Thursday, February 27, 2014

Brave New World (a book review post)

"Murder kills only the individual--
and, after all, what is an individual?"

"What is an individual?" may be the central question of Brave New World. What is his worth? To himself? To society? It's an interesting question, especially within the context of Aldous Huxley's novel and his world of mass-produced "individuals." Individuals who have been conditioned to be just like everyone else. [Yes, you may now say, "We're all individuals!" "I'm not!"]

The mass production of people, identical people, is a fascinating concept, and Huxley handles it in a way that is, frankly, amazing. Especially considering that the ideas he was dealing with hadn't really been invented yet. Especially the genetic engineering part, which is not what he calls it, but the concept is there. Basing it all around Henry Ford's assembly line transformed it into a vast social commentary which, evidently, didn't meet with much favor in his day. [Ford was still alive when the book was published in 1932, and I wondered about how he felt about Huxley's use of him in the book, but, as far as I could find, Ford never commented on it. I have to wonder, especially considering the initial reception of Brave New World, if he even knew.]

The real temptation here is to not talk about the book at all but to talk about Huxley and the context from which he was writing, about how he had wanted to be a doctor and his very scientific mind, which you can certainly see in the book. Not just in the science he talks about in creating people (which, yes, is fictional, but was probably quite plausible from 1930), but in all of the things he envisioned: helicopters, immersive television (which may be just around the corner), and social controls involving government-sponsored drug programs.

The book threw me right at the beginning. It starts out with a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and that's exactly what it is, a tour of the facility and, thus, the world setting for the reader. We follow a few of the side characters around for a bit before we are finally introduced (quite a ways in) to one of the major characters, and we're introduced to him through the eyes of "normal individuals" who see him as an odd one. We wouldn't necessarily see him that way but, once we've gotten to know the conditioned people, we're able to see him as someone who doesn't quite fit into "normal" society. And to say more would be to start spoiling the story, and I don't actually want to do that.

One other interesting bit is that the book was known as an "anti-utopian" when it came out. It's interesting to me in that the term "dystopian" already existed; it just wasn't in common usage. But Brave New World may be the best example of an actual dystopian novel that I've ever seen, from a literary standpoint, that is. Dystopian being something that looks utopian but has something sick or rotten at its core. That's actually part of the core of this book, too. Society is stable and people are happy. What have they had to give up? Individuality. Or, as it is put at one point (and this is a bit of a spoiler), the freedom to choose to be unhappy.

It's an interesting question, especially in a society that values the right to pursue happiness. If you were offered the option of a happiness, even artificial happiness, and all it meant was giving up the right to choose to be unhappy, would you do it? Would you choose a place that is basically a land of perpetual happiness and pleasure if it meant giving up the things that differentiate you from other people, because, after all, it is the things that make us different that make us unhappy. The things that set us apart. Sure, they are the things that make us who we are, but they are also the things that cause unhappiness in us. Too short? Too plain? Imperfect teeth? Too dumb? Too smart? Not a problem. None of them.

Unless, you know, someone gets too much alcohol in your blood-surrogate.

[Most significantly, especially after finding out that Brave New World is not supposed to be Huxley's best work, I want to read more of his books. That's the mark of a good author, I think, when you put down a book and immediately wonder what else the person has written.]

23 comments:

  1. It's been many years since I read it. (And he's written numerous other books, so you'll have plenty more to read.)
    The idea of losing individuality is rather frightening. It would be like losing the soul.

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  2. It's always interesting to know the historical context for books that were written many years ago.

    I haven't read this book!

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  3. I read that book last year but I can't remember much of it at the moment.

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  4. Definitely an intriguing read. My son just finished it for his literature class, and liked it. I'll probably give it a go!
    Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I am reading this right now. I'm so excited to read a review of a book I am actually reading. Did you find the humor as surprising as I did? I've listened to about a third of the book on audio and maybe it's the narrator, but I've laughed out loud a number of times. I think read this in high school and totally missed the humor.

    You might find this article as engaging as I did, especially since you've just finished BNW: http://io9.com/the-dystopia-of-1984-is-no-longer-relevant-heres-wh-1529808588

    "Unless, you know, someone gets too much alcohol in your blood-surrogate."

