“Brave New World” is one of those novels that I’d been meaning to read for literally a decade or so but never got round to it.
Although one of the very first Iron Maiden albums that I ever bought (at about the age of thirteen or fourteen) was named after this book, the thing that made me interested in “Brave New World” was the fact that someone in one of my seminar groups when I was at university kept speaking highly of it. So, I bought a copy of it and… about a decade or so later, I finally got round to actually reading it.
So, let’s take a look at “Brave New World”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
This is the 2001 Voyager Classics (UK) paperback reprint of “Brave New World” (1932) that I read.
“Brave New World” is set in a distant future “utopia”, where people are cloned and organised into a hierarchical structure. It is a world where a type of heavily-controlled community-based hedonism is used to maintain order and conformity. However, one member of this world’s upper class – Bernard Marx – is having subversive thoughts of solitude and monogamy and other such things.
After convincing his occasional girlfriend Lenina to join him, he sets out on a “research” expedition to one of the few parts of Earth that isn’t controlled by the utopia. Whilst visiting there, Bernard meets the son of a former citizen of the utopia (who was accidentally abandoned there during another expedition). Out of curiosity, he decides to take the young man back to the utopia to see what he makes of it….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it at the same time. It is a brilliantly clever, thought-provoking and unique novel that is filled with quotable moments. It is a novel that can both amuse and horrify you with expert ease. Yet, at the same time, it’s also a book I found myself strongly disagreeing with at times and rolling my eyes at occasionally. Yet, there’s no denying that it has earned it’s reputation as a classic.
This novel is both the literal opposite of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and yet also very similar to it too. In short, it is a novel about individuality versus conformity. This is the only real way to look at this novel. If you try to break the novel’s opinions down into polarised modern categories, then you’ll end up confused. It was written during a more nuanced age (in Britain at least) and thus can be both left and right wing at the same time. In other words, it rises above simplistic political categories.
For example, the novel is both strongly anti-capitalist and strongly anti-communist at the same time. It contains bitterly satirical depictions of advertising, fame, commercialism, class systems etc… Yet, at the same time, the novel is also sharply critical of many of the hallmarks of communist regimes (eg: propaganda, brainwashing, ideological censorship etc…), and the utopia’s motto of “everyone belongs to everyone else” is also used to critique communism too. In both cases, the novel brilliantly criticises how these ideologies promote unthinking conformity.
One of the central themes in the novel is the horror of mass production. Not only are people quite literally cloned and raised in a mechanical fashion, but the religion of the novel is based on Henry Ford‘s production lines. Characters exclaim things like “Oh, Ford!” (rather than “Oh, Lord!”) – and there are even sign of the cross -like gestures that mimic the “T” of the Model T Ford. Likewise, there’s also a lot of darkly comedic satire of Pavlovian conditioning, subliminal messaging and the pharmaceutical industry too.
This novel also tries to be a fierce satire of hedonism too. I’m guessing that if you grew up in the more traditionalist age that the novel was written in, then you’d probably find the novel’s depiction of hedonism (including things like *gasp* contraceptives, popular music, recreational drug use etc..) to be frighteningly immoral and the novel’s celebration of religion, ageing, mourning, Shakespeare, self-flagellation etc.. to be warmly reassuring. Still, if you think about the novel as being about individuality versus conformity, then the novel’s satire still makes some sense when read today.
And, yes, this is what this novel is truly about. Individuality. Often, the characters’ opinions will be shown to be part of their conditioning or there will be these absolutely beautiful passages about the joys of solitude (and, if you’re a bit of an introvert, then these passages are still thrillingly subversive in this age of smartphones, social media etc..). If you ignore all of the story’s traditionalist moralising, then this is a brilliant novel about the value of self-reflection and thinking for yourself.
In terms of the writing, it is surprisingly good and – once you’ve got used to Huxley’s slightly older writing style – it is a joy to read.
One of the interesting techniques that Huxley uses is to suddenly jump from scene to scene and conversation to conversation very quickly (with about six pages just consisting of short paragraphs from different alternating conversations). This is vaguely similar to the style of later writers like William S. Burroughs and it was possibly inspired by the modernist writers of the 1920s.
Likewise, the novel’s narration is filled with pithy observations, darkly comedic dialogue and other such things too (which occasionally reminded me of later science fiction stories by Philip K. Dick). The story also contains a few almost stream-of-consciousness like segments that could easily have come from a gritty, edgy novel written thirty years later.
In terms of how this eighty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. Whilst there are some parts of this book that reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the time it was written, other parts of this book still seem remarkably ahead of the time they were written (but behind our time). Put simply, this book is a satire of the 1960s… that was written during the 1930s. Then again, it was written a couple of years after the “Roaring Twenties” – so, this might explain it too.
Still, some other parts of the novel are unintentionally modern – such as the use of metric measurements (they’re ordinary now, but were no doubt frighteningly futuristic during the days of ye olde imperial measurements), or the novel’s cynical critique of mainstream entertainment. Not to mention that, once you read this novel, you’ll start to notice references to it in all sorts of other things (for example, the movie “Demolition Man” is heavily inspired by it, to the point of actually calling a character Lenina Huxley).
But, some of the novel’s satire falls flat when read today. Yes, the criticisms of conformity in the novel still carry some weight. But, the idea that hedonism is a symbol of conformity seems cruelly ironic these days. Seriously, if there’s one thing we need more of in this miserable age, it is good, honest hedonism!
All in all, this is a well-written and thought-provoking novel. It was wildly ahead of it’s time, but lags somewhat behind our time. It’s a satire of the 1960s that was written in the 1930s. It’s a novel that, even when you disagree with it, you’ll still be impressed by the skill of the arguments. It is a novel about the value of thinking for yourself. Yes, as old dystopian novels go, I still prefer Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (at least the dystopia actually looks like a dystopia…), but I can see why “Brave New World” is regarded as a classic.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.