Friday, 16 December 2011

Brave New World

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

This is one of those books I seemed destined not to read for no particular reason. I went through a Huxley phase many years ago but left out some of the most famous books (This, The Doors of Perception, Eyeless in Gaza)  for some reason best known to my preconditioned subconscious. Part of the reason was probably the sense that I'd read it, so often did I see it referenced or hear and read discussions of its merits. All this, luckily, was a long time ago and I was able to read it without too much baggage.

In fact, I found it different to my expectations. I had for some reason, an idea that it would be drier that it is. It is easy to see its huge influence on science fiction, even for a dilettante like me. Exiles on Asperus, a John Wyndham story I reviewed earlier this year, takes the idea of extreme behavioural modification but has an alien race use these modifications on humans. A Clockwork Orange asks a similar question. What of the individual human is it worth giving up for the sake of the 'hive'?

It also seems to fit nicely beside the contemporaneous Cold Comfort Farm. The 'happy' citizens seem to bear a striking resemblance to the sporty set that Gibbons lampoons. Thinking, particularly of an individual bent is a threat to happiness. Books are dangerous. As with all great Dystopias, it is firmly rooted in its time.

Indeed I was reminded of the work of Edward Bernays, the founder of PR and a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Here is a quote from his book, Propaganda - "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country." He worked with Woodrow Wilson and one of the issues that they considered was a potential economic collapse resulting from an oversupply of the marketplace due to the efficiency of Henry Ford's ("his Fordship") mass production techniques. The calendar in the brave new world is BF and AF: before and after Ford.

Bernays felt that his uncle's theories on the subconscious could be used to stimulate desire. This seems to be the direct inspiration for many aspects of Brave New World and given how we have turned into a society of extreme consumers mainlining on  advertising, how prescient that was. The book is filled with mantras such  as "Ending is better than mending. The more stitches the less riches..." which is aimed to promote consumption. (Inbuilt obsolescence anyone?)

And if anyone starts to feel any disquiet there is always Prozac Soma. As the song says "There ain't no Bottle in all the world like that dear little Bottle of mine."

Although a novel of ideas where characters can seem to represent rather than be, there is a lot of humour and atmospheric scene setting. There are strong doses of irony ("It was warm and bright on the roof. The summer afternoon was drowsy with the hum of passing helicopters ...") and some inventive imaginings of consumerism gone mad, particularly in the sporting arena. (Could this have been an inspiration for the 'sport' of Quidditch? Indeed much of the energy in Harry Potter derives from Rowling's imagination of parallel consumerism in the magical world.)

Huxley poses many questions in this book that are still relevant today. What is freedom? How much are we our conditioning? Who best understands the needs of society? Does anyone have the right to deny someone else knowledge, or freedom, even if it is for their own happiness? What will happen to our 'spiritual' selves as increasing population and technology denatures the world around us? Should we take drugs to make us happy, even if they make us stupid?

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