Utopian—and dystopian (anti-utopian)—fiction is not really about the future; it is an indirect view of the present. The authors of such works begin with aspects of their own society that they like, dislike, desire, or fear, and by extrapolating them into a possible future, they demonstrate the likely consequences of such tendencies or pressures developed to extremes. If readers do not see their own society reflected in an exaggerated, distinctive, but recognizable form, it is unlikely that the projected world will offer more than amused distraction. Brave New World has endured as a classic of the genre because Aldous Huxley’s vision not only was frighteningly believable when first presented but also has become more immediate since its initial appearance. Indeed, in Brave New World Revisited (1958), an extended expository gloss on the original, Huxley suggests that his only important prophetic error was the assumption that it would take six centuries to implement fully the brave new world; a scant twenty-six years after the novel’s publication, Huxley revised his estimate of the time needed to less than a century.
The most disturbing aspect of Brave New World is the suspicion that many, perhaps most, people would like to live in such a society. After examining the modern Western world in general and America in the 1920’s in particular, with its assembly-line techniques, its consumerism, its hedonistic tendencies, its emphasis on social conformity, and its worship of childhood and youth, Huxley projected his observations to their logical conclusions and then asked himself how a “sane” man would react to such an environment: the result was Brave New World.
Given modern industrial and scientific “progress,” Huxley saw that the time would soon arrive when humanity would possess the knowledge and equipment to “solve” all of its material and social problems and achieve universal “happiness,” but at a very high price—the sacrifice of freedom, individuality, truth, beauty, a sense of purpose, and the concept of God. The central question is this: How many people would really miss these things? Do they constitute enough of an intellectual, emotional, and moral force to alter the direction of modern society, and do they possess the requisite will, conviction, and energy to do so?
Compared to such earlier efforts as Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and especially Point Counter Point (1928), Brave New World is a model of structural simplicity. The dynamics of a brave new world are presented in a long introductory tour of Huxley’s futuristic society that takes up almost the first half of the book. Then a catalytic character, John the Savage, is introduced, who directly challenges the social system that has been described. This conflict leads to a confrontation between John, the representative of “sanity,” and Mustapha Mond, who speaks for the brave new world. Their extended debate serves as the novel’s ideological climax. The book ends as the Savage experiences the inevitable personal consequences of that debate.
The long opening sequence begins with assembly-line bottle births, in which the individual’s potential is carefully regulated by a combination of genetic selection and chemical treatments and then follows the life cycle to show how all tastes, attitudes, and behavior patterns are adroitly controlled by incessant conditioning. The net result of the conditioning is a society that is totally and deliberately infantile. All activities are transitory, trivial, and mindless—promiscuity replaces passion, immediate sensory stimulation (feelies) replaces art, hallucinatory escape (soma) replaces personal growth.
At this point John the Savage enters the narrative. Reared among primitives by a mother who loves him in spite of her conditioning, John has known the beauty of great art, because of his reading of Shakespeare, and the pain of loneliness, having been ostracized by the natives because of his light skin...
(The entire section is 1,419 words.)