without struggle and scorns the notion of happiness that is wholly unearned. Lenina seems to be enjoying herself quite a bit, and it’s hard to hold it against her, but John will have none of it, and by the end of the book neither will we.
In the final chapters of the book, John has moved into a deserted section of the English countryside, and he attempts to construct a life for himself there, like Thoreau. This is the most pleasant part of the book to read. Here is a man who is unafraid of work, who merely wants a quiet life alone, with time for his thoughts and his devotions. The whole thing was so idyllic after the relentless perfections of civilization that it feels truly tragic when civilization tracks him down even there.
Huxley is rightly revered for this complete and disturbing portrait of a horrifying future, and he gets huge credit for laying a dystopian sci-fi foundation that would serve writers for years to come. I don’t know that anyone before him had so completely and convincingly imagined an alternate world, and he set the bar for all the writers who followed him. He is often paired with Orwell, as the two had such towering dystopian visions. But I would argue that Huxley’s vision went much further. Orwell imagined the current societal trajectory and played it out a few revolutions, but Huxley played it out quite a bit further than that, creating a vision of the future that was at once completely foreign while also wholly believable.
I know he wrote a sequel to this, but I’m going to skip it because I can only imagine it diminishing this book rather than adding to it. I’d prefer to leave this one up on the pedestal where I left it.
Excerpt from Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
ODD, ODD, odd, was Lenina’s verdict on Bernard Marx. So odd, indeed, that in the course of the succeeding weeks she had wondered more than once whether she shouldn’t change her mind about the New Mexico holiday, and go instead to the North Pole with Benito Hoover. The trouble was that she knew the North Pole, had been there with George Edzel only last summer, and what was more, found it pretty grim. Nothing to do, and the hotel too hopelessly old-fashioned-no television laid on in the bedrooms, no scent organ, only the most putrid synthetic music, and not more than twenty-five Escalator-Squash Courts for over two hundred guests. No, decidedly she couldn’t face the North Pole again. Added to which, she had only been to America once before. And even then, how inadequately! A cheap week-end in New York-had it been with Jean-Jacques Habibullah or Bokanovsky Jones? She couldn’t remember. Anyhow, it was of absolutely no importance. The prospect of flying West again, and for a whole week, was very inviting. Moreover, for at least three days of that week they would be in the Savage Reservation. Not more than half a dozen people in the whole Centre had ever been inside a Savage Reservation. As an Alpha-Plus psychologist, Bernard was one of the few men she knew entitled to a permit. For Lenina, the opportunity was unique. And yet, so unique also was Bernard’s oddness that she had hesitated to take it, had actually thought of risking the Pole again with funny old Benito. At least Benito was normal. Whereas Bernard …
“Alcohol in his blood-surrogate,” was Fanny’s explanation of every eccentricity. But Henry, with whom, one evening when they were in bed together, Lenina had rather anxiously discussed her new lover, Henry had compared poor Bernard to a rhinoceros.
“You can’t teach a rhinoceros tricks,” he had explained in his brief and vigorous style. “Some men are almost rhinoceroses; they don’t respond properly to conditioning. Poor Devils! Bernard’s one of them. Luckily for him, he’s pretty good at his job. Otherwise the Director would never have kept him. However,” he added consolingly, “I think he’s pretty harmless.”
Pretty harmless, perhaps; but also pretty disquieting. That mania, to start with, for doing things in private. Which meant, in practice, not doing anything at all. For what was there that one could do in private. (Apart, of course, from going to bed: but one couldn’t do that all the time.) Yes, what was there? Precious little. The first afternoon they went out together was particularly fine. Lenina had suggested a swim at Toquay Country Club followed by dinner at the Oxford Union. But Bernard thought there would be too much of a crowd. Then what about a round of Electro-magnetic Golf at St. Andrew’s? But again, no: Bernard considered that Electro-magnetic Golf was a waste of time.
“Then what’s time for?” asked Lenina in some astonishment.
Apparently, for going walks in the Lake District; for that was what he now proposed. Land on the top of Skiddaw and walk for a couple of hours in the heather. “Alone with you, Lenina.”
“But, Bernard, we shall be alone all night.”
Bernard blushed and looked away. “I meant, alone for talking,” he mumbled.
“Talking? But what about?” Walking and talking-that seemed a very odd way of spending an afternoon.
Copyright © 1932 by Aldous Huxley.