This is part of my short course on science fiction, and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Published in 1932, the book is a seminal dystopian novel imagining a hideous future in which everyone is happy. It’s worse than it sounds. They have created a society in which reproduction is managed on a mass scale by the government, each child is conditioned to fit in a certain place in society, and life is filled with the appropriate amount of work and play to keep everyone happy. And if happiness eludes, there’s a pill called Soma which takes all your cares away.
The book can be roughly broken into three parts. In the first part we get an in-depth tour of this new society itself. We start at the beginning with a tour of the reproduction centers, learning how Alphas, Betas, Gammas and Epsilons are all conceived, raised, and conditioned. This broadens out and we meet several of the main adult characters, and get to see what their lives are like. We only ever see Alphas in any depth.
The second part follows two of the main characters, Bernard and Lenina, on a vacation they take in the savage reservation, which is the Arizona desert where some indigenous people live in their primitive ways. Bernard is a bit of an outsider, and is on the verge of being banished for having too many independent thoughts, so he delights in this glimpse into a different world, but Lenina is a perfect citizen, questioning nothing, and enjoying every bit of it, and she recoils in horror at the things she sees. On the trip they meet a woman from London who had gotten lost there on a similar trip many years earlier, and her son who was raised with the savages.
The third part of the book follows John Savage as he is brought back to civilization and treated as a novelty. Bernard enjoys the celebrity he has as John’s keeper, and Lenina gets frustrated with John’s unwillingness to have sex with her. But John is bewildered by this society, and then disgusted by it, and ultimately tormented by its utter madness. The book ends with John’s sad demise, attempting to live as a hermit, but still dogged by civilized sightseers.
John is a proxy for the reader, believing as he does in our own morality, our belief in struggle and triumph, of joy and pain intertwined. He was raised reading Shakespeare, and this greatly informs his view of humanity, and this is so at odds with the civilization in the book that even this touchstone serves to alienate him from those around him. He balks at the notion of a world without struggle, and scorns the notion of happiness that is wholly unearned. Lenina seems to be enjoying herself quite a bit, and it’s hard to hold it against her, but John will have none of it, and by the end of the book neither will we.
In the final chapters of the book, John has moved into a deserted section of the English countryside, and he attempts to construct a life for himself there, like Thoreau, and this is the most pleasant part of the book to read. Here is a man who is unafraid of work, and who merely wants a quiet life alone, with time for his thoughts and his devotions, and the whole thing was so idyllic after the relentless perfections of civilization, that it feels truly tragic when civilization tracks him down even there.
Huxley is rightly revered for this complete and disturbing portrait of a horrifying future, and he gets huge credit for laying a dystopian sci-fi foundation that would serve writers for years to come. I don’t know that anyone before him had so completely and convincingly imagined an alternate world, and he set the bar for all the writers who followed him. He is often paired with Orwell, as the two had such towering dystopian visions. But I would argue that Huxley’s vision went much further. Orwell imagined the current societal trajectory and played it out a few revolutions, but Huxley played it out quite a bit further than that, creating a vision of the future that was at once completely foreign while also wholly believable.
I know he wrote a sequel to this, but I’m going to skip it because I can only imagining it diminishing this book rather than adding to it, and I’d prefer to leave this one up on the pinnacle where I left it. Really great book.