Brave New World
By Aldous Huxley
Reading Huxley’s most famous novel in 2010 is an exhilarating experience. Its bold vision of a dystopian future is playful, but also frightening in its closeness to now. Our society has not yet fallen into any of the pits suggested by this novel, but has certainly tripped up where Huxley said it would. The threat to the individual is, I think, the most worrying challenge of the late 20th century (and possibly the early 21st) – and Huxley hit this nail on its head in 1932.
His novel presents a society controlled by science, drugs and a strict caste system. In many ways it is utopian: every inhabitant is content. “Everyone’s happy now,” is the mantra the characters recite when challenged. But this wouldn’t be a novel if that were truly the case. It isn’t long before we meet the malcontent and follow his exploration of an alternative society, and then experience the mix of that with the dominant culture. That meeting point is where Huxley’s novel shines: the horrors of the 20th century meet the sterilised pleasures of the 24th in Huxley’s Petri dish. As Huxley dissects religion, culture, capitalism, consumerism and sexuality, the reader is stimulated as much as a pleasure-seeker at a 24th-century ‘feelie’.
But cutting through the satire and the self-referential philosophy is Huxley’s argument for freewill and the individual. In the eighty years since his novel was published, it cannot have been easy to read. Society has been struggling with the individual for that entire time: it has been undermined and championed – often simultaneously – in wars on the battlefield and the high street. It continues today: society is still far from free enough to allow anyone to set their own rules. The man in red trousers will still attract looks in the park. It is why Brave New World is a brilliant book. Hopefully it will not be timeless. But, for now at least, the novel remains a worthy mirror of ourselves.