Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Coming in at #87 on the BBC Big Read is Brave New World. It is a book I was first introduced to as a 13 year old, when our English Teacher decided to critique the first few paragraphs. Looking back on this it seems an odd choice to discuss. We were allowed to go no further than the first chapter. (And boy, the reason why soon became very clear) Before that we read Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimmh, which I hated. I'm going to use the word eclectic and just leave that here.
I then read Brave New World when the BBC Big Read list first came out back in 2003 and the memories of my 13 year old did not make this a happy read. Now in my ahem 40's, I wanted to see how this would fare and was delighted when our village Classics Reading Group decided to pick this as the modern classic choice for March. You may remember last month we discussed Wuthering Heights. At the time of writing, our meeting has yet to take place, but I'm keen to see what everyone thought.
Far in the future the World Controllers have finally created the ideal society. In laboratories worldwide genetic science has brought the human race to perfection..man is bred to be blissfully content with his pre-destined role.
But in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, Bernard Marx is unhappy...Bernard has an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage reservations, where the old, imperfect life continues, may be the cure for his distress.
If I'm perfectly honest, I still didn't particularly enjoy this book, but I can appreciate its place in the BBC Big Read top 100. There is a lot to discuss here and I can already predict that this is going to be a good discussion at our reading group. But this type of novel, never sits well with me. I just don't enjoy them.
Having said all that, there is plenty to get our teeth into here. The first being the grand scale of this piece of work. The description and precision when producing the different humans is really quite something We learn how a human is made, how a cocktail of amniotic drugs can influence a person to become a worker performing menial tasks, all the way up to the world's leaders, how carefully limiting oxygen encourages humans to be docile in the jobs they do. It is all pre-destined at the test-tube stage. And because the chemicals have been controlled that person is perfectly happy with their lot.
And nor does the conditioning stop at creation, children are encouraged in sensual play, and are hypnotised in their sleep with a system of learning that will ensure they remain a good citizen. Each mantra played during sleep time for a designated amount of time. Huxley's characters go on to repeat these same mantras throughout the book, which is disturbing as if hearing someone else's words.
As adults, you receive soma, a cocktail of tablets designed to send you into bliss and peaceful relaxation. Citizens regularly have soma holidays, where by adjusting amounts, you can drift off for a number of days. There is no marriage or monogamy, all adults are encouraged to have sexual relations as often as they want with as many people as they wish.
If this seems strange to us as readers, the boot is truly on the other foot when we encounter the Savages. These are kept apart from the rest of society and observed like animals in a zoo. The childbirth we know is perceived as unnatural and disgusting. By choosing to remain monogamous and committed to one person is deemed uncitizenly. Even more powerful is the choice to feel emotion, rather than self-medicating with soma. The residents of the brave new world appalled at the range of emotion rather than blissful peace from a dose of soma. It is all really a bit horrific, but it raises some very interesting questions.
Would you want to be 'made' permanently happy, with every aspect of your character pre-destined? Or would you prefer the Savage way with some aspect of free choice and all emotion whether good or bad?
It is an interesting concept to debate and as I say I am looking forward very much to the book club debate coming up.
Straddling this is Bernard Marx, who straddles both worlds. He is physically smaller than the men of his class and is a rarity in that he feels dissatisfied, but is unable to precisely put his finger on why. He likes Lenina, and feels aggrieved when she is with other men. He longs for solitude in a society which encourages being around ones fellow man continually. He finds the Savage way interesting and decides to transplant a mother and son, Linda and John, into his society.
Bernard is not terribly likeable. He chooses to use Linda and John as a political weapon to embarrass his own Director. He holds dinner parties amongst society's elites to show off John, and becomes angry when John chooses not to engage with this. In a way, it is Lenina who seems the most sympathetic character, her attraction to John becoming stronger until she becomes angst-ridden by his rejection of her.
But it is what happens to John which leaves the bitterest taste in the mouth, and leaves us bleakly wondering about the fate of the human race.
I also felt slightly confused about what Huxley was suggesting. As an author he was critical of both sides; Savage and Society, reserving the most of his scorn on society and their pursuit of bliss and contentment to the detriment of free will and choice. It was interesting then to learn that later on in life Huxley became a firm believer in changing the individual through mystical enlightenment, namely hallucinogenic drugs.
This is a book that does deserve its place on the BBC Big Read Top 100, which seems at odds with what I have written above. It feels important and makes us question the world around us. However I like to see myself as an optimist, which is why I read books like this rarely. But it is always good to step out of one's comfort zone. I'm pleased I did.
All being well, I will be back on Tuesday next week, with a review of a book very close to my heart and which will be much needed after Brave New World. I'm even taking part in a blog tour to promote it. I can't wait!