Saturday, September 8, 2012

Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another classic I'd heard about, and that's something of a household name, but that I'd never read for myself. I read an audio edition. The narrator was fine, though the accent he chose for John made me cringe. I kept having to adjust the volume as I was listening, too, because shouted or exciting parts were shouted, and whispered or calm parts were murmured. Surely post-production could've cleaned that up so I could hear the whole thing without blasting out my eardrums.

Brave New World depicts a dystopia that, on its surface, appears a utopia. People are happy and prosperous and youthful, there are no uprisings, revolts, or protests, and predestination is determined at conception. The novel starts in the building where eggs are fertilized, embryos nourished in a particular way to result in a particular type of person, children conditioned to fit into their roles in society. We learn that children are traumatized to keep them from wasting time walking around in nature, and that they're encouraged in "erotic play." The book never specifies what it entails, and I think I'd rather not know.

The book satirizes several aspects of modern society, many of which have worsened since 1932, when Brave New World was published. Consumerism, the human tendency to march lockstep, escapism, science without ethics, even advertising and movies get a sly poking-at. Some of the aspects of society being satirized are more obvious than others, but it's all razor sharp.

There are some aspects the story seemed to present as basic aspects of human nature, rather than to satirize. As much as it shines a light on objectification of women, it also presents women as, by nature, weaker, more suggestible, and still the gatekeepers for sex, even in a world where sexual expression is open and free. If the book had said they were conditioned to not like sex, I could buy their passive roles in it, but the only time a female character wants to sleep with someone, it's because he's from an entirely different culture and doesn't want to jump into bed with her.

The brief visit to the "savage reservation" of New Mexico was deeply racist, and I couldn't help but wonder what would make Native Americans uniformly turn their back on learning. Perhaps they were in the reservation in the first place because they'd rejected the outside world, but it wasn't clear in the text. They'd integrated Christianity into their beliefs, but not reading or math? It was a weird amalgam of Amish and stereotypical Native culture.

Other than those issues, I did think it was a good book. Not a particularly enjoyable read, but satire shouldn't make a person feel content or comfortable. It's for making a person question, creating a community of those who see things differently. As we see in this book, one individual, or even a handful, can't change an entire society with their discontent.

One of the things I wondered about, while reading, was the work that goes into sustaining this society. From the day they're conceived, the members of this society are groomed to be another cog in the wheel, watched and manipulated into never making waves. The chilling part came from the realization it's no more work than goes into indoctrinating people in modern society. We're inundated with messages about who we are from the moment we're born, rewarded for some behaviors and punished for others, and slammed with pretty pictures modeling who we should become. It's not nearly as organized as in Brave New World, and it can be changed, but not before we question those messages and work to dam the flood.

I liked the inclusion of Shakespeare, especially where this narrative parallels The Tempest, but I felt like it was heavy-handed, in places. During the big climactic scene, it's just dogma about the society versus a mishmash of Shakespeare quotes. I couldn't figure out why the Controller kept arguing his points in the face of regurgitated lines from an author he considers obsolete.

The story ends on a depressing note, with two of the main characters exiled, two dead, and status quo upheld. The point of the book isn't to be an uplifting tale about throwing off the shackles. It's a warning to all those who unquestionably embrace all that society teaches them.

I think I'm glad I didn't read this sooner. I don't think I'd've appreciated its gloom. I'm glad I did read it eventually, though. It got me thinking about a lot of things I take for granted.

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