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Module Five

This book (Brave New World) has been variously described as science fiction, a novel of ideas, and a satire.
Discuss the aptness of these descriptions, and say which, if any, seems to you the best.

Is Brave New World science fiction, satire, or a novel of ideas? The most obvious answer is that it is all three, as each is an apt description of much of the novel.

Brave New World certainly fits the criteria for being considered science fiction, as it is set in the future (AF632—somewhere in the twenty-sixth century), and postulates advanced technologies extrapolated from the contemporary: 'test tube' babies on a vast scale, 'budding', which we would simply call cloning nowadays, 'the feelies', obviously a multi-sensory version of cinema—the 'talkies' were just coming in at the time the book was written. In fact, a lot of the science in the books looks very much more plausible these days than it could have seemed to Huxley.

Like many science fiction stories, from Asimov's Foundation trilogy to the more recent dystopia The Handmaid's Tale, this book supposes a catastrophic war which has caused society to be re-made in a new mould. Huxley's 'anthrax bombs' resonate particularly in today's circumstances, with the recent anthrax threats in the USA, and fears of chemical weapons being used in very much the way he suggests. So the novel has in certain ways fulfilled the science fiction writer's (occasional) dream of predicting the future. Not that Huxley's future is a complete or rounded one: like EE 'Doc' Smith, who wrote in the 1930s, he does not predict the coming of the computer age, but assumes that human beings will continue to be required to carry out menial tasks. However, the author is not required to predict the future, simply to present the new concepts in a sufficiently convincing way to ensure that the narrative works.

One distinct differentiation between this novel and a great deal of science fiction is that SF is very often hopeful in overall tone or theme. Even in a post-apocalyptic world of terrible hardship, the human spirit is usually triumphant, or else science is able to save the situation. Brave New World offers no such optimism.

In addition, I suspect that at the time of writing, Huxley might well have shrunk from association with the words 'science fiction', which manifested itself mostly in pulp magazines or cheap paperbacks with extremely lurid covers. Writers like Jules Verne and H G Wells might have been producing, effectively, science fiction, but the genre was not generally held to be respectable.

Satire, on the other hand, was perfectly respectable, and there is a great deal of satire to the book. It follows the kind of path given in Swift's Gulliver's Travels by presenting an 'ideal' world (like Lilliput) and then proceeding to show what is wrong with it.

There are many targets for satire within this novel. Sexuality and the attitudes surrounding it are given a good seeing-to. In Huxley's day, contraception was beginning to be widely available—naturally there have been forms of contraception for hundreds of years, but in the years before the Second World War, the methods were made much more available than they had been, allowing society more and more to permit 'loose' behaviour without the dreaded consequences of pregnancy. Dorothy L Sayers' (and Jill Paton Walsh's) book Thrones, Dominations contains references to a possible vein of upper/middle class attitudes to the fact that parenthood was now optional: if Huxley was familiar with the complaints of women who didn't want the bother of children, or didn't want to lose their figures, he certainly exaggerated such feelings in his novel until motherhood had become literally obscene.

Freud's ideas on sexuality were gaining widespread acknowledgement, if not necessarily acceptance. With the simplification of his theories on repression came the idea that to be told not to do things was somehow bad for the psyche. This again is heavily satirised, with Brave New World depicting casual (mindless?) sex as the norm, promiscuity as socially desirable, and sex play between children as something to be expected and, indeed, encouraged. At the same time, relationships that could in any way be described as meaningful are socially abnormal, peculiar. There is a ruthless kind of logic to this that is reminiscent of Swift's Modest Proposal.

During the past seventy years since this book was published, Freud's thinking has been considerably developed, re-examined and qualified. In 1932, however, his theories must have been both startling and horrifying. It was not just the area of sexuality that Huxley chose to examine: in 1920 Freud presented the "pleasure-unpleasure principle", the process of adjustment from pleasure-seeking impulses to the harsh reality of the external world—the process which brings human beings to maturity. In Brave New World no such adjustment is required of the citizens of the World State. They need never deal with unpleasantness: most of it has been banished from their lives, and the little that remains can be evaded by the use of 'soma'. 'Happiness', in this world, is a realm of shallow pleasures. As Mond remarks:

"seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?"

It is a rather alarming picture, when the above quote represents—with the substitution of 'alcohol' and 'movies' for 'soma' and 'feelies'—quite a lot of people's lives today.

The same rather unnerving reaction applies when the satire of mindless consumerism is considered. In the World State, people are conditioned to want new things all the time. Fanny sees Lenina's contraceptive belt and is at once determined to get one just the same, though she is doubtless already equipped with one. Not very different from today's teenagers wanting the right brand of jeans or the smallest mobile phones... The people are conditioned to waste, with such slogans as "Ending is better than mending". It reminds me forcibly of such matters as the God-given right accorded to American citizens to use as much fuel and natural resource as they please. In today's Britain, too, the virtues of mending and re-using seem irrelevant when new clothes can be bought for less than the Oxfam shop price. In such circumstances, it becomes difficult to perceive the exaggeration which Huxley must have been incorporating when he wrote this novel.

Spiritual matters as well as materialist are targets for satire. Like personal happiness, religion has become a watered-down, infantile thing, with the weird ritual indulged in being obviously meaningless, particularly as we are shown it through the eyes of Bernard, who miserably fails to feel the ecstasy at all. However, perhaps Huxley is pointing at the meaningless ritual of a lot of religious practices in current society.

The ritual of the Savages provides a parallel experience to this, but appears to be just as pointless. Huxley is certainly not advocating a 'Back to Nature' lifestyle. The Indians do not present an attractive alternative to the World State, even though many of their views, eg on sexuality and family, are closer to contemporary ones.

