Some authors are unfortunate in when they were born, writing books that might have had an audience a generation or so earlier, but not much of one now. But some authors are unfortunate in when they died, none more so than Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, who died on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Given a few short paragraphs near the back of the newspaper, his passing was scarcely noticed or, if noticed, paid any great attention. The country had other things on its mind. In l931, however, when he wrote Brave New World, everyone paid attention. The critics, who seldom agreed on anything, dismissed it as “a thin little joke,” a literary work so bad that “nothing can bring it alive.” The public, on the other hand, could not get enough of it, which might have been a warning that the world Huxley foresaw had more of an appeal than he might have imagined.
The story is set in the distant future; a future, however, anchored in the immediate present, the present in which Aldous Huxley was living in l931. Christianity has been abolished, and with it the system of recording historical time. Instead of A.D., from the death of Christ, the years are counted A.F., from the time of Ford. Yes, that’s right: Henry Ford has taken the place of Jesus Christ. The top of all Christian crosses have been removed so that the sign of the cross has become the sign of the ’T,’ as in the model T, the first of Ford’s creations. No one swears “Christ!” anymore; they say “Ford!” when they give way to their anger or frustrations. The choice of Ford is not accidental, the random selection of a famous name. Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller for Western Europe in the year 700 A.F., explains:
“Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production deepened the shift.”
The shift has been completed. Eugenics and chemistry have abolished natural reproduction; human beings are produced in laboratories, the mass production of endless sets of twins made to fit the categories of a hierarchy, from the lowest, the epsilons, who do not need human intelligence, to the highest, the alphas, who will know more than anyone else. Created without the need for parents, they have no relatives and no attachments. Conditioned through infancy and childhood, they believe that the collective is the only thing important, and they believe, all of them, that they are happy.
And they are. They have everything they need; especially the eight-ninths of the population that never have to think. They spend seven and a half hours every day at work, the work they have literally been born for; work, as it is described, without strain on the mind or muscles. It is when work is over, that real happiness begins. They have games they play and movies they watch, movies called ‘feelies,’ in which electric impulses stimulate the emotions to match, and to intensify, what they see on the screen. To take care of their own emotions, any sadness or uncertainty, they have drugs; or rather they have one drug, Soma, which is taken every day and always makes them feel good. The greatest source of permanent happiness, however, is sex; not just occasional sex, but unrestricted copulation. There is no such thing as chastity or even restraint; the only decision is whom to have sex with next. As I said, the critics hated it, and the public loved it.
Despite all the precautions, all the conditioning, there are still, occasionally, a few human beings who sometimes doubt that everything is as it should be. One of them, Bernard, who is rumored to have had the wrong chemicals mixed in when he was born, goes out on a date with a young woman, Lenina, who is proud of nothing so much as that she has slept with perhaps as many as six hundred different men. She wants to play “electro-magnetic golf;” he objects that it is a waste of time. “Then what’s time for?” she asks, with some astonishment. He suggests they might go walking and talk. She thinks it “a very odd way of spending an afternoon.” The next day, he regrets that they went to bed together on their first date. She reminds him, and does so quite “gravely,” what they have all been taught: “Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.” When he tells her that he feels “enslaved by my condition,” she is truly horrified: “You say the most awful things.”
Unlike George Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World does not describe a nation, or even an empire; it describes the planet. Universal peace has been achieved. There are no wars, and there is no conflict. Everyone is happy. Almost everyone. There are still a few places where “savages” still exist, human beings who still practice the customs of primitive people, including even the disgusting and morally reprehensible act of producing a child through sexual intercourse. One of these unfortunate children, John, was born to a woman who had gone to the New Mexico reservation as a weekend tourist with an alpha who left her there.
John, all grown up, is discovered and brought to London, hopelessly ignorant, a savage in every respect. Taken to Eton, where the young alpha pluses, who are born and trained for power, he is so simple minded as to ask about the students: “Do they read Shakespeare?” It is explained to him, with all the patience needed when dealing with abysmal stupidity, that, “Our library contains only books of reference. If our young people need distraction, they can get it at the feelies. We don’t encourage them to indulge in any solitary amusements.” A statement that sounds a lot like what an American college president might say today in defense of a curriculum weighted heavily on the side of computer science and televised sports.
It takes an effort to keep everyone happy. It requires first of all keeping everyone together. Any suggestion that the purpose of life is anything beyond the maintenance of well-being of everyone is subversive of good order. Solitude is to be avoided, of course; but then, in Brave New World, no one wants to be alone anyway. Except, of course, John.
He goes to live in an abandoned lighthouse. He grows a garden and makes, as he had been taught by the Indians in New Mexico, a bow and arrow to shoot small game. No one has ever heard of anything so strange. A reporter comes with a camera and, when a movie is made. John becomes an international sensation. Everyone wants to see him now; John and the lighthouse become a tourist destination. The only truly human being left on the planet, he becomes the ape in the zoo, laughed at by automatons who think they are human. The year 700 A.F. begins to resemble the year 2021 A.D.