'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley is such an iconic book, one of many to imagine an alternative reality, but rereading it it feels dated and almost quaint; some parts have fantastic futuristic technology and other parts are stuck firmly in the 1930s. Set several hundred years into the future it gives us a world where God has been replaced with Ford, but only in that babies are now created on a production line rather than via the traditional method. The first few chapters detail this process for the reader, so they understand how the manipulation of human life has become the basis for a new pre-determined social caste system that dictated how the whole of society is organised. The developing foetuses are enhanced or 'poisoned' to differing degrees and then conditioned as children (raised by the state of course) to accept their place and to be unquestioning participants in the life they are allocated.
" 'Stability,' said the Controller, 'stability. No civilization without social stability. No social stability without individual stability.' His voice was a trumpet. Listening they felt larger, warmer.
The machine turns, turns and must keep turning - for ever. It is death if it stands still. A thousand million scrabbled the crust of the earth. The wheels began to turn. In a hundred and fifty years there were two thousand millions. Stop all the wheels. In a hundred and fifty weeks there are once again only a thousand million; a thousand thousand thousand men and women have starved to death.
Wheels must turn steadily, but cannot turn unattended. There must be men to tend them, men as steady as the wheels upon their axles, sane men, obedient men, stable in contentment." (p.44)
"Before Bernard could answer, the lift came to a standstill.
'Roof!' called a creaking voice.
The lift man was a small simian creature, dressed in the black tunic of an Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron.
He flung open the gates. The warm glory of afternoon sunlight made him start and blink his eyes. 'Oh, roof!' he repeated in a voice of rapture. He was as though suddenly and joyfully awakened from a dark annihilating stupor. 'Roof!'
He smiled up with a kind of doggily expectant adoration into the faces of his passengers. Talking and laughing together, they stepped out into the light. The lift man looked after them." (p.56)
Bernard Marx (a bit of an outsider) and Lenina Crowne take a trip together to the Reservation, a place outside Civilization, to see how the 'savages' live. There they meet Linda, a woman from civilization, abandoned pregnant and forced to live and raise her baby as an outcast. Bernard arranges to bring Linda and her now grown son John back to civilization. John, having been neglected by his alcoholic mother, has a view of life and morality formed by a weird combination of living amongst the Indians and by reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare (the only book available to him) and he experiences the delights of civilization with increasing horror. He becomes a minor celebrity with people vying with each other for invites to meet him, but lacking the childhood conditioning that would enable him to fit in it is obvious things are not going to work out well.
The morality of quasi-compulsory sexual promiscuity is an extension of the lack of any real bonds between people, they have no family bonds of course and they are discouraged from having ongoing relationships. What is most disturbing about the book is the way that social control is achieved through a passive, coddled, drugged and entertained population; there is no violence or repression, everyone just does what is expected of them because they do not have the ability to think otherwise, even those at the top of the hierarchy. In fact, it is not merely in his precognition of test tube babies that Huxley is so accurate, but also the advent of virtual reality, mass consumerism and a disposable culture. I was wrong, it is not quaint. The more I think about and reread odd pages the more disturbing it becomes. In a way the story of John's experiences are a distraction from the story of the society, the undercurrent of which is the real purpose of the book. Here, I love the wonderful juxtaposition of the idyllic children's garden with the political message:
"Outside, in the garden, it was playtime. Naked in the warm June sunshine, six or seven hundred little boys and girls were running with shrill yells over the lawns, or playing ball games, or squatting silently in twos and threes among the flowering shrubs. The roses were in bloom, two nightingales soliloquised in the boskage, a cuckoo was just going out of tune among the lime trees. The air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters.
The Director and his students stood for a short time watching a game of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Twenty children were grouped in a circle round a chrome-steel tower. A ball thrown up so as to land on the platform at the top of the tower rolled down into the interior, fell on a rapidly revolving disk, was hurled through one of other of the numerous apertures pierced in the cylindrical casing, and had to be caught.
'Strange,' mused the Director, as they turned away, 'strange to think that even in Our Ford's day most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two and a few sticks and perhaps a bit of netting. Imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It's madness. Nowadays the Controllers won't approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games.'" (p.35)
An interesting reread, and it would be fascinating to know what Huxley might make of the 21st century world.