SF Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2/5 Stars

 

Let me say first that my rating of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is through an “enjoyment as reader” lens, rather than a comment on its historical and cultural value. There is no doubt that Brave New World is a hugely influential and important piece of literature. It crosses the boundaries drawn around it by the Science Fiction genre and has been accepted as a classic work of English Literature. And there are a lot of valid reasons for this to have happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book—the broken and disjointed viewpoints worked to build a comprehensive setting and provided us with all the background we needed without coming across as an info dump (which it certainly was). Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, the readability does not. The characters reveal themselves to be little more than shallow “place holders” for Huxley’s vision. Brave New World is an allegory, sure. But it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these puppets as they are pulled from one predictable scene to the next. Part of their banality is obviously intentional, Huxley is emphasising the lack of individuality and independent thought in his dystopian London. By this rationale, we would expect something more from John Savage. But he too is a puppet. A puppet inexplicably reciting Shakespeare with no linguistic or socio-cultural reference for what it actually means.

As we switch perspectives from Bernard Marx to John Savage, my compassion for the characters actual wanes further. Bernard is a flawed, though, oddly sympathetic character. Of all of the characters I actually felt I understood him, even if he was a cad. Lenina is vapid and pointless. Helmholz may have been interesting, but we’ll never know as he never does more than lurk at the periphery of the story. Savage is all misplaced teenage angst and over-the-top romanticism, but he translates all of his experiences through the words of Shakespeare so that I got the feeling he wasn’t really present in his own story, merely acting out a role in a play he didn’t understand. The only time John Savage interested me was during his debate with Mustapha Mond, when Huxley puts his vision to the test.

Huxley’s take interest in eugenics is surely a response to the emergence of Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism. The twist on pronatalism speaks to the 1930’s population concerns regarding low fertility rates during the depression era. The two combined, and taken to extremes, are in essence a recipe for great dystopian SF. Had the narrative kept up with the ideas, this would be a fabulously good read. But the problem with readability was, for me, compounded by the Huxley’s problematic treatment of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This isn’t an undergrad paper, so I’m not going to go into ridiculous detail, but I will highlight some of the issues I had with this novel:

On Gender: Ya, I know. It was written in the 1930’s and I really shouldn’t expect anything more. But all of the female characters in this book are completely insipid. All of the characters who challenge ideas in this Brave New World are male. Bernard, Helmholz, Savage, and Mond. That is it. The only possible exception to this is Lenina’s tendency to “fall in love,” first with Henry Foster and later with John Savage. Linda challenges some ideas, but not by anything that she does, merely by the fact that she gets fat and old and therefore ugly. Not exactly screaming examples of female agency.

On Sexuality:In this world of required promiscuity and universal sterility, there is not an inkling of anything other than heteronormative relationships. Even when the goal of sex is just “fun” there is no room for bi-sexual or homosexual attraction, except maybe by accident during a compulsory orgy. Again, ya, I know. Written in the 1930’s. But it’s not like homosexuality was unheard of. In some circles it was even recognized and accepted (albeit in a limited sort of way). Huxley’s hetero world just comes across as unimaginative at best and cowardly at worst.

On Class: There’s a lot going on in Brave New World if you are interested in class issues. Huxley’s dystopia abides by a rigid, genetically engineered and enforced, caste hierarchy of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons. In many ways, Brave New World is a scathing commentary on American-style capitalism; consumption is the name of the game. However, in Huxley’s world of supply and demand, there are those who demand and those who supply. Alpha’s and Beta’s go about their lives doing the “important” work in sciences (mind you, they aren’t actually allowed to think for themselves) and they happily spend their money on stuff, they are the demand. The lower castes exist solely to supply the labour to fulfill these demands. They are genetically engineered to not want or expect anything more than their station requires of them. And they are happier for it. The unspoken sentiment seems to be that if poor/uneducated people would accept their positions and quit trying to rise above their stations, they too could be happy. [This flies in the face of the capitalist fantasy of the “self-made man,” and seems contradictory to Huxley’s other points against the ideology… colour me confused.] Furthermore, the idea that castes are somehow naturally ordered based on intelligence irks me. Granted, there is some social conditioning involved to keep the Deltas and Epsilons content, but the suggestion appears to be that all you need to do to create a happy slave caste is kill a few brain-cells in the embryo stage.

On Race: Ahhh, racism. This was the biggest issue for me. Racist imagery occurs repeatedly throughout this text and it repeatedly grated on my nerves. A pair of Delta-Minus twins are described as “small, black, and hideous,” (Pg. 55) they look at Bernard with “bestial derision,” (Pg. 56). Later, another group is described as “almost noseless black brachycephalic Deltas “ (Pg. 138), or another as “dark dolichocephalic male twins…[with faces like]a thin, beaked bird-mask” (Pg. 183). Now, I should not that there are Deltas and Epsilons that are described as sandy and red-haired, but they are never dwelt upon with such horror as the “dark” ones. Also, it is only the “dark” workers who are described in animalistic language (beastial, beaked). And none of the Alphas or Betas are ever described as dark; they are all Caucasian variants.

Since the caste structures are achieved through eugenics there are two possible scenarios which would account for this: a) dark-skinned embryos are purposefully chosen for the Delta, Epsilon and Gamma castes and not for Alpha and Beta, or b) stunting the development of an embryo somehow creates dark-skinned outcomes. Neither of these possibilities makes me feel any better about what Huxley is trying to say.

Further racist images include the Indians on the reservation, where the once-fair Linda is polluted by her sexual relationships with the dark skinned “savages.” John Savage, Linda’s blonde haired fair-skinned son, appears to be instinctually repulsed by this. When he comes upon Linda and her lover Popé, John describes the scene thusly: “…white Linda and Popé almost black beside her…[a] dark hand on her breast, and one of the plaits of his long hair lying across her throat, like a black snake trying to strangle her,” (Pg. 114). He is so revolted by this that he attempts to kill his mother’s lover.

Later, there is the “feely” that Lenina takes John Savage to. The film is about a love affair between “a gigantic Negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female,” (Pg. 146). The black man suffers a blow to the head and develops an unnatural and uncivilized attraction to the blonde woman, kidnaps and rapes her, before she is saved by “three handsome Aphas” (Pg. 147). Tellingly, the gigantic black man is not given a caste, signifying that even before his injury he is outside of civilized society.

Likely there are more examples, but I’ll leave that up to the scholars…

Now, I’m not going to say they no one should read Brave New World because it’s racist/classist/sexist. Despite these shortcomings, Huxley’s dystopic vision is interesting. Indeed, because it’s dystopic once could argue that Huxley is not advocating racist/classist/sexist views, but speaking against them (I would argue that you are wrong, but it might be fun anyways).

These issues did, however, disrupt my enjoyment of the novel for reading’s sake. And that is what I have based my review on. I have never studied Brave New World in an academic setting. I would be interested to hear from any of you who have, who may be able to enlighten me on any points that I have missed or misinterpreted. I am essentially arguing in a vacuum here. But for now, I’m going to go with a whopping two stars. Brave New World, “It was okay.”

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