I think the most amazing thing about this book is that is was written over 80 years ago and yet its critique of modern society and technology is just as biting and as relevant, if not more so, now than it was when it was published in 1932. The world of cloning and genetic engineering that Huxley imagines is scarily closer to our own world than Huxley’s, as the rapid advancement of technology and scientific knowledge has made similar things actually within the realms of possibility. The thought that any of these things could be introduced into our own society fills me with a sense of unease and the fact that the novel is capable of making me feel this way is a testament to its mastery.
The brilliance of Huxley’s critique, I think, is in the way the futuristic world is presented to those living within it as a utopia yet to the reader it seems so dystopian. It’s not particularly excitement and suspense that makes you keep reading but more of a fascination with the horror of the characters’ existence. The conditioning of each of the ‘classes’ even from before birth (if it can be called ‘birth’) to feel intrinsically happy with their lot in life and to believe that they have achieved the highest accolade of their aspirations is extremely chilling; the absolute control that the conditioning achieves by essentially removing any independent thought that varies from the laws of their society is frightening.
The focus on control and a warped sense of social stability is equally nightmarish. Happiness is achieved in opposition to freedom and this casts a dark shadow over an assumed philosophical truth that freedom and happiness make the other possible. This ‘happiness’ that the people experience relies on promiscuous sexual behaviour and essentially a reliance on drugs – these things exacerbate (?) a lack of emotional attachment to any other person. The characters (I have trouble calling them characters as somehow they don’t seem human enough) have no parents or siblings, no partners or spouses, and children are conditioned from an early age to naturalise the process of dying so that grief is not associated with the passing away of friends. Huxley presents an emotionally barren landscape yet very few of his characters express any desire for change; they are happy without love, a pretty sinister idea.
Their happiness also relies on a dependence on consumer products and goods, in order to maintain commerce and trade. The wastefulness exhibited by the characters and the pointlessness of many of their activities which require so many products harshly criticises modern consumerism and our desire for objects that have no use value.
Huxley presents us with a society that has solved poverty, social unrest and unhappiness yet to me seems anything but utopian. This is a very thought-provoking novel; a definite must-read.