Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
(Voyager Classics, £7.99, 237 pages, paperback; first published 1932; this edition June 2001.)
At the centre of Brave New World, there is a struggle between two men: Henry Ford and William Shakespeare. Each of them represents a view of humanity, history, and the meaning of existence. Ford is modern consumerism: the pop song written by committee; the TV dinner eaten simultaneously by a million households; the mindless promiscuity of loved-up kids. Shakespeare is medieval individualism: cold, hungry, lonely, and, thus, capable of profound and true emotions.
Critics of utopia often clutch onto Shakespeare as a reason for allowing humanity to wallow in misery. If we were all happy, they say, we would never need nor want to create great art. If the world was a happy place, Shakespeare would never have written his plays. Therefore, let's be unhappy, in the hope that one of us will be Shakespeare. It's not a great argument, but it sits solidly at the centre of Brave New World, and, as Huxley himself noticed, flaws the novel.
In 1946, fifteen years after the novel was published, he contributed a foreword for a new edition (and it is reprinted in this edition too). If he was going to write the novel again, he says in this foreword, he would offer a third way: neither misery nor happiness, but... well, unsurprisingly, he's a bit vague about exactly what the third way might be. Self-knowledge, community, co-operation, and a mystical version of religion. Later in his life, he gave a much longer and more detailed description of the third way in another novel, Island, and perhaps that book should be read with this one to give a rounded view of his ideas.
Taken alone, Brave New World is funny, clever, and frustrating. The humour is dated, but much of it still works. The objects of Huxley's brutal wit haven't changed much over the past century. His intelligence is dazzling. The text is packed with nuggets of brilliance: lines, phrases and paragraphs which demand to be quoted. However, they don't add up to a satisfying whole. This is a novel of ideas, and the ideas overwhelm the novel.
If you haven't read Brave New World, or, like me, you read it as a kid and can't remember much about it, I would recommend it. Not as a great read. Don't take it on a plane. Not even as a good novel. The characters are flimsy; the plot won't make you turn the pages or hurry towards the end. But the book is worth reading because it grapples with issues which still, seven decades after the original publication, occupy our minds, and, very simply, Huxley is much more astute, intelligent and far-sighted than most of the people currently pondering the same issues. Human clones, Prozac, wall-to-wall entertainment, frantic consumerism, a culture which values quick-fix happiness above anything else... What is most surprising about Brave New World is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of Huxley's predictions, but the fact that our preoccupations have changed so little in the seventy years since he wrote about them.
Review by Josh Lacey.
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© Josh Lacey 30 December 2001