a past vision of the future

I spent an hour this morning doing nothing but reading Brave New World. I do not recommend this. I’ve read Aldous Huxley’s novel once before–I think I was in college–and I remember being mildly traumatized by it, but I wasn’t sure if it would still have the power to upset me on this second reading–or, more accurately, whether I would still be vulnerable to its power.

This question of external imposition versus internal responsiveness is important when comparing Brave New World with its more popular 20th-century dystopian classic counterpart, George Orwell’s 1984. (It’s worth noting that Brave New World predates 1984 by 17 years.) I recently came across a comparison of the two novels that made a lot of sense. (I wish I could remember where I read it.) Brave New World, it said, provides the more insidious vision of the future. 1984 is all about a government that imposes external controls on free thought, personal choice, and open communication. That’s frightening. But in Brave New World, the government doesn’t need to impose such controls because citizens are conditioned from birth to look, speak, act, and even desire like members of their caste. That’s more frightening.

This is horrifyingly illustrated by the one scene I always remember when I think of this novel: Infants from one of the lower castes are placed on the floor in front of brightly-colored books and bowls of flowers. When the babies begin crawling toward the items, the behaviorist operatives who are raising them in place of parents (“mother” and “father” are dirty words in this efficiency-worshiping society) play loud sirens and send electric shocks through the floor, causing the babies to scream and retreat from the books and flowers. (I can’t even type this without tears coming to my eyes.) A scientist who is giving students a tour of the child-rearing facility proudly explains that after 200 repetitions of this experience, the infants will develop a lifelong revulsion for books and flowers, which are deemed economically pointless for people of their caste.

It’s scenes like these that make Brave New World powerfully prescient, decades after its original publication in 1932. There are some details that don’t work as well. The flying machines that have replaced cars sound like something you’d see at Walt Disney World’s deliberately kitschy and nostalgic Tomorrowland. Huxley’s descriptions of the music that plays such a key role in the social and religious lives of the citizens are hard to mentally convert into something you could actually imagine hearing, so the point he is evidently trying to make about the power of music is blunted. There are also some racist overtones in his descriptions of the music.

But, as I discussed with my independent study student today (did you think I was rereading Brave New World for fun??), the dystopian future that seems the most relevant today is not a vision of a tyrannical government imposing restrictions from the top down (not that those aren’t a concern) but rather a vision of what we might do to ourselves. That’s why in more recent dystopian classics like Feed and The Hunger Games, the entertainment industry seems more threatening even than the government. And that’s why Brave New World is still worth reading–or more worth reading than ever before. I just recommend frequent breaks and somebody to debrief with.