Thoughts on Re-reading Brave New World

by chemslug4 min read3rd May 202110 comments

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I recently re-read Aldous Huxley's masterpiece of dystopian fiction Brave New World for the first time in at least a decade.  Like any worthwhile piece in this genre, some predictions seem prescient (increase in sexual freedom and unproductive distractions), while others seem off the mark, even considering publication date (no significant automation of routine tasks).  This isn't a formal book review, and I won't deliberately spoil the plot, but I will be discussing the implicit predictions and judgments about human nature, society, and technology, and I'll need to talk about the world-building to do that properly.

Synopsis of Huxley's World-Building

The story takes place in the Year of Our Ford 632 (which by my calculations should correspond to 2495 CE) in London and surroundings, with a brief sojourn to New Mexico.  The world is under a unified government that prioritizes stability and tranquility.  Families are no more; embryos are incubated in vitro, decanted en masse, and conditioned chemically and psychologically to fill just the niche they were created to occupy.  Higher-caste individuals ("Alphas" and "Betas") are one-of-a-kind, but members of society's lower orders ("Gammas", "Deltas", and "Epsilon semi-morons") are created as masses of clones and shaped with growth hormones and poisons to have just the right size, temperament, and intellectual ability for their lives of drudgery.  Further control is achieved through endless repetitions of mantras during sleep, as well as copious, promiscuous (heterosexual) sex and liberal doses of soma, a sort of combined antidepressant/hallucinogen/tranquilizer.  Everyone is tremendously happy with the situation, because they've been conditioned to be so.  Well, almost everyone.  We couldn't have much of a plot without some sort of conflict now, could we?

Predictions About Technology

Brave New World was published in 1932, and we need to take that into account when reading it in 2021.  For example, lots of progress had recently been made in automation of the big-machines-in-factories type (hence all the references to Henry Ford), but computers, to the extent they existed at all, were big, clunky, and not at all in the public consciousness.  Certainly, they wouldn't have appeared to Aldous Huxley, a man educated in the humanities, likely to be of importance. Hence, we have a futuristic society (with literal flying cars and rocket planes) that still uses human elevator operators. Huxley was bullish on mind-control techniques like hypnopaedia and operant conditioning to make and keep people docile. He was in the vanguard of Western interest in hallucinogens. His description of using fetal alcohol exposure to deliberately create cognitive limitations is crude but not implausible. His failure to anticipate genetic engineering beyond selective breeding and embryo manipulation is forgivable, given that in 1932 it wasn't yet nailed down that DNA is the medium of heredity. In a foreword found in some editions published after WWII, Huxley castigates himself for not anticipating nuclear fission and its consequences, and I'm content to accept his mea culpa. Given that Brave New World is more of a fable than hard sci-fi, a creditable job of extrapolation overall. 

Judgments About Human Nature and Social Organization

The overarching principle behind the book's changes to human society are all done in the name of stability and tranquility.  Differences in social standing are hard-wired from (in vitro) conception to (heavily medicated) death, with ample conditioning in between to make everyone content with their lot.  Strong passions and solitude are discouraged, while harmless distractions like elaborate sports, "the feelies" (described as basically classy pornography with added tactile stimulation), or casual sex keep people too busy to think.  The underlying judgment here seems to be that nearly everyone, given the opportunity, will take bread and circuses and like it.  Diseases are largely a thing of the past, and people maintain a youthful appearance and vitality until they expire in "Galloping Senility Wards".  Sexual jealousy is kept to a minimum through strong community norms of promiscuity and discouragement of monogamy ("everyone belongs to everyone else").  Traditional religion has been abolished and replaced by "Community Sings".  History, and indeed all old things, are forbidden.  This society has no knowledge of its past and hence, one is meant to assume, no aspirations for any kind of future growth.  This order is maintained by a hierarchy of bureaucrats, with a council of ten World Controllers at its apex.

Brave New World relies an awful lot on an early-20th-century British aristocrat's view of society: there are social strata, very little mixing between them outside of what's necessary for one's job, and this is as it should be.  All the named characters are Alphas and Betas, and the contempt for the Gammas, Deltas, and poor Epsilons is just as sharp in the narrator's voice as it is in the heavily-conditioned characters'.  It's a little jarring to someone like me who was raised in post-Cold-War America, with constant rhetoric about the Land of Opportunity, rags-to-riches stories, and Equality Under the Law.  

My Impressions and Thoughts

I think Brave New World is great, and I think you should read it.  Huxley's vision of a dystopia based on cloning, conditioning, and drugging the population is more believable to me than Orwell's totalitarian state from 1984. It's also more ambiguous: I once had a spirited debate with someone (an economist, and I don't think she was trolling me) who told me that Brave New World wasn't actually a dystopia, it was a utopia.  Her argument was basically that since everyone was happy in the places that they had been conditioned since birth to occupy, this world represented a victory condition, not a horrific perversion of human potential.  Even those few who have trouble fitting in aren't killed but sent to islands where they can cavort with other misfits (a mistake on Huxley's part, in my view, but maybe it fit in better with his vision of a society built on stability and tranquility).  This seems like a straw-man argument: yes, these people might self-report high levels of happiness, but they don't seem (to me, the outside-observer reader, or to the audience-stand-in character) to be flourishing under any reasonable definition.  The removal of all aspiration and nearly all struggle from people's lives (no families, no romances, no art) doesn't sound like paradise, it sounds like purgatory at best.

