Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: Brave New World

Aldous Huxley's science fiction masterpiece Brave New World is set further in the future than many such stories, reaching clear to the year 2540 AD, or "632 A.F.," as it calls the year.  It's one of the earlier "utopian" novels, and in my humble opinion one of the best.  Of course, that opinion is shared by many lovers of literature, so it probably counts for something.  It's sometimes referred to as "dystopian" fiction, but is more a negative look at a false utopia rather than the portrayal of a dystopian society.

Huxley was already a well-established satirist when he wrote the book, which probably attributes to the impact it's had on society.  Satire needs an honest, critical look at a topic, something it shares with well written science fiction, and Brave New World is a great example of this.  It's less obvious now, so removed from the year 1931 when it was written, but the world of the future with its sociological, political, and economic changes certainly resonated with then-current world events.  In fact, the names of all the book's characters were taken from influential and well-known figures of the time.  Many, such as Lenin, Trotsky, Mussolini, and Hoover are still widely recognized historical figures.

One of the best gauges of a novel is whether it passes the test of time, and Brave New World does.  Many of the topics addressed throughout the book are still important and controversial today.  Mass production was a relatively new concept at the time Huxley wrote it, but the book's critical look at consumerism and affinity for material goods is as relevant today as it was then.  Religion as we understand it is almost nonexistent in the book, with Henry Ford as the only real deity remaining, another nod to the effects of consumerism.  Vestiges of traditional religion remain, but are fragmented and few, with many modified to reflect a purely secular society.  Similarly, the concepts of family and individualism are ghosts of what we know them as today.

Another interesting look at societal issues is Huxley's application of genetic modification.  The structure of DNA wasn't yet explored when he wrote the book, but he did an excellent job of describing artificial selection of traits and qualities that we see today.  His breeding and conditioning system is eerily similar to today's cloning and stem cell research.  Such a thing is common with breeding domestic animals, but becomes far more controversial when humans are brought into the discussion.  Huxley's stark look at human castes, where humans are born into distinct, predetermined roles, from the privileged "Alpha" literati to the mindless worker drone "Gammas," "Deltas," and "Epsilons," is as relevant to this discussion today as it was then.

There are dark undertones of ostracism and segregation throughout the book, as we learn of the splintered fragments of civilization who live outside the bounds of the established World State.  The obvious differences between those of normal society and the character of John the Savage are larger than simple appearance and culture.  There is a fundamental difference in thought between the two, which is something that drives both plot and narrative.  "Savages" are outcasts, and are thought of as lesser beings as compared to those in the "brave new world," but when John comes to visit, he only accentuates the hollowness and lack of substance in their utopian society.

More than just a dissertation on societal issues, this book is a critical look at real world problems that arise from an exploding population and the constant need to ever improve and expand the concept of humanity, while feeding our insatiable desire for materialism and comfort.  In fact, it's been argued this novel is a better prognosticator of future dystopia than Orwell's 1984.  It is a must-read for not only science fiction lovers, but for all members of society.