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Brave New World at 75

Caitrin Nicol

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The future is the present projected," said Aldous Huxley. "Our notions of the future have something of that significance which Freud attributes to our dreams. And not our notions of the future only: our notions of the past as well. For if prophecy is an expression of our contemporary fears and wishes, so too, to a very great extent, is history."

Huxley's most famous novel, Brave New World, was published in 1932, and the occasion of this seventy-fifth anniversary should lead us to wonder about his peculiar description of how we understand the future. We live in a time of biotechnological leaps forward that have made the term "Brave New World" almost a reflex for commentators worried we are rushing headlong toward a sterilized post-human society, engineered to joyless joy. It is easy to imagine that we see the shadows of our society in Huxley's vision of the future. But could it be that our insistence on seeing Huxley's book as an exceedingly successful prophecy actually prevents us from recognizing its real insight? Is there a way for us to understand the book free of the great distorting influence of our own times?

We can do that only by reading the book on its own terms, as its first readers did, and by letting ourselves be guided by the literary, scientific, and cultural critics of Huxley's day. In doing so, we may glimpse afresh something of the meaning of Brave New World in its author's mind and time.

"Progress is Lovely, Isn't It?"

Huxley's vision of the future begins with a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, in the year of stability a. f. 632 (After Ford). "Viviparous" reproduction, that shameful secret of the past, has been replaced with manufacture; here the eggs are selected from disembodied ovaries, mixed in culture with the sperm, and incubated in a clean, sterile, efficient environment overseen by technicians -- "the bizarre case," as one critic has noted, "of a product supervising a production line." The embryos are designated into five castes, and while the elite Alphas and Betas each come from one unique embryo per egg, the Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons are cloned ("bokanovskified") into as many as ninety-six embryos per egg. "For in nature it takes thirty years for two hundred eggs to reach maturity. But our business is to stabilize the population at this moment, here and now. Dribbling out twins over a quarter of a century -- what would be the use of that?"

Welcome to the World State, where "all men are physico-chemically equal" and "everybody's happy now." People are conditioned by genetic engineering, electric shocks, and hypnopaedic repetition to accept these and other mantras as the sum of their identities, to promote complacency and simple desires. Sexually, people are uniformly promiscuous -- "everyone belongs to everyone else" -- avoiding those neuroses rooted in repression or exclusive attachments. Erotic experimentation begins at six or eight years old. Economically, the society has subscribed so thoroughly to mass consumerism that the consumers themselves have been commodified. "Taught to acquire an infinity of gimcrack objects," as one early reviewer said, they spend their labor mindlessly producing the things that in their leisure they mindlessly consume. And, as one character explains, "if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions, there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon." A dream drug without side effects, soma assuages every hurt or unmet need, from boredom to impotence to insecurity to chagrin, and all other "miseries of space and time."

An unholy alliance of industrial capitalist, fascist, communist, psychoanalytic, and pseudo-scientific ideologies has brought about the end of history. The past is taboo -- "History is bunk," as "Our Ford" so eloquently said -- and there is no future, because history's ends have been accomplished. There is no pain, deformity, crime, anguish, or social discontent. Even death has no more sting: Children are acclimatized to the death palaces from the age of eighteen months, encouraged to poke around and eat chocolate creams while the dying are ushered into oblivion on soma, watching sports and pornography on television. Postmortem, the useful chemicals in every corpse are recovered in cremation to be used as fertilizer. "Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we're dead," gloats one character. "Making plants grow."

Read the entire article on the New Atlantis website (new window will open).

Posted: 07-Aug-07

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