Just as he shows the unattractiveness of the 'natural' world, Huxley satirises the idea that science has the answer. In this novel, it is clear that though scientific advances have made many things possible, the world is far from being a better place as a result. In fact, science has encourages the dehumanisation of men and women.

The behaviour of the journalists in the novel is also dehumanising, and again we see Huxley as satirist. The scene in which Primo Mellon attempts to interview John is grotesquely funny, with the bizarre paraphernalia of the microphone and transmitter in Mellon's hat, and the beautifully phrased description of the Savage's kick. Soon, a still more invasive procedure is countenanced and thoroughly approved by the World State society, when John is filmed without his knowledge, and presented, without his consent, as mass entertainment. In Huxley's time there must have been something of press intrusiveness, but the silence of the British media over the affair that led to the abdication crisis shows that in the 1930s there were still some restraints on the press's behaviour. The intrusive interview and the stealthy invasion of privacy do not strike a modern reader as particularly unusual.

There is one reason why I would not wholly classify Brave New World as satire—parts of the novel which probably started out as such have, with time, turned into mere illustration! However, the realisation of this fact is very disturbing, and has, I think, a more powerful effect than simple exaggeration.

I have already pointed out that a social environment which offers easy work, plentiful sex, and escapist drugs, is currently a quite sufficient goal for many people. It is also disturbing to read of the experimental 'society of Alphas', who are described as:

"separate and unrelated individuals... capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities."

As this is supposed to be what we ourselves are, the picture of those Alphas utterly failing to co-operate, conniving against one another, and in the end killing each other, is extremely unnerving—the strikes and intrigues, at any rate, are all too familiar. So one is led to wonder whether, perhaps, these low-caste Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons are indeed vital components of human society, rather than monstrously warped puppets.

Mond's points about high art and serious science being disruptive are very convincing. If we consider the effects of Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection, it is clear that real science can be hugely disruptive to traditional (arguably stable) structures—such as the Church. Mond, whose apologia for the World State is delivered with charm and plausibility, points out that for people to be happy, they need structure and stability, which is what the system offers. The passion, questioning thought and emotional upheaval generated by serious are (such as Othello) are too disruptive to be tolerated, so the human potential for greatness is sacrificed to a rather infantile happiness for all.

Another contradiction, or at any rate, another point of view is offered. Bernard's emotions do not seem to improve his life, nor do Lenina's unexpected attractions. And John, who is an individual quite unlike the products of the World State, has no idea how to be happy, or how to recognise it when he accidentally achieves some kind of contentment.

Nor is John able really to understand the Shakespeare which has offered him a partial education. Without the benefit of a cultural background from which to judge the plays, he can only take them at face value, and does not begin to grasp the moral complexities and richness they contain. Even as an education, they are not entirely helpful—John's understanding of what a philosopher is strikes the reader as amusing, clever in a way, and is a little sparkle of wit from the author, but John really has no idea what it means to be a philosopher. Of course the more superficially educated Helmholtz is not equipped to understand Shakespeare either: he grasps the beauty and passion, but his cultural conditioning leaves him utterly unable to see what Romeo and Juliet is about. Is Huxley satirising education here? It would be easy to apply this to the kind of education today which prods pupils through a succession of exam hoops while quite often leaving them with no actual understanding of their lessons. In the World State, of course, understanding is surplus to requirements. Linda has no idea of anything beyond the exact routines of her job, and is quite unable to tell her son what 'chemicals' are or how they are obtained. She is too ignorant to understand her own ignorance, and parrots slogans instead.

BUt the point Mond makes about the impossibility of creating the equivalent to Shakespearian art in AF632 is a valid one. Tragedy requires obstacles, difficulties, social instability. When these things have been eliminated, so has tragedy. While this is rather horrifying to lovers of great literature, tragedy in one's own life is less appealing. Again, Huxley forces us to ponder the insidious allure of the 'brave new world'. The list of things the Savage demands: God, poetry, danger, freedom, goodness, sin, the rights to be unhappy, to grown old, ugly, impotent, to have syphilis and cancer, and so forth, starts out as a splendid statement, but when ironically modified by Mond, begins to look like a list of things that our own society is trying to be rid of.

Death, too, is an idea which must be considered. Within the World State it is treated as trivial. Linda is so doped up she does not recognise her own passing. The horde of brats who attend for their death conditioning have no notion of respect for the ending of individual lives—but really, so few lives in the World State do have any kind of individual meaning that this careful painting-over of the fact of death is logically inevitable. A society that never really acknowledges the unavoidable fact of death never really has to bother with maturity either.

John's approach to his mother's death is different, but no more attractive. He blunders about, wildly trying to feel all the right things, and turning what ought to be a solemn situation into grand guignol, or simple farce. We may have some sympathy with him, but he does not handle the situation very well.

In our own times, there seems to be a trend towards ignoring death, or at least euphemising it away with terms like 'fallen asleep' and 'collateral damage'. For the people in the World State, however, their lives are depicted as being dead from the very beginning. In the very first scene of the novel, the place where human beings are created, brought to birth (or 'decanting') and reared, is shown in an atmosphere of deadness, with the "corpse-coloured rubber" of the gloves and the chill of the light. Perhaps Huxley is pointing out that in order to die, it is necessary first to have lived. The dehumanisation of people presented in the story suggests that they have given up their individual lives in order to serve and perpetuate their society—whereas in fact, society should reshape itself to serve the needs of man.

Huxley does not offer a real resolution to the book. In a more conventional science fiction novel there would be the beginnings—or a triumphant end—of a rebellion against this cold world. A satire would also end with more of a flourish. This novel poses more questions than it answers, a lot of them very uncomfortable questions. I would therefore prefer to define it as 'a novel of ideas', which seems to me to incorporate the elements of science fiction and of satire, and to leave scope for more.


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