Brave New World: Beware the Philosopher

I think Brave New World is the best science fiction book ever, definitely the most prescient. Huxley was writing in the early 1930’s with Stalin and Hitler around, but what he was envisioning was our present.

“He did not envisage a totalitarian regime with concentration camps and all that. He envisaged a consumerist society whose supreme value is happiness, and one that tries to achieve this by constant biological intervention and monitoring.

“When you read 1984 by George Orwell you know it’s a dystopia, you know it’s a horrible world. The only question is how do we prevent it from happening? So, in this sense it’s not very sophisticated. It’s quite straight forward. 

“When you read Brave New World, you don’t know if it’s a utopia or a dystopia. You have the sense that something is terribly wrong in this world but you can’t put your finger on what it is because everybody is happy and satisfied all the time.

“The amazing thing is that when he wrote it in the 1930s everybody read it as a dystopia. When you read it today, more and more people actually think that it’s a utopia. Looking at our present trajectory we are on the way to Brave New World.”

Taken from: Yuval Noah Harari on his favourite book: Brave New World.

I first read Brave New World as a text book when I was fifteen. It was just beyond my grasp, and the experience of stretching to reach for it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of high school. When Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli intellectual and writer, cited Brave New World as one of his favourite books in the article above, I was motivated to reread it .

I was deeply impressed by Harari’s observations in terms of the novel’s prescience. Specifically, the paradox that by making life ‘better’, by eliminating pain and suffering, humankind has stunted its ‘spiritual’ dimension. Huxley has created a fiction in which the human race has found its equilibrium, but effectively dehumanised itself.

That process has created a society in which Huxley’s reader would not simply be distressed, but couldn’t survive. Harari, through his observations, made the novel sound fascinating and interesting, and I felt compelled to pick it up again.

It may be one of Harari’s favourite books, but it’s a terrible novel.

Brave New World opens with a guided tour through the birthing facility at the heart of the future society. Children are no longer born from the union of a heterosexual couple; instead, childbirth has been co-opted by the state.

Citizens are born on an IVF production line, where their development is cultivated by science to produce a citizen tailored toward the professional role society requires of them. That process continues through Pavlovian conditioning and hypnopaedia, in order that citizens are shaped by the state to effectively conform.

It’s an interesting premise, in terms of the world it presents, but also in terms of what it says about the fears and preoccupations of its time. However, it is articulated through the dated, manneristic quality of Huxley’s prose. There isn’t a lot of poetry there, which you could define as the space for the reader to express their imagination.

Philosophy attracts a very small readership, and there’s a number of good reasons why. Much of it is poorly written, which doesn’t help when the material itself is so dense. Fiction, on the other hand provides a vicarious experience, by instilling empathetic feeling.

And while you could argue that fiction is inferior because it is subjective, this is in fact in its defence; a reader has to acknowledge that there are a multiplicity of experiences present within a given subject, or stimulus.

The first thing that leapt out at me was how much work the book was to read. A lot of exposition, and much of the dialogue is quite flat, because Huxley is using his characters as mouthpieces for his own ideas, which don’t emerge from the complex prism of personality; they emerge more like orders over a loudspeaker.

Huxley is speculating from the high tower of his own remote, polite, conservative experience. In this iteration of the future, the depth of relationships is certainly undermined by the easy access of sex and physical gratification, but he doesn’t account for personal proclivity or taste.

As a novel, I think it suffers as work of art written by a philosopher. The characters aren’t people in their own right; they are instruments of exposition. And they’re rarely surprising, or contradictory. They are there to tell you what Huxley thinks, or to guide you towards something he wants you to see, or feel.

Beware the philosopher; they don’t have all the answers. 

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