Not all aspects of Huxley's reimagined society seem as shocking or bad to a modern reader as I think they were meant to.  Since the book was written, the taboo in the West against sexual promiscuity has steadily weakened.  Descriptions of men and women hooking up with a different partner every night of the week find their way into mainstream entertainment, if not everyday life for most, in 2021.  Likewise, Europe and America have become less religious over the last 90-ish years, and honestly the descriptions of Community Sings sound an awful lot like what some folks here are trying to accomplish with Solstice and related gatherings (minus the Community Sing's orgies.  I think.).  We're still viviparous, and "mother" isn't a dirty word, but lots of people have been conceived in test tubes.  Part of Huxley's genius was the ambiguity: lots of these changes can be used to increase human freedom rather than curtailing it, and compared with Brave New World, I think that's largely what's happened.

I also have a hard time with the dichotomy between London and the Savage Reservation (a place that the World Controllers didn't feel were worth "civilizing", and where old traditions like families and religion still hold on, but in the absence of anything resembling modern technology, to the point that literacy is uncommon). It just didn't seem realistic to me that you could maintain that kind of technological divide between two groups of people.  Even if no one in "civilization" is curious about the "savages" (but they are! you can visit with a permit!) you'd think that if someone flew down to your mud hut in a helicopter you'd at least think to ask how it worked.  But maybe I overestimate people's curiosity.  

I'd like to know what people here have to say about Brave New World.  What did you like about it?  What did you hate?  Will a superintelligent AI think it's worthwhile to make us docile with hypnopaedia and soma, or will it just put its boot on our face forever?  Do you agree with my economist interlocutor that it's really a successful utopia?  Please do chime in!

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I... really hated Brave New World. I was reading through a bunch of classics, and read Brave New World right after "1984", and it was so much worse. Where 1984 felt like it's characters took believable action, and generally felt like a genuine attempt to forecast the future (though still with very substantial political motivations) I couldn't get over the feeling that "Brave New World" had almost no sanity checks done on it and is primarily a piece of politically motivated persuasion. It's economy makes no sense, the behavior of its characters makes no sense, the science makes no sense, and all of it feels completely pervaded by some kind of moral advocacy from Huxley that feels like it's trying to make some moral points, but repeatedly failing and instead shooting itself in the foot. 

Like, it feels like Huxley was worried about some trends in society that I feel broadly good about (like substantially less guilt-driven motivation, less prudish norms around sex, a weakening of the nuclear family unit), and then tried to somehow project them to an absolute ridiculous extreme that makes no causal sense, just to make them look bad, as a tool for political advocacy in the present period he wrote it in. Kind of similar to the "Oh god, what if everyone turns gay, won't humanity go extinct?" rhetoric you sometimes see in media from the 80s and 90s (and of course a bit today).

I forced myself to read through it, and really wouldn't recommend that anyone else read it. Read modern sci-fi, read Heinlein, read 1984, read anything but Brave New World. It was genuinely the worst book I have read in the last 5 years. I can't think of a single idea in the book that felt like it wasn't covered worlds better in some other sci-fi book. It feels that when Huxley discovers some interesting idea in his visions of the future, he can't help but ridicule it and attack it with a kind of pervasive misanthropy that fails to actually engage with any of the potential causes of the trends he is forecasting, or engage genuinely with the motivations of the forces and people driving those trends.

Wow, that was more vehement than I was expecting.  I remember reading 1984 and Brave New World near one another, and thinking that Brave New World was significantly better.  I guess I wasn't as put off by the pro-traditionalist vibes in BNW as you were, and I remember thinking that the government in 1984 was way too capital-E Evil to be very interesting.  I'd argue that BNW is about the way things can still go wrong even when you get a lot right (ending sickness and poverty), while 1984 just seemed like Stalin's USSR with better surveillance tech.

Yeah, I am not fully sure what made it such a miserable experience for me, and it's totally plausible there is more intellectual merit in there that I didn't successfully pick up on, but I sure really despised my time with it. Epistemic state of the above should probably be modeled as "I had a terrible time, your experience might differ".

I know it's not perfect, but "achieve human potential" sounds like a reasonable moral axiom to start with.  A big "no thank you" to the wireheading for me.

I'm far from calling Brave New World a utopia, but I also couldn't easily describe it as a dystopia.  People are happy with their lives for the most part, but there's no drive to push average levels of happiness up, and death still exists.  The best dystopian argument I can see is that there's no upward trend of good associated with scientific advancement, but even this needn't necessarily be true, because of the islands where only the most unorthodox thinkers are sent presumably without having to worry about their actions there.  I think something approximating a utopia by our standards would likely involve mass genetic equalization (but you know, in an upward direction), controlled environments, and easy access to hedons.

Thanks for your thoughts!  I think you've put your finger on an important difference between how an individual experiences a society and what a society is capable of accomplishing.  It's the stunting in the second category that makes Brave New World a clear dystopia for me.  As for the islands, their influence on the remainder of society is clearly told to be carefully limited and controlled.  I think Huxley's inclusion of the islands as havens for the dissatisfied greatly increases the ambiguity in how the society appears to a modern reader. 

Thanks for the pointer to your blog post.  You've clearly thought a lot about this.  As you predicted, I find your conclusion repugnant and dystopian, but I don't have a knock-down argument against your train of thought.

I suggest reading the "Fun theory" sequence.

Thanks for the pointer.  There's more there than I remembered.  I originally bounced off that sequence after this post, where EY spends a lot of time worrying about whether there will be enough math puzzles to go around after the singularity.  I remember thinking that his conception of fun was so far from mine that there wasn't much point in continuing.  Maybe I should revisit that conclusion.