Brave New World is likely to be one of those book titles that you will recognise. Even if you don’t know a thing about the story, or even who the author is, there’s a good chance that you’ll have heard the name of this icon of science fiction and dystopia, that is celebrating 90 years since its first publication.
Written in 1931, Brave New World was largely inspired by the utopian science fiction writing of authors such as H.G. Wells, where a hopeful future was imagined for the human race. Aldous Huxley originally began wanting to create something of a parody of Wells work, and sent letters to friends of his about the book, saying that he ‘got caught up’ in his own ideas, changing this parody novel into a creation that stands by itself as a frightening look at the future.
Brave New World is set in the distant year of 2540, though under a new calendar the year is now 632. The world has changed a lot in this time, and a new global world state has emerged. The citizens of this new world state are genetically engineered and grown inside large factories. Once they’re born, these artificially produced children undergo indoctrination programmes, and are tested to see which pre-determined classes they will be a part of, and what their role in society will be. The citizens of this world are kept content and in line thanks to Soma, a drug that everyone is given to make them calm, peaceful, and accepting of the things around them.
The story follows Bernard Marx, a psychologist who works in the sleep-learning department. Marx has begun to question the way of society, finding the constant drugging and indoctrination programmes to be crushing free will and people’s ability to live full lives. When Marx takes a holiday out of the World State, he and his partner visit a ‘Savage Reservation’ in New Mexico. Whilst here they discover a woman from the World State who was left behind on a trip years before. Living with the people of New Mexico, this woman has spent years raising her son John, someone who was born naturally. It is revealed that John is the son of Marx’s boss. With John wanting to travel to the World State, to see this ‘brave new world’, and Marx believing that he can use John to ruin his boss’ plans to get rid of him, a plan is formed to bring John home.
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The world of Brave New World is one that stood in stark contrast to other science fiction futures at the time. Whilst other authors imagined futures where humanity would grow and evolve and become better people, Huxley imagined a world where humanity regressed in a great many ways. This was in part deliberate, as Huxley was being influenced by the events of the time, such as the 1931 depression in Britain, and was translating much of the fear and depression of the time into his work.
Over the years since its publication, Brave New World has been compared to George Orwell’s 1984, which was published seventeen years later. Both books do have a lot in common, depicting dystopian futures where those in power cling to their positions by manipulating the populace, and free will is a barely held illusion. However, whilst Orwell proposed a future where torture and brute force reign, Huxley believed it far more likely that leaders would simply try to make the population apathetic to what was going on, to make them unable to care for the important issues, and to feel like they were unable to do anything to effect change.
In Amusing Ourselves To Death, American author Neil Postman discussed the differences between the two of them: “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 were reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
It’s hard to argue that both of them were right in their own ways, and that parts of both 1984 and Brave New World loom large in our society. We live in a world where politicians try to hide the truth, and flood us with irrelevant information in order to do so. We live in a world where rights and freedoms are under constant attack, yet people are told that the irrelevant, the vapid, and the pointless are more important priorities. In many ways Brave New World has already started to come true, and our society is largely giving up to apathy in the face of those who wish to do true harm to others.
Brave New World might not be spoken of in the same reverent, warning tones as other books in the dystopia genre; we don’t get told things are Huxleyian or that its ‘becoming Brave New World‘ whenever some societal change happens. But Brave New World is an important book, one that has warnings of a future that many of us can probably already see unfolding around us. As such, I can see why it’s a book that’s lasted as long as it has, and why it’s still as relevant today as when it was first published 90 years ago.