    I may be the only one here who gets that. :) Great review!

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  6. I read this book a loooong time ago, so it may be time to give it a second look. Great review!

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  7. I never read this book; it always had the feel of a school "required reading," like 1984, and so I never wanted to read it. Maybe I'll add it to my list, now, because you make it sound interesting.

    Before I get into my diatribe, have you read "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro? You SHOULD. It sounds like this and it's kind of a similar concept, but it's so low-key scifi that it's hard to think of the book as BEING sci fi. (I didn't really know it was until I saw it described that way.) Check it out, for sure.

    As for the diatribe:

    "it is the things that make us different that make us unhappy"

    I disagree. While the things that make us different might make us unhappy, it's wrong to assume that similarity breeds happiness. I think the things that make us different are equally a source of happiness or unhappiness, depending on the thing and how you embrace or reject it. I have always felt like I was different: from my family, my schoolmates, my coworkers, my friends. Sometimes in little or superficial ways -- I wore glasses and was bad at sports -- or in more serious ways (I used to be quite shy, until I decided not to be).

    That made me unhappy for a long time, mostly because of how it kept me from fitting in and having lots of friends or being socially popular. But I was also deliriously happy, at times, too. While I wanted to be on the football team, say, and was sad that I wasn't (because I was a terrible athlete) I don't know that that would have made me any happier than the times I spent lying on my bed reading "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy."

    It wasn't until I hit about 25 that I stopped worrying about fitting in and started just being myself and not caring, and at that point most of my unhappinesses went away. I like to tell people that I was always secretly a 45-year-old man, because now I'm at the point where I do what I want and enjoy it, and as a result, I have people I enjoy being around and who enjoy me, and I don't worry about fitting in. I'm still not SIMILAR to people: I grow pumpkins in my office and wear Superman T-shirts with a cape to the library -- but I'm more comfortable with my differences and so I don't worry about them.

    I haven't read Huxley, but I would say that it is our reaction to our differences that make us unhappy, and the superficially easy way to fix that is to be the same, to blend in the way I tried to in high school, never with any success. The real way to fix it is to just realize that it is unimportant whether you are part of a group, and that what is important is that you are the best person you can be.

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  8. Alex: That society didn't seem to need souls.

    Trisha: You should!

    Pat: I think this one will hang around me for a while.

    Veronica: Let me know what you think when you do.

    Stephanie: That article was interesting, although I'm not sure if I agree with all of it. However, I can certainly see some variation of Huxley's future coming about as opposed to Orwell's.

    There were some things I found amusing, but I don't remember anything that I thought was intentionally funny.

    Susan: It might be! Thanks!

    Briane: I have not read that, but I think I might have it on a list somewhere?

    I'll say two things your diatribe:
    1. That we ought to learn to appreciate our differences and "be the best me I can be" doesn't change the fact that most people spend the majority of their time wishing they were like, if not everyone else, at least, someone else. It is when we compare ourselves to others that we become unhappy with ourselves. That's not my opinion; that's just how people are.

    2. That all, in the review, was stated from the point-of-view of the book. They've made a world where classes of people are the same because that's the only way they can bring about happiness. First, homogenize. Second, condition. Third, drug.

    For myself, I have never been a follower. I have never cared what other people were wearing. I have never cared about fitting in. I've always just done what I was going to do; other people could join in or not as they pleased. Being different is something I have almost always highly valued.
    I am not most people.

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  9. Love Huxley! Feel a rediscovery surge coming on :-)

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  10. I didn't think you were being a follower. And while I see your point, I think the real unhappiness comes not from comparing oneself to others but from comparing oneself to the way one... forget it. I'm going more colloquial.

    The real unhappiness comes when you are comparing yourself to the yourself you want to be. Looking at someone else and saying "I want to be more like them" isn't actually the same thing as wanting to be them. Whether our dislike of ourselves is premised on the idea that someone else is better or that we can be better, it's largely the same thing.

