Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Envisioning the Future in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

Brave New World ranks fifth on Modern Library’s list of the “100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th-century.” When I read it for February’s installment of the English 101 book club, I expected to be surprised by the author’s ability to presage many of the realities of modern society.

This wasn’t really the case. One of the things that struck me reading Brave New World is that it is more about the particular time in which it was written than the future it portends.

One of Huxley’s main assumptions about the future setting of Brave New World was that elements of Henry Ford’s assembly line would be applied to human reproduction. A society, The World State, would emerge as a product of an assembly-line style hypnotherapy, conditioned to be sedate, complacent, compulsively consumerist, and divided in a rigorous caste system. This society would deem individuality, monogamy, the private sphere, and the biological family as borderline obscene. In this Brave New World, “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”

The instances where Brave New World isn’t an apt prediction of the future are mostly a product of the time when the book was written. Published in 1932, the book predates important technological and scientific discoveries that shape much of the modern consciousness. In Brave New World, for example, there is no mention of genetic testing or engineering, as the discovery of the DNA’s structure and role as a hereditary determinant didn’t occur until the 1950s. Absent too are allusions to the electronic technology that has become indispensable in modern life. Huxley’s main assumptions about future-shaping technology instead center on the importance of Henry Ford and the invention of the assembly line.

At the same time, many of the elements of The World State in Brave New World do ring true with modern society. Huxley assumed that humans’ appetite for distractions would overpower any desire for individuality, literature, theistic cultures and heterogeneity. When he wrote his follow-up, Brave New World Revisited in 1958 (included in many of Harper's editions of the book) he asserted that this particular prediction had come true faster than he anticipated. The extent to which Huxley's 1958 assertion holds true is a matter that can be debated at length, but I found in reading this classic I enjoyed the book most when I thought of it as a work of fiction rather than prediction.

There are many interesting themes to be discussed in this novel. (Click to read Erica and Kayleigh's posts.) How do you teach Brave New World? What do your students find most interesting, and in particular, true or false about Huxley’s story?

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