Book review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Posted January 31, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 4 Comments

Book review:  Brave New World by Aldous HuxleyBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
Published by Harper Perennial on July 5, 2005
Genres: Classic, Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Source: my shelves

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Brave New World was written by Huxley in 1931, and takes place in London in A.F. 632–or 2540 A.D.–632 years after Ford first produced the Model T.  The Nine Years’ War and the Great Economic Collapse have destroyed the world we know and given rise to the utopian World State whose motto is “Community, Identity, Stability.”  We soon learn that community, identity and stability come with a cost:  personal freedom.

Everyone is provided for by the World State and ruled through distraction and pleasure.  They are conditioned and encouraged to consume mass-produced products, play communal sports, go to the “feelies”, participate in Solidarity Services and have lots of promiscuous sex (“everyone belongs to everyone else”).  They are also provided with a mood stabilizing, hallucinogenic drug called “soma” which acts as a tranquilizer or an opiate, without the physical side effects.

But not everyone is happy.

Bernard Marx is an Alpha Plus psychologist for the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre who is different from the rest.  He is often angry and depressed, and doesn’t find any comfort in soma.  He falls for Lenina, a vaccination nurse in the Hatchery, and wants their relationship to be more than just meaningless sex.  Bernard takes Lenina on vacation to a Savage Reservation in New Mexico—a piece of land not worth spending the money on to civilize—where they meet Linda (a woman accidentally left stranded at the Reservation years ago) and John the Savage, her very moral son. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is the only book John has ever read, and he uses it to make sense of a life and a world that have left him very confused.  When Bernard and Lenina leave the Reservation they take John and Linda with them, back to civilization.

“O wonder!” John quotes Shakespeare, upon learning that he’s about to venture forth into this new civilization, “How many goodly creatures there are here!  How beauteous mankind is!  O brave new world that has such people in it.”  O brave new world, indeed.

Upon returning to London, Bernard becomes famous for being friends with John the Savage, and lets power and popularity go to his head; Lenina falls in love with John, but is left confused and heartbroken when John spurns her open sexual advances; and John has to reconcile his thoughts and feelings with a world that has no room for them.  He must ultimately make the choice between comfort and happiness or freedom and misery.

This edition also includes Brave New World Revisited which is a series of 12 essays Huxley wrote in 1958 discussing  different situations that could potentially lead us to a civilization like that of Brave New World and what can be done to avoid it.  Huxley has a very firm grasp on each of the subjects he writes about:  Over-Population; Quantity, Quality, Morality; Over-Organization; Propaganda in a Democratic Society; Propaganda Under a Dictatorship; The Arts of Selling; Brainwashing; Chemical Persuasion; Subconscious Persuasion; Hypnopaedia; Education for Freedom; and What Can Be Done.  If you read Brave New World, I would definitely recommend reading this collection of essays, as well.

My thoughts: I loved this book–I think it’s extremely interesting and relevant to today’s society.  With all of the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications being prescribed today, we may not be far off from the soma of Brave New World… and we already live in a society where people would rather watch American Idol than the President’s State of the Union Address.  In general, we are a society of distracted consumers–the people of Brave New World were genetically engineered and conditioned to be passive, but how unsettling is it that many people in our society today choose to be this way?

My favorite character was John–he may be naïve about the ways of the world, but his ideas about freedom, dignity, and integrity are right on point.  The conversation he has with the Resident Controller of Western Europe is fantastic and thought-provoking.  The Resident Controller is explaining to him why stability and happiness are so important to the World State and John replies, “But I don’t want comfort.  I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness.  I want sin.”  Personally, if given the choice between today’s world and the Brave New World, I would want those things, too.

This book is also the perfect mixture of plot and theory.  Huxley’s main themes are the ways in which advances in science have the potential to affect the population, and how building a utopian society would greatly threaten our personal freedom.  He needed to find a way to incorporate his theories in a good storyline that would keep readers interested even if they weren’t previously inclined to be concerned with such ideas, and I think he did an excellent job.

To any adult at all interested in Science Fiction or the Dystopian theme, I highly recommend this book.  It poses a lot of good questions about the tradeoffs between being free to feel and have our own thoughts even if it means being occasionally unhappy, and the potential alternatives.  This would be a great book for young adults to read, too–although I would like to believe that we would never accept the Brave New World of Huxley’s imagining, some form of this is not altogether impossible and this book would definitely give today’s distracted youth something to think about.

(Click here to learn more about Aldous Huxley)