    The difference is, once you understand that the real comparison is between you and the Hypothetical Ideal You, your life gets easier and you can be happy. Take our pushup competition, for example: It's not REALLY that I want to be YOU in pushups. I want ME to be AS GOOD AS YOU, which means I want to make ME better. While superficially that's "make me more like you," by understanding that the competition is really with myself, I am happier at it.

    When people say "be yourself," I think what they really mean is "Don't worry about how you measure up, just be the best version of you you can be." Because "be yourself" alone means "Don't improve yourself" but that's obviously not the only goal.

    But we may be offtrack. Huxley's side point or subtext might have been that we focus too much on the superficialities of how we relate to ourselves and others, as opposed to the important things, such as being comfortable with our own likes, dislikes, goals, and limitations.

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  11. I read this for the first time a couple of years ago, somehow having avoided having it assigned to me in high school. Social engineering was a popular and terrifying idea in the early '30s.

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  12. I cannot even think how long it is since I read this book. How come you are reviewing it today?

    The loss of freedom and individuality is a horrifying concept and one communism was working towards even if it never quite got there. Did you ever see the movie/TV not sure which, The Year of the Sex Olympics. That was a similar concept and very frightening for that reason.

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  13. Lisa: I'm definitely going to be looking into some of his other books.

    Briane: Well, Huxley's actual point, which I didn't really want to get into in the review, was that we should have the freedom to choose to be unhappy. It's better to be different and risk unhappiness than to be the same, because, if everyone is the same, what's the point?
    And there was a further point to that, but I'm going to leave it in the book, at least for now.

    TAS: I never had to read it in high school, either, which probably accounts for why it took me so long to get to it.

    Jo: Because I just read it?
    And I have not seen nor even heard of that movie.

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  14. I need to read this again. It's been a while. Isn't happiness also guaranteed by a drug in that book? Soma?

    And the title is from Shakespeare's Tempest.

    I also remember it being satirical. Is it satire? I think so? Assembly line humans is surely a rip on Ford's efficiency notions.

    The other thing I remember is some of the more charming women in the book being described as "pneumatic," which took me a while to figure out but once I did I was all :o

    I've recently re-read 1984 (fucking brilliant). I shall put Brave New World back on the list.

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  15. Elizabeth: I have been reading that "pneumatic" thing and wondering what is up with that. At first I was thinking, she has TB! Because "pneuma" = "breathing," or so I thought. But clearly it's a sexual trait. So what the heck is it?

    1984 is pretty brill.

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  16. Elizabeth: It is satire, but Huxley really looked on it as a kind of prophecy. It's pretty clear in some of his correspondence that he fully expected his vision to become reality.

    Recently, I re-read Fahrenheit 451 and, now, this. I think I may re-read 1984, too, although I don't know if I will feel the same way about it now that I've read BNW.

    Stephanie: Pneumatic means curvaceous. She wasn't a thin, little stick of a girl.

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  17. At one point, I had a plan to read BNW along with Clockwork Orange and 1984 as a sort of dystopian hat trick. I'd read 1984 many years ago so it would have been a reread. After reading BNW and CO a couple of years ago, I decided I'd had enough. BNW isn't nearly as dark as the other two.

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  18. TAS: I still haven't read Clockwork Orange, either. I need to get to it one day.
    BNW isn't really dark at all if you look at the people in the story. The people are happy.

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  19. CO most definitely is! I've never seen the movie, though I feel I should.

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  20. TAS: I have seen the movie, but it's been, like, 20 years. I only really remember the brainwashing scene. Freaky.

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  21. "That's the mark of a good author, I think, when you put down a book and immediately wonder what else the person has written."

    Couldn't agree more.

    I haven't read Brave New World, and I don't think I will (even though it sounds interesting), mainly because I don't have the... patience? to read old science-fiction novels. Every "classic" I've tried bored me to tears halfway in. Seems my tastes have a mind of their own.

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  22. I read this post! Yay for me.

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  23. Veronica: I tend to prefer classic sci-fi to new sci-fi, I think. So much of the older stuff is still relevant while much of the newer stuff focuses on the gimmick rather than the story.
    Maybe that's just me.

    Rusty: Okay, yea for you!

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