Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (published 1932)
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
–The Tempest, William Shakespeare
One-sentence summary: In the far future, humankind has achieved a perfect society of happy, complacent consumers, where there is no violence or poverty, so why does Bernard Marx feel like something important is missing?
My rating: five stars for significance/four stars for readability
When read: August 2004
Why read: To complete the triumvirate of required reading in dystopian literature: Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World.
Impressions: Brave New World presents a counterpoint to George Orwell’s 1984, depicting a dystopian vision in which the masses are controlled by mass entertainment, shopping and drugs rather than brutal totalitarianism. In many ways, Brave New World‘s vision more closely resembles today’s world by depicting the more subtle dangers of apathy, conformity and loss of individualism. What these books together say is that extremism in any form is destructive to humankind and should be guarded against. However, when measured against 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World is the weakest of the three.
With its themes of rampant consumerism, eugenics, psychological conditioning and television (or rather, mass entertainment) as soporific, this novel is eerily prescient for the time in which it was written. But I wish Huxley had spent more time on those themes, which are more relevant to this new century, and less time on the themes of sexual liberation and the breakdown of the family. While also relevant, his focus on the free love of his dystopian/utopian society also seems unpleasantly pornographic, and not so interesting after a while. I also wish Huxley’s foil, the “savage” born outside the “civilized world” on a Native American reservation, had been better able to point out the flaws of the utopia and had been given more alternatives than the equally insane, religious-minded self abuse, hatred of women and eventual suicide that Huxley allowed.
Current status: I own a copy, although I don’t anticipate rereading this any time soon.
- The title is an allusion to a quote from the Shakespeare play, The Tempest.
- Shakespeare contributes not only the title but is extensively quoted in the novel; here’s a list of the allusions to Shakespeare in Brave New World.
- The names assigned to citizens of the World State in the novel are direct references to political and cultural figures in Huxley’s time, such as Henry Ford, Trotsky, Lenin and Herbert Hoover (there’s a full list on Wikipedia).
- In his work of social criticism, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman contrasts 1984 and Brave New World better and more succinctly than I ever could:
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.
If you liked this book, then you might also like:
- We by Yevgeny Zemyatin* (I haven’t read this but it is a direct influence and is on my wishlist.)
- Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut* (again haven’t read, but Vonnegut says he “cheerfully ripped off” the plot of Brave New World just as Huxley cheerfully ripped off the plot of We)
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess